Higher calling: New CEO settles into role at prominent firm

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

When word began to filter out that Bill Sider was about to become the CEO of one of the Detroit area's most respected law firms, the response from the legal community was somewhat varied, according to the new head of Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss.

"Messages of congratulations and condolences were running about 50-50," Sider said wryly.

Sider's sometimes disarming sense of humor figures to come in handy as he embarks on his new role atop the international firm headquartered on the 25th floor of the American Center in Southfield. His job, after all, is to lead the transition from one legal generation to the next, while continuing to honor and embrace "a legacy of success" that the firm has enjoyed over the past 44 years.

Sider, a University of Michigan Law School alum, has been around for 26 of those years at Jaffe, joining the firm in 1986 after beginning his career as a tax attorney with a major firm in Salt Lake City. He has served in various leadership capacities at Jaffe, including several years as a member of its board of directors, which will be chaired for the next 3 years by Rick Zussman, Sider's predecessor as CEO of Jaffe.

"Having Rick as a resource, as a mentor, will be invaluable," Sider said of Zussman, who guided Jaffe for the past 9 years. "I'm only beginning to appreciate the challenge of managing a firm with more than 100 attorneys spread over five offices, while still maintaining an active practice. Rick did it for 9 years and did it exceptionally well, and my goal is to build upon that success."

He has started by getting "reacquainted" with the firm's partners, holding individual meetings over breakfast.

"I've probably held 25 to 30 over the last six months, and if nothing else, I certainly know where the best omelets and oatmeal are served in town," Sider quipped. "In all honesty, each meeting has been very interesting and enlightening, and has given me a greater appreciation for the legal talent we have assembled here. It's given me a chance to check the pulse of the firm, to better know the players. I've come away from each meeting having learned something valuable that figures to be important to the future of this firm."

Such as a greater emphasis on "marketing and cross-selling," and of "branding" the Jaffe identity into the legal mindset of current and potential clients.

"One thing that I've been aware of for some time is that we don't communicate our successes to one another as well as we could," Sider said. "That has been part of the reason for the breakfast meetings and for an every other month 'after hours' meeting where our attorneys can become better acquainted. In just about any law firm, there is a tendency to become isolated in your own practice group. We want to break down some of those barriers and make everyone aware of the importance of interacting."

Sider, who grew up in Southfield and graduated from Lathrup High School, admitted that his marketing push is foreign to some in the firm, but he believes that "we can't afford to sit still" in the digital age that already has claimed many legal casualties.

"I have the benefit of 'standing on the shoulders of giants,'" Sider said. "Most of our founders are still active attorneys and I feel privileged to lead this remarkable firm they have created."

Figuratively speaking, it is a script that he is more than equipped to write. Sider was an English major in the honors program at the University of Michigan, where he considered pursuing a career in writing before he took an academic fancy to the study of law.

When he joined Jaffe in 1986, it wasn't long before Sider was off to the East Coast, convincing his superiors at the firm of the value of obtaining a master's in taxation from New York University School of Law. He completed the master's program in 1988 and remained steadfast in his commitment to rejoin Jaffe despite the lure of working for a high-powered Wall Street firm.

"Although it was tempting to stay in New York, I knew that I would be given opportunities to work on a variety of sophisticated and exciting tax matters with Jaffe," Sider said of his decision to return. "It was a good move."

His tax work now cuts across a "varied client base including private equity firms, real estate companies, high net worth individuals, publicly traded REITs, technology companies, and private foundations." Sider regularly structures purchase and sale transactions, family wealth transfers, and business formations, all with a focus on creativity. He enjoys the puzzle-like effort of mining the tax code to maximize client objectives.

While the demands of his administrative responsibilities are certain to impact the time he spends on tax matters, Sider said he "relishes the opportunity to be out front" at Jaffe.

"I'm all about stretching myself, about stepping out of my comfort zone," said Sider, an Oak Park native who now lives in Huntington Woods with his wife and three teen-age sons. "I view this new role as a tremendous growth opportunity for me on a personal and professional level, and I want everyone here to see my appointment as a chance to take stock of themselves for the betterment of the firm."

Sider's desire to expand his horizons will include plans to run his first marathon next spring in Jerusalem, where his oldest son will be spending the year studying before enrolling at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2013. A veteran of several triathlons, Sider said that his marathon experience will come on a course that is lined with holy sites and historical attractions in the capital city located in the Judean Mountains.

"Needless to say, it will be a very hilly course, but I guess I wouldn't have it any other way for a first marathon," Sider said with a grin. "As I said, I'm all about stretching myself.

Published: Thu, Jul 5, 2012

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