January 28, 2010 9:19 PM
Robert Joffe, Cravath Partner, Dies at 66
Posted by Aric Press
Robert Joffe the former presiding partner of Cravath, Swaine & Moore died Thursday from cancer. He was 66.
A Harvard Law school graduate, Joffe spent 42 years at Cravath. A prominent litigator and adviser to corporate boards, he was an important figure in the New York bar, highly regarded for his skills, integrity and public service. At Cravath, he made his mark representing Time Inc., one of the firm's signature clients, in aspects of its merger with Warner Brothers, and later in its ill-fated merger with AOL.
After he was chosen to head the firm in 1999, a position he held until 2006, he developed a specialty representing independent directors on corporate boards. In that role he advised, among others, the directors at the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) during its accounting scandal in 2004. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, troubled boards looked to him again. He advised Fannie Mae during its spiral into a government takeover, GM as it struggled with its leaden balance sheet, and Citigroup as it took billions in government bailouts. Joffe is "as good as anybody I've encountered in taking complex issues, sorting them out, and giving very understandable and thorough road maps for boards," Stephen Ashley, Fannie Mae's former board chairman, said at the time.
Joffe spent his entire career at Cravath except for a two-year fellowship in Malawi during which he worked on law reform projects. "We did everything from cross out 'Her Majesty the Queen' and replace it with 'His Excellency the president,' to decide which of three inconsistent laws we liked better." He also led prosecutions for a variety of crimes, including witchcraft and murder by spear. "I was twenty-four-years old and three months out of Harvard Law School when I started," he said with a laugh in a 1997 interview. "All of this prepared me for the practice of law at Cravath."
He took pride in putting aside time each year for pro bono work and encouraged his associates and partners to do the same. His most notable case was a long effort representing black and female municipal employees opposing a reverse discrimination action in Birmingham, Alabama. He pursued the case to the U.S. Supreme Court where he lost on appeal in a 5-4 decision.
By all accounts, Joffe was as driven as any big-firm partner routinely returning midnight e-mails at midnight. But his interests were wide and his friendships real. Over the years, opportunities to leave the firm arose, including the general counsel job at the newly formed Time Warner. But he turned them down. Why? "I love what I do," he said.
But privately he said he was getting ready to try other things. The last time I spoke him was at the recent wedding of a mutual friend's child. He felt well, he was in high demand by clients, but he was looking forward to moving on to another phase of his career.
He had very good judgment and a kind and clear way of expressing it. Before The American Lawyer started giving Lifetime Achievement Awards in 2004, I asked him for his opinion of a few names on our short list. They were worthy, he said, but asked, what are you trying to accomplish? Another prize for another public figure? Why bother? What the young lawyers at private law firms needed, he said, were examples they could hope to emulate while maintaining their practice.
We embraced that standard. One small sadness we have today is that he didn't live long enough for us to give him our prize.
Photo courtesy of Cravath, Swaine & Moore