Robert D. Joffe ’64, a prominent attorney and former head of Cravath, Swaine & Moore law firm, died Thursday from pancreatic cancer. He was 66 years old.
A 1967 Harvard Law School graduate, Joffe’s career was defined by his high profile work in antitrust and corporate governance law, as well as his commitment to civil rights.
“[He] was a superb lawyer and a true leader in the legal community,” HLS Dean Martha L. Minow said in a press release. “His wisdom, judgment, and intellect infused his deep commitments to enhancing justice and the rule of law around the world and his outstanding service to this law school.”
Joffe joined Cravath in 1967, but a few months into his time as an associate, he went to work in Malawi’s Ministry of Justice. There he spent two years helping rewrite the country’s laws and procedures for local courts.
He returned to Cravath in 1969, became a partner in 1975, and was elected deputy presiding partner in November 1997. He was elected presiding partner in 1999, a position he held until 2006.
Joffe was best known for his work with Time Inc. Joining in 1978, he served as the head outside litigator for Time and guided the company as it merged with Warner Communications in 1990, according to his obituary in the New York Times.
Later in his career, Joffe advised directors of Fannie Mae and represented independent directors of Merrill Lynch before the financial firm was acquired by Bank of America in January 2009. Joffe also advised the board of General Motors amidst talks of bankruptcy, according to Bloomberg News.
Throughout his career, Joffe, who was raised in New Jersey, also had an interest in civil rights law.
Joffe, known as “Joff” in college, graduated from Harvard in three years. He was “very considerate,” and liked by everyone, wrote his freshman year roommate Peter A. Mansbach ’65 in an e-mailed statement. It was during his college years that Joffe’s concern for civil rights emerged, said his younger brother Paul L. Joffe ’69.
Paul said he recalls his brother Robert sitting with friends by the Charles, discussing the world’s most significant challenges.
“They decided that the two biggest problems were the nuclear threat, and civil rights,” Paul said. “And they decided that they should dedicate themselves to solving those problems.”
In 1962, Joffe wrote a letter to civil rights activist James Farmer, according to his son David V. Joffe ’00. The letter advocated a mass student march to Washington D.C. in support of civil rights.
David said his father saved Farmer’s reply that said the march was a good idea, but too difficult to organize.
“Nine months later, the march happened. My father clearly cared about civil rights issues even as an undergraduate,” David said.
In law school, Joffe was the case-note editor for The Harvard Civil Rights/Civil Liberties Law Review.