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Remembering Robert D. Joffe: 1943-2010

By January 5, 2012News Articles
Photo of Robert D. Joffe by Hugh Williams.

A man who embodied much of what is best about the law passed away on Thursday, just a few days after emailing from his hospital bed his great regrets at missing “the hop,”as he called the firm’s annual partner dinner.

He defined a Golden Era of the law and was known for his quiet dignity, class, and not saying more when less was the better course.

Robert D. Joffe was, of course, featured in the headlines as the remarkably successful and high-powered presiding partner of Cravath, Swaine & Moore from 1999-2006, as well as the lawyer for Time Warner, Fannie Mae, GE, GM and Citigroup. He is an indelible part of the legend of Cravath, long regarded as the nation’s most elite law firm. Bob Joffe was the first litigator to hold the position of presiding partner, and only the 13th lawyer to hold that office since the firm’s inception in 1819.

Joffe was a young partner working on Cravath’s legendary defense of IBM in 1975, when Evan Chesler joined the firm as a first-year associate, following two years in the summer ranks.

The IBM team was led by legendary partner Tom Barr, and featured two budding superstar partners, Joffe and David Boies. Chesler, who succeeded Joffe as presiding partner in 2007, recalled in an interview Friday flying to Los Angeles to work on California Computer Associates v. IBM, an early private antitrust action against the computer behemoth.

It was proceeding on a very tight schedule and Cravath was defending the government’s antitrust case against the computer manufacturer in New York at the same time it defended the private litigation in California.

“The thing that struck me about him then and has been so clear to me throughout his entire career was that Bob was essentially without an ego,” Chesler said.

Boies was a young superstar partner, only a few years ahead of Joffe at the firm. And though Joffe was becoming a star in his own right, “he never seemed to resent in any way or be concerned about the fact that he was there to block and tackle. He rolled up his sleeves and did whatever was needed to support another partner.”

Chesler would work with Joffe, Barr and Boies for many years, eventually defeating the government’s antitrust case against IBM.

“He was my last assignment as an associate and my first as partner,” Chesler recalled with some emotion. “He was completely comfortable in his own skin, very confident in a quiet way, with a great sense of humor. He loved the law, loved being a Cravath partner. Very easy going, extraordinarily smart and capable. And as competitive as any of us.”

Many who knew Joffe, particularly in his role as a Cravath leader, observed that he was sent to the part from Central Casting. Tall, dark and handsome, he was New York born and Harvard educated. A Clark Gable for the legal establishment of the latter half of the 20th Century.

Chesler has been receiving reminiscences since Joffe’s death at the age of 66. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August 2009.

“One of our alumni sent a note saying Bob was ‘the epitome of grace and class,'” Chesler said. “He had an enormous amount of grace under fire. I never saw him lose his temper or say an unkind work of anyone. That’s not something I could say about anyone else, including myself.”

Chesler initially did not want to be considered for the role of presiding partner. But Joffe worked hard to convince him it was in the best interests of the firm.

“Being presiding partner of Cravath is not an easy job [because] you are often confronted with irreconcilable views from people who are good at expressing their views,” Chesler says. “Bob had an extraordinary ability to deal with people with respect and grace. He never showed signs of frustration. He never said an unkind work. He never lost his cool. He dealt with people with enormous equanimity and patience.”

Chesler also learned another great skill from Joffe: When to keep his mouth shut.

“Bob did not have the genetic defect so many of us lawyers have of needing to hear your own voice,” he says. “Sometimes the most effective leadership I saw him exert was knowing when not to speak out. Instead, he would let matters develop and take their course without him appearing to exert influence.”

If Joffe was a quiet King of the City as Cravath’s presiding partner and Time Warner’s favorite counsel, he was also a lovely and bemused husband to his wife, Dinny. On the evening that Joffe died, Chesler and his wife shared their memories of Joffe, including a Western square dance they attended for his birthday many years ago.

It was a surprise party held on a Saturday night at a community center in the Berkshires. Chesler and many other friends and their families secretly traveled to the town to surprise Joffe on his 40th birthday.

“But he was actually 41,” Chesler laughed. “Bob always joked about the fact. That the best way to surprise him on his 40th birthday was to wait a year.”

“I’ll always remember him walking into that town hall with Dinny, with so many of his friends there. The next day my family went to his place, and our kids were all playing and swimming together. We were so young,”  he says.

Joffe was a perennial member of our Lawdragon 500 lists. Cravath has posted an excellent obituary that describes his many recognitions, his passion for human rights and public interest matters, and his work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among his other contributions to society and the legal profession. Several news publications reported on the news Friday, including American Lawyer, which featured this AmLaw Daily piece by Aric Press.

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