Michigan Man-- For attorney Ira Jaffe, nothing beats an autumn afternoon in Ann Arbor

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

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 seven. 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 won't be in class because I'm going with my father to a Michigan football game,' you felt very important," says Jaffe. "And that's how I got to be a crazy Michigan fan."

And partly because everyone knows he's 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 there's 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 33-year-old 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 Jaffe's wife, Brenda, who at the time volunteered for WJR radio's "Call for Action."

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

For the past 33 years, Jaffe and his friend, Dr. Mel Lester, have hosted huge tailgate parties before every home Michigan football games that didn't fall on a Jewish holiday.

The parties started when Jaffe joined the Victor's 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 stadium's 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.

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, there's a right answer to every question," he said. "In law school, you're really being taught how to think through the Socratic method. And there isn't a real right answer. You have to know things, but you don't 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 he's 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 client's goal. "And everything I didn't 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 Jaffe's 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 haven't 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. "It's 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.

At the age of 68, Jaffe passed the Florida bar on his first attempt. A year later--on the firm's 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.

"I'm proud that this is the type of place where everyone wanted to do that," said Jaffe, who knows all of the firm's 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 Detroit's youth.

Jaffe doesn't think much about retirement, but he's confident knowing--or being gently told--when the day comes.

"Unless they're saying at the proverbial water cooler that Jaffe's 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."

"I've been a very lucky human being, because when you mention the word 'work,' I say, 'Yeah!'" he said. "I don't look at it as a penalty. If it's a beautiful Sunday morning, I'll go out in the back yard and take two or three files with me. I'll 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."

A version of this story first ran in MOTION Magazine last fall.

Published: Thu, Oct 11, 2012

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