Dori Foster-Morales: President of The Florida Bar
The world was a different place when Dori Foster-Morales became president-elect of The Florida Bar.
Ten months later, the lethal COVID-19 pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands, brought the world to the brink of depression, and forced Florida lawyers into home offices to worry about the future.
“Everyone’s lives have changed, and anyone who says it hasn’t just doesn’t get it,” Foster-Morales said. “I look at it like we’re in a tunnel, and we have to figure out a way to get out of it.”
If any Bar president can find the light at the end of the tunnel, it is Foster-Morales — an elite family lawyer with 30 years of public- and private-sector experience and a sterling reputation.
To the mentors who recruited her, colleagues who have worked by her side, and judges who have watched her perform, Foster-Morales is highly skilled, supremely motivated, and impossible to outwork.
Few know better than Andy Leinoff, a former president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, who has been one of Foster-Morales’ most frequent sparring partners for more than 20 years.
“I get into the office at 4 a.m., and if I email her, I get an email back at 4:15,” he said. “She and I may be the two hardest working attorneys in the state.”
After opposing her in more than 40 cases — and coming to the brink of trial more than once — Leinoff said Foster-Morales has always been willing to reach an agreement that is mutually beneficial — and as mutually satisfying as possible — for their respective clients.
“She is honorable, she’s ethical, and she’s a tough adversary,” Leinoff said. “She’ll work very hard and be a good president — and hopefully she’ll have less time to spend on my cases.”
Bonnie Sockel-Stone, a law school friend turned law partner, said few lawyers can match Foster-Morales’ energy.
“Dori is probably one of the best divorce attorneys in the country, and I wouldn’t just say that,” Sockel-Stone said. “Dori does not sleep.”
Foster-Morales hopes beginning lawyers view her ascendancy as proof that success requires little more than hard work and determination.
“People look at me and see a well-heeled, successful lawyer, and they don’t look at the back story,” Foster-Morales said. “I wasn’t a particularly gifted law student. I didn’t go to a big firm. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. I just practiced my craft.”
Lacking an “elite” law degree doesn’t mean Foster-Morales lacks credentials.
Board certified in marital and family law and a certified family law trial advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, Foster-Morales is also a fellow in the American and International Academies of Matrimonial Lawyers, a fellow and member of The Florida Bar Foundation, a fellow in the American Bar Foundation, and a fellow in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers Foundation.
Elected to the Board of Governors in 2008, Foster-Morales has chaired the Certification Plan Appeals Committee, the Bar’s Annual Convention Committee, co-chaired the Special Committee on Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers, and served on the Communications and Legislation committees.
Planning for Recovery
Only a few months before she was to take office, Foster-Morales didn’t yet know whether there would be an annual convention or a traditional swearing-in ceremony. In early May, however, the decision was made that the annual convention, originally scheduled for June in Orlando, would be held exclusively as a virtual event. Meetings, CLE seminars, and certain events would be held virtually or remotely rather than in-person in order to protect the health and safety of Bar members and staff.
“A lot of people said to me, ‘I feel so badly for you, Dori, your convention might not happen,’” she said. “But I’m really less concerned about my convention than I am about communities being impacted and people dying.”
Foster-Morales planned to devote her presidency to promoting Bar section work, which she considers “an excellent way to access current information and education on practice areas and a way to develop a network of diverse and like-minded practitioners across the state with opportunities for business relationships and referrals.” But in a COVID-19 world, the Board of Governors’ focus will necessarily be narrowed, she said.
“We only need to talk about one priority right now and how we’re going to accomplish it, which is recovery,” she said. “What did we learn from this? How do we take this year and make the proverbial lemonade out of lemons?”
In a sense, Foster-Morales has already begun the mission.
President John Stewart in April ordered an accelerated launch of the Bar’s Florida Lawyers Helpline, a project Foster-Morales helped develop in 2017 when she chaired the Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers, a high-profile assignment that required organizing forums across the state and ended with a comprehensive set of recommendations that are still being implemented.
Chairing that effort was a good fit for Foster-Morales, who believes that issues like mental illness and substance abuse should be dealt with openly and honestly.
“My dad was of the ilk that if you took blood pressure medication, you didn’t tell anybody, if you had a heart attack, you didn’t tell anybody, and that was a very old-fashioned way of looking at things,” she said.
At first, her father was also uncomfortable with the way Foster-Morales spoke so openly and candidly about her daughter Nora’s autism diagnosis. “I would tell him, there’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Foster-Morales said, and ultimately, he was proud of how the family handled it.
On May 1, the helpline began offering more than 90,000 eligible Bar members access to a 24/7/365 toll-free number (833-351-9355 or “833-FL1-WELL”), where they may speak with a mental-health professional who can provide crisis intervention and a referral for up to three free visits with a locally based, licensed mental-health professional.
The launch was initially scheduled for the summer, but “it’s clear that our members are facing, as is all of society, a crisis of epic proportions,” Foster-Morales said.
The service is available through an agreement with CorpCare Associates, Inc., an Atlanta-based firm that boasts a network of 11,000 providers nationwide and some 200 providers in Florida, with plans to enroll more.
The Florida Lawyers Helpline is also a gateway to other life services, such as case managers to help find long-term care facilities for family members, childcare specialists who can vet centers or summer camps in the member’s area, or financial consultants for help with debt, budgeting, and planning for retirement. All the services are completely confidential and offered at no cost to eligible Bar members.
“People are becoming more open about mental-health issues,” Foster-Morales said, “but the legal profession can be a tough nut to crack.”
Foster-Morales is no stranger to dealing with societal ills that also target the profession.
A personal tragedy convinced Foster-Morales that the profession was in dire need of better mental-health services. Foster-Morales began raising the subject with Bar leaders after the December 10, 2013, suicide of a friend, prominent Miami defense attorney Richard Sharpstein.
“He was very well known, very successful, a happy-go-lucky guy,” Foster-Morales said. “People were dying and all everyone was talking about was technology.”
Another red flag went up on June 9, 2017, when another prominent Miami attorney, Ervin Gonzalez, took his own life. Then Bar President Michael Higer, who counted Gonzalez as a friend, appointed the special committee and dedicated his tenure to improving the health and wellness of Florida lawyers.
Foster-Morales’ varied background and personal history help her understand the demands and stresses lawyers face, and that knowledge will serve the Bar well as the recovery from pandemic continues.
“I feel passionately and strongly about the health of our members: mental, physical, and financial. I think they’re interrelated,” she said.
At the onset of the pandemic, Foster-Morales said the Bar was necessarily reactive, including building a comprehensive COVID-19 webpage to provide members the latest news, from Supreme Court orders, CLE, and practice management guides to legal aid and consumer resources.
But going forward, Foster-Morales says the Bar must be more proactive, surveying and listening to members to meet their needs as the profession shifts to the new normal and returns to the workplace.
“We need to listen to our members, hear what they tell us, and respond to their needs,” Foster-Morales said. “Through our actions, we want our members to know we care about them and are here for them, both professionally and personally.”
“I Didn’t Want To Be a Lawyer”
From the beginning, Foster-Morales has been charting her own path.
As an economics undergraduate at the University of Florida, Foster-Morales risked upsetting her father, a towering presence in her life, by refusing to follow his footsteps into dental school.
Never a life-long dream, law school was a fallback, Foster-Morales said.
“I didn’t want to be a lawyer, and I was completely angry that my parents pushed me to do this,” Foster-Morales said.
“And the irony is, I really love being a lawyer.”
Foster-Morales’ father died of pancreatic cancer in 2003, at the age of 66.
She grew up in a respectable Miami Beach neighborhood in a loving, but busy home with an older sister, Hayley, and two younger brothers, Harold and Robert.
“Dori was the upper-middle child,” said Robert, who now teaches art to special education students. “Much like now, she was very conscientious about her work.”
An avid tennis player, Dori did well in school, worked as an assistant at her dad’s dental office, and doted on her youngest brother, Robert recalls fondly.
With their father’s thriving dental practice, the children seldom wanted for anything, Robert recalls.
The family enjoyed dining out on weekends at Pumpernik’s and Dino’s Italian Restaurant, where their father would serenade the other diners along with the house piano player.
“My dad did not fit the mold, he had a lot of heart, he had a really big personality, and he allowed us to be ourselves,” Robert said.
Always well-behaved and never one to seek attention, there was nothing to suggest that young Dori would grow up to earn her living persuading juries, said her mother, Roberta Gallagher.
“She was a background person, you know, quiet, the opposite of what she is now,” her mother said. “She didn’t begin talking for so long, I was starting to get worried.”
“I Fell in Love with Her the Day I Met Her”
One Friday night in 1979, when Foster-Morales was a sophomore at Miami Beach Senior High School, she volunteered to work the concession stand at a Hi-Tides football game and met a 17-year-old student council president named Jimmy.
The chance encounter changed their lives.
“I fell in love the day I met her,” recalls her husband of 30 years, Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales, a Harvard-trained lawyer who struggled at the beginning to hide his true feelings. “I was seeing someone else at the time, but my friends knew I had something special for that little sophomore.”
The two developed a deep friendship that took years to blossom into romance, Morales said.
“We were not romantically involved in high school, we were not high-school sweethearts, we were good friends,” Jimmy said. “We were like those sitcoms where there is romantic tension until about season eight.”
Morales said he was attracted to Dori’s looks, intelligence, and magnetic sense of humor. They enjoyed talking about current events and politics and shared the same views.
When Dori asked for a ride to school, it became a welcome routine, Morales said.
An only child and the son of immigrant parents, a Cuban mother and Puerto Rican father, Morales was welcomed into Dori’s home, and he enjoyed the familiar ethnic vibe.
Jimmy was raised Catholic; Dori’s faith tradition was Jewish. After their marriage, the couple raised one of their children Catholic and the other Jewish.
“Both of us grew up in a house where if somebody showed up at the door, there was always another chair put at the table,” he said.
The two dated casually a year after Dori entered the University of Florida, and while Jimmy was going to Harvard, but they continued to see other people.
Things got more serious the summer Jimmy returned to Miami to study for the bar exam and Dori was working her first summer job, spending half of the summer in Washington, D.C., working for Sen. Claude Pepper and the other half at the Miami Beach City Attorney’s Office.
“You know, you just spend time with somebody, and the flame just sparks,” Morales said. “I used to kid that she wouldn’t give me the time of day until I graduated and could prove that I could earn a buck.”
Jimmy proposed on Dori’s birthday in 1988 in her Gainesville apartment, and they waited 15 months to marry to give Dori time to finish law school.
A Cosmopolitan Couple
The young couple moved to Washington, D.C., in 1989, where Jimmy worked for a Wall Street firm, and Dori worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an enforcement attorney.
Dori was a standout at overseeing federal contractors, winning awards, and eventually being assigned to a national taskforce, recalls former colleague Bicky Corman, a former EPA deputy general counsel in the Obama administration who is now in private practice.
“Dori was immediately a star, which was no surprise,” Corman recalls of her friend. “The best and the brightest from the regional offices would be sent to work on the taskforce, so it was prestigious.”
After a few years, the couple moved from Washington to New York City, when Jimmy’s firm wanted him closer to the main office. Dori transferred to a regional EPA office.
Peri Kantor, a New York banker who befriended Foster-Morales in college and served as her maid of honor, describes Foster-Morales as a good listener, funny, and unfailingly loyal.
“When I got divorced, she came right up to New York to help me find a lawyer,” Kantor said. “When I needed her most, she was always there for me, saying, ‘Don’t worry about the dishes,’ you know, don’t sweat the small stuff.”
With an inexhaustible store of energy, Foster-Morales was always orchestrating get-togethers, lunches, or nights out, Kantor said.
“First of all, if there’s ever going to be a plan, she’s the one who is going to make it, and it will be perfectly executed, and she will do it quickly, she doesn’t like to dilly dally around.”
The First Makeover
A loyal partner, Foster-Morales did not object when her husband wanted to leave the security of his large firm and return to Miami to pursue politics and public service.
“When we were in New York, she would read the New York Times, and I would still be reading the Miami Herald,” Jimmy jokes.
The closest EPA office to South Florida is in Atlanta, so Foster-Morales made the difficult decision to give up the federal job she enjoyed immensely.
“That was tough. My best friend, Peri, was there, and it was hard to leave,” Foster-Morales said. “But I think I knew inherently it was the right decision.”
But once the decision was made, Foster-Morales immediately set out to remake her career. It would not be the last time.
A Star Prosecutor Is Born
Lacking any criminal law experience, Foster-Morales still managed to easily convince Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to bring her on as an assistant state attorney.
“I was so impressed with her, I hired her on the spot,” Fernandez Rundle said, adding it was a decision she never regretted.
“Judges loved her, juries loved her, defense counsel loved her, and all of them trusted her,” Fernandez Rundle said.
“If I had more attorneys like Dori, my job would have been a lot easier,” said Michael Band, a former chief assistant in the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and Foster-Morales’ former supervisor.
Foster-Morales shared the office’s passion for justice and was a consummate professional, Band said.
“All of her i’s were dotted and her t’s were crossed, and not every attorney was like that,” he said.
In an October 23, 1995, recommendation letter, 11th Circuit Judge Leslie Rothenberg describes being deeply impressed with the way Foster-Morales, who started with “mediocre skills,” approached her after every court appearance to ask for a critique.
“While I was cuttingly honest with her, she always came back for more,” Judge Rothenberg wrote. “What this shows is her desire to become as good as she can become is greater than her ego.”
Foster-Morales applied the lessons she learned faithfully, volunteering for unpopular assignments, putting in long hours, and transforming herself “into the best prosecutor in my division,” Judge Rothenberg wrote. “She made the team a force to be reckoned with.”
That selfless quality, the ability to worry less about a win-loss record than obtaining a just outcome, set Foster-Morales apart, says former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Arango, a friend of 25 years.
“She’s analytical. She loves the law, and she understands its effect on people,” Arango said. “The other thing is, it has nothing to do with the self; it’s really about the system and what’s right and what’s just — and that’s what she always brought to the table.”
Foster-Morales counts among her most memorable cases prosecuting a preacher who stole from his church and sending a gang of vicious home-invasion robbers to prison.
“I loved evidence, I loved presentation, I loved voir dire, putting on evidence; it was exhausting but it was so much fun,” Foster-Morales said. “The camaraderie in the office, the juries are so interesting, and you plan, and you plan, and then the witnesses are the witnesses, and it ends up being very exciting.”
Foster-Morales said she could have easily spent the rest of her career as a prosecutor, despite the low pay and long hours.
But life interrupted again.
A Developmental Challenge and Another Makeover
A little more than a year after Nora was born, Foster-Morales noticed something was not right.
“She had no eye contact, and I didn’t know this, but she only had echolalia, she didn’t have real speech,” Foster-Morales said. “We would go to a store or something and she would walk away, and I would say, Nora! Nora! And she didn’t know what her name was.”
The eventual autism diagnosis came as a jolt, Foster-Morales said.
“I’m this really competent person, very strong, and I pretty much cried for six months. I was really, really, scared,” she said.
Morales remembers it vividly.
“It was a tough day,” he said. “We walked out of the doctor’s office and we had no idea what it meant. Is she ever going to high school, is she ever going to college, is she ever going to speak?”
Nora’s diagnosis came in November 1996, about a month after Foster-Morales’ husband was elected to represent District 7 on the Miami-Dade County Commission, which includes Key Biscayne, portions of Miami, and Pinecrest.
If the couple was going to be able to afford the expensive therapy Nora so desperately needed, one of them would have to find a better-paying line of work, Morales said, and it would have been difficult to abandon his supporters and constituents so soon after the election.
“I did what I do, and I made a plan,” Foster-Morales said.
After interviewing with several prominent firms, Foster-Morales joined Marsha Elser, one of the first attorneys in Florida to be board certified in marital and family law, and one of the most prominent practitioners in her field in South Florida.
Foster-Morales said she approached her first family law court appearance with a prosecutor’s zeal. Facing a prestigious opposing counsel with years of family law experience, Foster-Morales nervously awaited Elser’s advice outside of the courtroom door.
“I think she’s going to give me these words of wisdom, and she looks at me, and she looks at my client, and she tells him, ‘look sad,’” Foster-Morales laughs. “Are you kidding me? I started laughing so hard that I was crying.”
Misreading her tears, the opposing counsel asked for a recess.
“And he takes me out of the courtroom and he puts his arm around me and he says, ‘You shouldn’t be crying over these people, because in the end, they’re going to hate you anyway,’” Foster-Morales laughs.
Foster-Morales gleefully recalls exposing an opponent’s expert witness, who was called to estimate the value of her client’s hair restoration clinic.
“The expert is describing all this stuff that he did and the places that he went to form his opinion,” Foster-Morales said.
After some digging, Foster-Morales discovered that the expert visited a dermatology clinic, didn’t visit another clinic he claimed to have visited, and misrepresented the nature of the third.
“The third was the coup de gras. It wasn’t a hair restoration clinic, it dealt with erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation,” she said. “So how many times do you get to talk about that in family law?”
Foster-Morales said it took time to make the adjustment to family law, at first taking opposing counsel’s threats to go to trial too seriously. But she grew to love the specialty. Friends deeply admire Foster-Morales’ decision to leave a job she loved for the sake of her family.
“She just selflessly transformed herself and turned everything around and went into the private sector, literally without batting an eyelash, so that she could dedicate herself to making sure that Jimmy could be doing what he wanted to do and that her daughter was taken care of,” said Bicky Corman, her former EPA colleague.
Foster-Morales doesn’t see her choice as a sacrifice, just a move forward. One that came with greater financial security, led to her involvement with Bar service, and ultimately, the Bar presidency.
“My goal was just to pay our bills and make sure my daughter had the treatment she needed.”
Years later, Nora, 26, has put her hospitality management degree from Florida International University to good use, working for a resort on South Beach.
Nora admires her mother’s ability to put on a rugged exterior for work, and then reveal a softer, more nurturing side at home.
“My mother is a bad ass, and I wish I could be her,” Nora said. “I just love that woman to death, and I don’t know how I would survive without her, because I know I can go to her any time and realize that I am loved.”
Nora’s younger brother, Peter, is majoring in journalism and history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Board of Governors colleague Steve Davis expects Florida’s lawyers to benefit from Foster-Morales’ compassion.
“We have had many outstanding presidents over my time on the board, but Dori brings amazing insight into the people part of law — she really knows what makes people tick,” Davis said. “She loves the profession and deeply appreciates the opportunity to lead.”
Eleventh Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey, another friend, agrees with Davis.
“Anybody who has dealt with the trauma that comes with family court has to have a high degree of emotional intelligence,” Judge Bailey said. “I think The Florida Bar is in, not just great hands, but caring and sensitive hands.”
Emotional intelligence, caring, and sensitivity, whatever name her colleagues choose to give it, Foster-Morales said her ability to absorb words spoken in anger without rising to the bait is an essential part of good lawyering, especially in family law, where emotions are always running high. “If someone is being a total jerk to you, kill them with kindness, don’t go there,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s professionalism. This is like basic human nature; we can’t be as angry as our clients.”
Morales believes his wife will be a good president for the same reason she is a good attorney.
“Dori is a good lawyer because she listens,” Morales said. “She comes across very confident, but there’s tremendous humility to her, she still pinches herself because she knows that if Nora hadn’t gotten her diagnosis, she wouldn’t be here.”
Band, Foster-Morales’ former supervisor at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, recalls the day his elementary school-aged daughter backed out of an ear piercing when the pain was more than she anticipated. Foster-Morales didn’t hesitate to comfort and coax her through the final step, Band said.
“If something needs to get done, Dori is always there to do it,” Band said.
With her passion for justice and broad knowledge of the judicial system, Foster-Morales has the intellect, energy, and compassion needed to lead the Bar through any hardship, said Arango, the former federal prosecutor and friend. “She’s loyal, committed, and truly cares. Those aren’t just words, it’s who she is.”
U.S. District Judge Pat Seitz said the Bar has overcome many hardships since she joined 47 years ago because leaders like Foster-Morales have always stepped forward.
“It’s almost as if the good Lord was looking out for us that she be the person.”
Foster-Morales has the strength to make tough choices, the wisdom to seek consensus, and the generosity to share any credit for success, and her energy and creativity are perfectly suited for launching a recovery, Judge Seitz said.
“If the Bar was a ship, I would want Dori at the helm,” Judge Seitz said. “She is fearless, but she is thoughtful, she is willing to take risks, but she is a great believer in collaboration.”
Foster-Morales has a strong mandate after being elected without opposition, Judge Seitz said. That show of unity is important because the next three presidents will be dealing with the COVID-19 fallout, she said.
“So now you’ve got someone who is as strong and thoughtful and committed as John [Stewart], and he couldn’t have done that without Dori’s collaboration, and my sense of (President-elect) Mike Tanner is that he will do the same for Dori,” she said. “Because the Bar will need that kind of stability and long-range planning.”