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Dori Foster-Morales: Balancing Family and Law

Dori Foster-Morales has a well-rounded personal perspective on family and the law. She is married to Jimmy Morales, who is also an attorney, a former Miami-Dade County commissioner and current Miami Beach city manager. She has also raised two children, including a daughter with special needs, while building a successful career in family law. “I’ve got a high-energy personality,” says the co-founder of the Foster-Morales Sockel-Stone law firm in downtown Miami. “I try to maintain balance in my life, but don’t always achieve it.”

Board certified in marital and family law, Foster-Morales believes in “bringing passion and skill to every one of our cases.” Her practice areas include divorce, children’s issues, paternity, and domestic violence matters. The six-attorney firm includes partner and long-time friend Bonnie Sockel-Stone, who is also a board certified lawyer in marital and family law. Marsha Elser, recognized nationally as a leading matrimonial lawyer, recently retired after partnering with Foster-Morales for more than 15 years.

“All of us in the firm are counselors, first and foremost,” says Foster-Morales. “In family law, clients come in angry, hurt or depressed. They might be feeling weak and need support, or aggressive and need to be calmed. I provide my clients with guidance to help them get through a difficult time and move on to the next stage of their lives. Being able to see them make it successfully through the process is very gratifying.”

Deep Roots in Miami

Raised in Miami Beach, Foster-Morales was a “middle child” with three siblings. “My dad, Harold Foster, was a dentist and he told me to be either a doctor or lawyer,” she says. “I didn’t like the sciences, so I decided on the law.” Her mother, Roberta Gallagher, a therapist in South Miami, gave Foster-Morales an early understanding of the importance of empathy and insights on the role of a counselor.

After earning her undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Florida, she married her high school sweetheart, Jimmy Morales. They spent five years in Washington, D.C., and New York City, as Morales launched his practice in corporate and international law. Meanwhile, Foster-Morales began her career working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in both locations. “The EPA provided a very stimulating legal environment, which helped hone my thinking and analytic skills,” she says. “It was a great education for me.”

In the early 1990s, the two attorneys decided against careers in New York, in favor of returning to Miami. “We were visiting Miami attending the funeral for Jimmy’s godfather, when State Attorney Janet Reno came up to me and mentioned that she planned to open an environmental crimes unit here,” Foster-Morales says. “That was a catalyst for us.”

As they relocated in 1993, Foster-Morales became pregnant with Nora, the couple’s first child, and President Clinton tapped Reno as his U.S. Attorney General. So, Foster-Morales joined the new state attorney, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, and began handling cases in the juvenile courts and prosecuting career criminals. “I tried 60 or 70 cases including double-jury trials without a co-counsel,” she says. “I learned quickly how to build a case and found that I loved being in court.”

After five years as an assistant state attorney, Foster-Morales decided to shift gears. In 1996, Morales was elected to the Miami-Dade County Commission, and their daughter Nora was diagnosed with autism. “I decided to move into the private sector and took a position with Marsha Elser,” she says. “My friends began sending me cases, and I’ve practiced family law ever since then.

Meanwhile, Foster-Morales and her husband dedicated time to raising Nora, who is now a college student in Colorado, and their son Peter Jay (PJ) who is now in middle school. “Jimmy and I put in long hours at work,” she says. “To unwind, we often spend weekends at our house in the Keys, where we can take a deep breath, sit on the porch, talk to the neighbors, read books and go fishing.”

She remains committed to fundraising for autism-related research, as well as other community causes, and has served on the United Way Capital Campaign, Mother’s Voices, Dade Cultural Alliance, the Angels of Mercy and LawyersAction, a political action committee focused on maintaining a fair and independent judiciary.

A Personal Connection

In her law practice, Foster-Morales has handled several parental kidnapping cases, as well as a number of domestic violence matters. However, the majority of her work revolves around marital-related matters, including drafting pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements. “Today, our courts are also more likely to enforce pre-nuptial agreements rather than setting them aside,” she says. “Pre-nups are definitely becoming more common in two-income families, as well as in marriages where one party has a high net worth.”

In recent years, Foster-Morales has also seen a rise in paternity lawsuits. “Society is far more accepting of people having a child out of wedlock than was the case a decade ago,” she adds. “But when the father leaves or doesn’t provide financial support, the mother lacks the legal protections afforded by marriage.”

Other trends include a general reduction in the size of alimony awards, as well as equal timesharing responsibilities for both parents. She adds that the “tender years” doctrine, where young children were deemed better off with their mothers, has been basically set aside.

Active in many professional associations, Foster-Morales often speaks on issues affecting family lawyers and has appeared as a commentator on “The O’Reilly Factor” and “The TODAY Show.” In 2008, she was elected to The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors, and now co-chairs the Bar’s Special Committee on Diversity & Inclusion.

Foster-Morales is also a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, a fellow of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, a fellow of The Florida Bar Foundation and American Bar Foundation, and a member of the Florida Family Law Inns of Court.

Reflecting on the factors that lead to success in family law, Foster-Morales says the most important element for attorneys is feeling a personal sense of connection with each client. “The best advocacy occurs when you have that sense of involvement,” she says. “That’s what keeps you energized and focused on each case so you can dig in and do the best you possibly can on behalf of your clients.”

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