TRUE BLUE: Firm's founder keeps 'goal' uppermost on his legal mind

If you think Ira Jaffe became a Michigan man when he attended the University of Michigan Law School after graduating from M.I.T, you should know two things.

First: Jaffe one of the most prominent attorneys in the state actually hated law school and had no intention of practicing law upon graduation.

And second: Michigan mania started long before that. Actually, it was his father, a U-M Law School alum, who got him hooked on all things Maize and Blue. Jaffe Sr. started taking young Ira to all home football games when he was 7 years old.

Then the gridiron love affair took on another dimension. When Jaffe was 10, father and son started going to most of the away games, too. This meant missing school on Fridays to drive all the way to Iowa or Minneapolis or Champaign-Urbana.

When you told your friends, I wont be in class because Im going with my father to a Michigan football game, you felt very important, says the 72-year-old Jaffe. And thats how I got to be a crazy Michigan fan.

And partly because everyone knows hes an unabashed Michigan fan, and have learned what to give him for his birthday, the basement of his Farmington Hills home has become a virtual museum of Michigan memorabilia.

He has autographs from each of the Michigan Heisman Trophy winners Tom Harmon, Desmond Howard, and Charles Woodson each signed To Ira.

Then theres the shoe worn by Wolverine Rumeal Robinson when he sank two crucial free throws to beat Seton Hall 80-79 in the 1989 NCAA basketball championship game in Seattle.

Another favorite item is a tape of legendary U-M radio sportscaster Bob Ufer saying, Happy birthday, Ira Jaffe! God bless your 40-year-old birthday heart. The tribute was arranged by Jaffes wife of 50 years, Brenda, who at the time volunteered for WJR radios Call for Action.

Every fall, Jaffe checks the Ann Arbor shops to see if theres something new and special to add to the collection. Otherwise, the newbies are generally gifts from family and friends.

For the past 32 years, Jaffe and his friend, Dr. Mel Lester, have hosted huge tailgate parties before every home Michigan football games that didnt fall on a Jewish holiday.

Those are extremely important holidays, and people know, and Im proud that I am Jewish, he said. To have a big party on those days would be disrespectful.

The parties started when Jaffe joined the Victors Club, which gave him a parking pass near the entrance to The Big House. He had a friend with a motor home, and made a deal that if his buddy brought the motor home, Jaffe would supply the food and drinks.

And he started inviting folks to stop in before, after, or at halftime for a drink.

The crowd kept growing. By the end of the 2007 season, when they had to give up their location on the hill to accommodate the stadiums expansion, the number of game day guests had grown to more than 1,000 and was no less than a feast.

Now the parties are for only about 450 people and have come full circle once again hosted from a fully decked out motor home that Jaffe rents before each home game. Jaffe has 40 season tickets, which he shares with clients, family, and friends.

His son, David, is president of a manufacturing company in Cleveland and has two children, Anna, 10, and Ethan, 7.

Daughter Sherri, lives in Cincinnati and is founder and president of a charity called Most Valuable Kids. Shes the mother of Jake, 14, and Seth, 11.

Following graduation from prestigious M.I.T., Jaffe was tempted to pursue an MBA, like many of his friends from engineering school. But then he elected to go a different route. At the time, he was getting married, and was offered a full scholarship to U-M Law School.

It would prove to be an unexpected journey.

In engineering school, theres a right answer to every question, he said. In law school, youre really being taught how to think through the Socratic method. And there isnt a real right answer. You have to know things, but you dont solve a problem and get a specific answer. That was very frustrating for me coming from an engineering background.

His goal throughout law school was to eventually return to M.I.T. and get a job where he could utilize his engineering and business skills.

But after graduation, his wife gave him one of the best pieces of advice that hes ever received: Why not just get a legal job and see how you like it?

In the legal workplace, he soon discovered, there is one correct answer: The clients goal.

And everything I didnt like about law school, I loved about practicing law, he said.

For the first five years out of school, Jaffe worked for Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone. Then in 1968, he decided to strike out on his own and opened his firm in the Guardian Building. Two buildings later, he ended up at One Woodward Avenue.

After careful consideration by Jaffes board of directors, the firm moved its main office to Southfield in 2004, maintaining a small space in the Guardian Building.

Thank goodness for the firm I havent been a managing partner for 10 or 11 years, or I would have figured out a way to keep our main office in the city, said Jaffe, who grew up in Detroit and went to public school here. Its just who I was. And am, really. I care a lot about the city.

In hindsight, according to Jaffe, it was a good decision that the firm moved its main office to the 25-story American Center building in Southfield where it leases the top three floors. It has great highway access and ample free parking. And according to Jaffe, recruiting strong lateral attorneys and getting clients to visit has been much easier.

Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss which is known simply as Jaffe is a full-service business law firm offering legal services and counsel to businesses of all sizes, family-owned enterprises, individuals, and entrepreneurs.

The Southfield firm has more than 100 attorneys, who predominately focus on a range of business law matters. Jaffe also has offices in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Naples, Fla., Philadelphia, and Jerusalem.

Jaffe considers himself a manager and a mentor at the firm, and is highly involved with many clients and their day-to-day matters.

I help run a lot of family businesses and offices and a lot of peoples assets, and I manage a lot of transactions, but I dont do a lot of technical work, he said. I used to be a pretty good tax person and securities lawyer. But nobody can be a great tax lawyer and a great securities lawyer unless they spend a lot of dedicated time in those specific areas. Its true in other areas as well. Things are too complicated today, and to stay current and on the cutting edge, you have to be a specialist.

He said that the best lawyers have the common sense to understand the problem, coupled with the ability and willingness to be thorough.

There are a lot of people who can do well in school, but when they sit down and look at a problem, they neglect to ask the crucial question: What is important to this client? he said. They just see the legal issues and get the legal answers, but they dont really represent the client in getting to their goal.

Attorney Marko Belej admires the way Jaffe can identify and advise clients on matters that involve various areas of the law or arent necessarily even legal issues.

He is able to find the subtle points that are the key to providing value to clients, said Belej, who has worked closely with Jaffe for seven years.

While this insight and wisdom are tremendous assets in the real world, Belej said, they did cause Jaffe some anxiety when he sat for the Florida bar a few years ago.

I remember him recounting how he had worked on a particular practice essay and written a thorough response that addressed all the issues that he saw, said Belej. But when he turned to check the model answer, he found that it was much more limited and looked nothing like what he had written.

At the age of 68, Jaffe passed the Florida bar on his first attempt.

A year later on the firms 40th anniversary every employee in the firm pledged to complete 40 hours of charity work on their own time that year.

The community service ranged from Habitat for Humanity and Soldier Care Packages to hosting more than 500 inner city kids at the Detroit Zoo. In all, the extraordinary effort resulted in more than 9,000 volunteer hours being donated to more than 300 organizations.

Im proud that this is the type of place where everyone wanted to do that, said Jaffe, who knows all of the firms lawyers by name, and, back when he was a managing partner, knew their spouses names, too.

Jaffe practices what he preaches. He sits on several community foundations and particularly enjoys working on causes that improve the education of Detroits youth.

Hes chairman of Beyond Basics, which brings reading, writing and other literacy programs to inner-city students, and is an advisory board member of Wayne State Universitys Math Corps, which teaches math skills to Detroit students in a university setting. And hes on the board of the Detroit Zoological Society and a governor of the Cranbrook Institute of Science.

Jaffe doesnt think much about retirement, but hes confident knowing or being gently told when the day comes.

Unless theyre saying at the proverbial water cooler that Jaffes slipping, retirement is not my thing, he said. But the minute they say that, then yes, I will. It could happen tomorrow. It could happen 10 years from now.

Many of his partners are good friends, and theyve all been told to be honest with him.

So its only going to take one to tell me the truth, he said.

Jaffe has a marathon to his credit and used to run more than 5 miles a day. Every morning except on Michigan football Saturdays, Jaffe wakes up at 4 oclock and heads for the Franklin Racquet Club. After rupturing his Achilles tendon playing basketball at 44, he is now more comfortable spending an hour on the elliptical machine.

After his workout, Jaffe heads to his office until about 6 p.m. Back home, hell often spend another two or three hours at his desk.

Ive been a very lucky human being, because when you mention the word work, I say, Yeah! he said. I dont look at it as a penalty. If its a beautiful Sunday morning, Ill go out in the back yard and take two or three files with me. Ill put on some music, sit back in the sun, and relax. I love my wife, my family and what I do. That makes me one of the luckiest people in the world.

By Jo Mathis

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