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Divorce Story

Daniel Jaffe on repping Noah Baumbach, learning from Melvin Belli, and hanging a shingle at 82

Published in 2021 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, about the contentious divorce of a showbiz couple, was immediately acclaimed when it was released in the fall of 2019. It garnered a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and six Academy Award nominations, including best picture, actor, actress and screenplay, while it won the supporting actress Oscar for Laura Dern’s dazzling turn as Nora Fanshaw, a high-powered, fiery attorney.

Since it was also something of a cinéma à clef—based, as it was, on Baumbach’s 2013 divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh—it set off a hunt for the clef.

Much has been written about the similarities between Fanshaw and Laura Wasser at Wasser, Cooperman & Mandles, who represented Leigh in the real-life divorce. Much less has been written about one of Baumbach’s attorneys: Daniel Jaffe of the Jaffe Family Law Group. Jaffe doesn’t think anyone has interviewed him about it even once. “Not that I recall,” he says.

Jaffe handled the case at his previous firm, Jaffe & Clemens, with partner Robert Stanley, who is now at Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman. “I did most of the settlement discussions,” Jaffe says, “and Stanley did most of the discovery and work with the client.”

In the movie, Baumbach’s alter ego, played by Adam Driver, also has two lawyers. He starts out with Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), an affable attorney in a cluttered, cat-filled law office; but Spitz is no match for Fanshaw, and the client opts for the cutthroat Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), who practices out of a sleek steel-and-glass office building. “I need my own asshole,” he says.

So which of the fictional attorneys is more like Jaffe?

“I actually related to both lawyers,” Jaffe says. “I’ve practiced for 58 going on 60 years. You try to do things the nice way. Divorce is a very difficult process for people to go through, and if you can get divorcing people out of their divorce alive, as I call it, then you’re doing a good job. On the other hand, if you have lawyers or parties on the other side of a case uninterested in coming up with reasonable and amicable and legal conclusions, then I have to turn into the killer lawyer. I’m a very good trial lawyer. I am not afraid to litigate. And a lot of the lawyers today, I think, are really courtroom-shy.”

Jaffe learned litigation at the feet of a legend, Melvin Belli, whom he calls “the quintessential inventor of demonstrative evidence.” The duo worked two murder trials in 1963 and ’64. 

One case involved a lot of prep work, done by Jaffe and an investigator during a six-month stretch, before Belli phoned the Friday before trial. “Hey, we have a trial on Monday? What’s the client’s name?” Jaffe recalls Belli asking. “He said, ‘I’m coming down from San Francisco. I’ll meet you at the office.’ So we went to the office and told him exactly what the case was about. He filled up one whole yellow sheet of paper with the facts, and the next morning gave a two-hour opening statement and didn’t miss a thing. He prepared a death penalty first-degree murder case in one day. Only a few lawyers in the world could ever do that.” 

After two hung juries, “they kicked the case on a self-defense claim,” Jaffe adds.

 

After working with Belli, Jaffe continued to litigate personal injury, workers’ comp and fraud cases before going 100% family law in 1967. 

A member of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Jaffe helped found a new family law organization 20 years ago. Cases that required trial work were being referred to family law attorneys in other states who didn’t have much litigation background; so Jaffe and others helped create the American College of Family Trial Lawyers.

“It’s an organization limited to 100 people,” Jaffe says, “and they are from all over the country. So if I see a big case today and I know that it’s going to require some real expertise and possible trial skills, I’ll first turn to my College colleagues before I turn to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers for a reference.”

He made an even bigger change in 2019 when his law partner of 42 years, Bruce Clemens, retired. “He said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” Jaffe recalls. “And our landlord said, ‘I don’t want you in my building anymore,’ after I was there for 50 years. So the question was, ‘What are we going to do with all the lawyers and staff and everything at Jaffe & Clemens?’” 

Jaffe did what any self-respecting 82-year-old lawyer would do: He hung a shingle. 

“I took a number of the lawyers and staff and paralegals and found a great space in Century City,” he says. “I took a three-year lease with a three-year extension. A couple of my friends said, ‘You’re really an optimist.’ I said, ‘This is going to be fine.’ I love what I’m doing, and I do it well.”

Even with the COVID-19 complications, he says, things are running smoothly. “My office manager goes in a couple times a week and takes care of the mail, billing, bank accounts, etc. All of us—there’s a total of 15—are working remotely,” he says. “And it’s working.”

As soft-spoken as Alda’s character in Marriage Story (“I don’t think I’ve ever hollered at anybody,” he says), with a nice head of salt-and-pepper hair like Liotta’s, Jaffe feels the movie’s protagonist did the right thing when he switched attorneys to match Fanshaw. So much, he says, depends upon who’s on the other side—the opposing lawyer and their client. “I know of one law firm, all I have to do is pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, how about you send me over this stuff, and I’ll send you about 300 pages of discovery? Just tell me what’s going on and we’ll get it done.’ Another law firm will take the case and all of a sudden it’s discovery and motions and hearings.”

He adds: “Long ago, I asked all the lawyers in my office, ‘I want a list of every case in the office, whether I’m handling them or any of my partners are handling them, or any of the associates are handling them. And I want you to put a star next to every case where there are two sane lawyers and two sane clients on the same case.’ And there weren’t a lot. There weren’t a lot.”


Break-Up Movies that Hold Together

Noah Baumbach made the list twice—with both the child’s perspective (The Squid and the Whale) and the couples’ (Marriage Story). Iran’s A Separation has the highest Rotten Tomatoes score, while Kramer has won the most statuettes. 

  Year Score Oscars
Scenes From a Marriage 1973 90% Zip
An Unmarried Woman 1978 92% 3 nominations: picture, actress, screenplay
Kramer vs. Kramer 1979 88% 9 nominations, 5 wins: director, actor, supporting actress and screenplay
War of the Roses 1989 85% Bupkis
Squid and the Whale 2005 92% 1 nomination: screenplay
A Separation 2011 99% 2 nominations, 1 win: foreign language film
Marriage Story 2019 94% 6 nominations: picture, actor, screenplay and supporting actress

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