Lawyers Journal

Building on a father’s foundation

Douglas Sheff, of the Sheff Law Offices in Boston, has worked with his father, Irving, long enough to transform the firm. During Douglas' 16 years, the firm has shifted from general practice to medical malpractice and product liability.

Last October, Douglas and Irving were recognized for their dedication to the legal profession and their community involvement with the "Generation to Generation" Jurisprudence Award given by American ORT, the Jewish world's leader in technology and education and the largest non-government education and training organization.

"It was the first father-son award and one of the most important moments in my life," said Douglas, 44, who is now principal in the firm.

His father, a World War II veteran, built the firm's reputation with his humane approach to legal concerns, says Douglas.

"He would spend three days chatting with someone to make [him or her] feel better, even if he couldn't do anything about the situation," he said. "He's a selfless individual, something that is extinct today."

Douglas, who is a delegate to the MBA and the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, took over gradually at the firm by limiting the number of cases it accepted because of their increasing work volume and sophistication.

In recent years, the firm settled the largest single work-related death case in Massachusetts, resulting in new equipment and safety protocol for fuel terminals throughout the United States. Another extensive case, which has been ongoing for more than five years, involves three countries and 60 witnesses.

The firm's evolution was not a "fairy tale story," but one accompanied by frustrations and uncertainties, as the two generations melded their approach.

His father "let me excel, surpass him and do things differently," Douglas said, adding that it took years of argument regarding finances to shift the firm's focus and hire expensive experts for certain cases. "I was trying to break in and be somebody."

Douglas recalls growing up and witnessing the respect Irving received for his general practice, which included personal injury and real estate. Law, however, was not Douglas' first career choice.

"I wanted to be anything other than a lawyer. My father said 'don't be a lawyer just because I'm a lawyer'," he said.

"I went to law school because it was a good education. But I said I would never practice. Then I became a district attorney and said, okay, I'll do criminal law, not civil like my dad.

"I came full circle. This is truly what I was best suited for," he said.

Now the firm has 15 attorneys and with Douglas at the helm, father Irving is less involved but still infuses a family presence, which has become ingrained — although a third generation is not "on the horizon."

"He institutes confidence in clients and provides balance to the firm with his foresight, open mindedness and magnanimous nature," Douglas said. "The essence of family will live on."

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association