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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.

Robert D. Joffe 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.

--Aric Press

Photo courtesy of Cravath, Swaine & Moore

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A True Legend! He can never be Replaced.He is the Epitome of a true GENTLEMAN...Rip Mr Joffe..

This is one of the nicest obituaries (?) I've ever read.

His advice and expert counsel will surely be missed in many corporate boardrooms.

My professional life intersected with Bob's for only 8 weeks, when I worked for him as a summer associate. And yet, I can attest to every word of this obituary. He set the standard I've sought to emulate in the almost 20 years since I first met him, and I looked to him as a mentor. Of course he was brilliant, thorough and disciplined, but more importantly as a role model, he was humane, thoughtful, and engaged -- with his colleagues, with his subordinates, and with the world at large. He prided himself on his commitment to public service, where his contributions were real and significant, and he took genuine interest in the careers and lives of the many lawyers who worked for him and revered him. He launched and nurtured a whole community of lawyers, and he followed their careers with interest -- touching base from time to time with cards or phone calls, and never too busy for an unannounced drop-by, despite his demanding responsibilities. He will be sorely missed.

Bob Joffe personified the ideal lawyer, as well as the ideal human being. He must have had flaws, but I never saw them.
I felt privileged to work with him on the Birmingham reverse discrimination cases when I was at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and to chat with him on the occasions when I came to Cravath on other business.
Bob was the kind of person John Donne must have had in mind in his famous Meditation XVII, when he spoke of how the death of others diminishes all of humankind. Today, we are all diminished.

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