Robert Lieff

Head of the Class

Through both his life’s work and his extensive philanthropy, Robert L. Lieff ’61 has shown an uncanny capacity to spur impact on a game-changing level

By Alexander Zaitchik

Summer 2011

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Among the jobs Robert L. Lieff ’61 took on to finance his legal studies in the early 1960s was that of night watchman at the Law School. More than 40 years later, that job ranks as the most ill-fated in a long and storied legal career. It lasted exactly
one day.

“My fellow student assistant at the other end of the building fell asleep on our first night,” remembers Lieff. “The next morning, we were both unceremoniously fired.”

In the intervening years, Lieff has more than made up for that dereliction of guard duty. Since distinguishing himself as one of the first participants in the Law School’s J.D./M.B.A. program, the Bridgeport, Conn., native has secured a place in legal history as a key figure in the development of class-action law. Lieff has also played a major role in the development of the Law School, where he sits on the Dean’s Council and has endowed two professorships.

Lieff’s career in class-action litigation began with a youthful decision to head West. In 1965, he accepted a job in San Francisco working for the famously brash and effective personal injury lawyer Melvin Belli, who had become known as the
“King of Torts.”

“I spent the decade learning about claims practice,” says Lieff, who recently served as co-chair of his 50th reunion and is working on a memoir about his plaintiff-side litigation work during the heady 1960s. “There were no class-action suits back then, just small individual cases.” 

In 1972, Lieff left Belli’s firm and started his own practice, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein. It is now one of the largest plaintiff-side law firms in the world, with 75 lawyers and 200 employees at offices in San Francisco and Manhattan. At the helm of Lieff Cabraser, he has played a major role in winning many of the largest class-action suits in history, including the Exxon Valdez case and litigation involving Big Tobacco. With the proceeds from a lawsuit brought against several Swiss banks for Holocaust profiteering, Lieff funded the Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein Clinical Professorship in Human Rights Law, which is held by Professor Peter Rosenblum. The position, he notes proudly, “is devoted to the study of human rights issues around the world.”

Lieff’s international perspective also finds expression in his creation and support of the Global Justice Forum, which since 2005 has brought together 200 lawyers from more than 30 countries to share ideas and experience. “There is no plaintiff bar outside the U.S.,” explains Lieff. “So I thought I’d bring lawyers from other countries together and give them a sense of what we do here in the U.S. so they can take lessons home. The forum is on the cutting edge of cross-border litigation and follows in the tradition of our work in the 1960s.” Fittingly, Lieff’s second endowed professorship at the Law School, which is held by Professor Benjamin L. Liebman and known as the Robert L. Lieff Professorship, was created to support a faculty member with expertise in cross-border litigation and international law.

When Lieff is not busy shaping the global future of class-action law, he enjoys time spent in and around vineyards. Napa Valley serves as his part-time home, and he owns a vineyard that annually produces around 500 cases of cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc. Like the wine business, where weather and luck play roles along with skill and experience, the legal field in which Lieff has made his career, he notes, is teeming with risk.

“You have to care about the underdog and be a risk taker at heart to do big class-action suits,” he says. “You have to believe that if you put in the time and money, you’ll recover. But it’s highly speculative. If you want to play it safe and receive a check every two weeks, it’s the wrong profession.”

Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist who has written for The New York Times, among other publications.

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Photographed by Andy Freeberg