Nassau County's Richard Jaffe is an accomplished trial lawyer who's helped build one of the region's most successful independent personal-injury practices. But that record obscures a personal story that's far more interesting - and even inspiring -- compared with the predictable resumes of most lawyers today. And his personal journey, by all accounts, has made Jaffe a more effective personal-injury lawyer. For starters, Jaffe worked his way into the profession, attending law school at night and overcoming setbacks in his youth that would have easily derailed the less determined. He became a trial lawyer in part, he says, because of how his father succumbed following a medical misdiagnosis. As a legal assistant, he worked for colorful, high-strung Manhattan lawyers, often doing the basic brief-writing and preparation central to the work of any trial attorney. And in his youth he acquired an exceptional command of Spanish - giving him a bilingual stature well above other trial lawyers in New York today. "I'll be the first to tell you I took an unconventional path, but overall it's been a blessing," says Jaffe. Growing up in Westchester, the son a medical supplies salesman, Jaffe was "a cocky kid" who attended a predominantly-black grade school where "I routinely got the crap kicked out of me - not because I was white, but because I was a wise-ass." But "those early years taught me something important." Even today, with the voluble and animated Jaffe now in his 40s, he's still remembered at Pleasantville High School for his performance as Harold Hill in "The Music Man" nearly 30 years ago. A standout soccer player in high school, Jaffe was offered college scholarships "down South" but instead went to SUNY-Binghamton, where he switched majors from computer science out of boredom and because "you didn't meet girls in the computer-science lab." His early-found proficiency in Spanish led him to major in Romance Language and Literature; he spent a semester in Washington, D.C., and interned in the office of a personal injury lawyer, where he got his first taste of the law. Out of college, though, his father was stricken with cancer, and, unable to adequately prepare, "my LSATs (law-school entrance exams) were a disaster." Undeterred ("I had to make the best of it"), he was hired as a legal assistant to litigator Philip Damashek in lower Manhattan, whose pace, temper and talent were renowned - "Trial by fire doesn't quite capture it," Jaffe says today. He worked too for medical malpractice specialist Anthony Gentile - "the best of the best" - and finally, in his mid-20s, met Stephen Cohen, who ultimately became his most important mentor and, later, law partner. It was Cohen, himself a skilled trial lawyer, who encouraged Jaffe to pursue a law degree, and to harness his energy. "Focus is not that difficult - once you decide what you want." That their partnership has endured for nearly two decades - Jaffe was named a partner in 2000, only five years after getting his JD - is a testament to their combined skill and chemistry.
Based in Lake Success, New York, Cohen & Jaffe has a remarkably varied caseload - classic personal injury, medical malpractice claims, and premises liability, just for starters; Jaffe is now managing partner. Though there are just five lawyers, the firm maintains a 14-person support staff of paralegals and researchers. Thus Cohen and Jaffe themselves are involved in the direction and handling of virtually every case. For all of that, Jaffe remains accessible, unpretentious - and comfortable in his role. "I am not like other attorneys; and our firm is not like other law firms," he states on the firm's informative website at www.cohenjaffe.com. Remarkably, Jaffe works a weekly shift as a volunteer medic in Brentwood, N.Y., where street crime and gang violence are common. "That work is a weekly reminder to me of the importance of my career," he says. Twelve years ago he met his wife Lainie on a blind date; today they have two young children. On weekends "I'm the guy you'll see on my kids' soccer fields" in their hometown of Jericho, New York.