Late in the summer of 1953, Hal Braff took a long walk with his father along the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore. Soon after returning to college that year he got word that his father, a 50-year-old Newark lawyer, had died, apparently of a heart attack. When he came home for the funeral, his father’s law partner put his arm around his shoulder and said the firm would keep the Braff name and hold a spot open for him. Hal was only 19, but his future path was set. Six years later, he passed the bar and took his place at Braff & Litvak.
Braff, who is still practicing law at 79, spent much of his career trying civil cases. He liked the profession and was very successful. “I was pretty effective as a trial lawyer. But what really excited me about being a lawyer was being able to make a difference in the community,” he says. And he did, from serving as counsel to the Newark chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality to building the American Inns of Court movement across the country. In recent years, he’s helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money for graduates of Weequahic High School in Newark, his alma mater.
To honor his contributions, the New Jersey Commission on Professionalism in the Law is awarding Braff the 2013 Daniel J. O’Hern Award. The annual award, presented to a senior member of the bar with an outstanding record of commitment to professionalism, career achievement and service to the community, will be presented Oct. 17 at the commission’s professionalism awards luncheon in Somerset. In addition to Braff, bar associations around the state will also name professional lawyers of the year to be honored at the event.
“Hal lives his daily life helping all comers. He is selfless. He is the ultimate professional,” wrote Robert E. Margulies, of Margulies Wind in Jersey City, in nominating him for the award. Since 2003, Braff has been of counsel at the firm, where he serves as mediator, arbitrator, special discovery master and counsel to select clients.
To Rayvon Lisbon, a former gang member at Weequahic High School, Braff is the father he never had.
“Hal’s been in my corner, guiding me and showing me a different life,” says Lisbon, whom Braff took under his wing seven years ago. Both were featured in Heart of Stone, a documentary about Ron Stone, the late principal of Weequahic High, and his efforts to purge the struggling school of violence. “He let me know there is someone by my side. He’s made me want more out of life. He gives me inspiration,” adds Lisbon, now a 24-year-old college student.
In fact, Braff has four children of his own, including actor and director Zach Braff, former star of the TV comedy Scrubs. He also has two stepdaughters through a second marriage to Elaine Braff, a couples therapist. Their blended families comprise a creative and collaborative clan. With his wife, Hal Braff teaches a therapeutic course for couples seeking to improve their relationships. Hal and Elaine will be extras in Wish I Was Here, Zach Braff’s newest movie (which Zach wrote with brother Adam).
A SON OF WEEQUAHIC
Braff grew up in Weequahic during an era when the neighborhood, bordering Hillside in Newark’s South Ward, was a middle-class, mostly Jewish enclave. He has warm memories of a close family life, a happy childhood and a “spectacular” high school experience. When his parents told him he could go to any college he wanted, he picked the University of Wisconsin. “There was an aura of liberalism and openness that attracted me,” he says. After college he came home and enrolled at Rutgers School of Law in Newark.
Eight years after he graduated, the city erupted in riots. By then Braff was living 25 miles south of Newark, and the firm had moved to East Orange. But he was devastated by the destruction to his hometown.
Braff gained extensive trial experience in varied areas. In 1982, he was certified as a civil trial lawyer and became expert at insurance and product liability defense work. In his free time he acted in regional theater and became active in the American Inns of Court, a movement fostering legal ethics and professionalism. Braff chaired the Arthur T. Vanderbilt Chapter of the Inns of Court in Essex County. In 1991, he was elected to the organization’s national board of trustees, and in 1994, he received its A. Sherman Christiansen Award for exceptional leadership.
In the meantime, Braff had become an adjunct at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, teaching negotiating skills and trial presentation. (He continues to teach the trial presentation course.) In class he emphasized that being a lawyer was a privilege. “As an attorney you’re among the few people who are licensed by the state to intervene on behalf of people who can’t speak for themselves and who are very often, especially in litigation, in distress because they’ve been injured or charged. They’re saying, in essence, ‘Take care of me.’ That’s a huge responsibility,” he says.
FOCUS ON MEDIATION
After 40 years of trying cases, though, he decided to try something new.
“The culture was shifting to encourage mediation. I knew I had the skills to be effective,” he says. “Litigation is time-consuming, stressful and unpredictable, and someone always loses. In mediation I try to help people resolve cases. He sold his interest in Braff, Harris and Sukoneck in Livingston and joined the Margulies firm. Ten years later, Braff says he has no regrets, and no plans to retire: “Mediation is a perfect fit. I like what I do, and I love those guys.”
Yet of all his achievements, Braff says he is most proud of his role as co-president of the Weequahic High School Alumni Association. The idea of connecting alumni from the school’s glory days to current students came to him after he attended his 35 th reunion. “Weequahic was now an ‘inner city’ school. The kids were using the same lockers as we did, and living in the same houses, but they did not have the same opportunities. I just thought to myself, ‘What if we could do something with the energy the alumni put into the reunions, and use it to benefit the people there now?’”
He paid a visit to his old school, but failed to get much support from the school’s leadership. He was also shocked to find the school’s proud traditions had disappeared. “The faculty had no idea about the school’s history. They didn’t know the songs, and a lot of them didn’t know who Philip Roth was,” he says.
Braff persisted, and eventually found a more welcoming environment. Since its founding 14 years ago, the association has raised more than $600,000 for scholarships and other opportunities, including trips to France, Montreal, and Washington D.C.
To find out more or register for the event, visit njsba.com.