Jeffrey D. Fisher, JD ’80, called “a pit bull” of a divorce lawyer, has a soft spot. He loves orchids. He loves them so much he carries around photographs of them on his cellphone, like a proud grandfather.
“I’ve got hundreds of them,” Fisher says, fresh from the Miami Law Dean’s Forum, A Conversation with Jeffrey Fisher. “I find gardening very therapeutic. I’ve got some real beauties blooming; I can show you some pictures...”
However, orchid cultivation may be only one factor in what makes Fisher one of the top ten divorce attorneys in the United States, according to Worth magazine. Fisher rises at 5 a.m. to devour The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Palm Beach Post, and the Palm Beach Daily News, known as the “Shiny Sheet” after the glossy paper stock on which it is printed – for all the latest society news on the island’s wealthy residents and visitors. He then emails important stories to his clients by 6:30. His natural curiosity plays an important role in his success.
“People come in and talk to me, and more often than not, either I am going to know their business or their competitor or a story about them,” Fisher says. “And that is as much of a reason they give for hiring me as being a well-trained and highly thought of lawyer, it’s that we have something in common.”
Though the 60-year-old from Camden County, New Jersey, always imagined he would be a lawyer – he came from a long line of Jewish mob lawyers out of Chicago – divorce law was not part of the dream. “I was always pretty much a lawyer at heart,” he says. “I had dreams of becoming a Wall Street lawyer. I once had an interview at Skadden Arps at the World Trade Center. I will never forget they showed me the cots where you sleep when you did all-nighters.”
As Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote famously in Ulysses, “I am a part of all that I have met,” Fisher’s career path was formed somewhat by happenstance.
Fisher’s father was working on a large project in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Fisher spent his high school years at the Good Hope School, also known as the Good Hope Hotel. “Every classroom had been a hotel room, so not only did it have a full bath,” he says, “it looked out over the Caribbean Sea.”
The classes were very small – 15 in his graduating class – and very diverse, with a rigorous college prep school curriculum. From there he went to Brandeis University, just outside Boston. With his family still living in St. Croix, his roommate’s family became his go-to place for many holidays. Matthew Kozol’s father was Joel Kozol, a legendary Boston attorney and Fisher’s mentor.
Fisher graduated cum laude from Brandeis with a degree in political science, and headed to Miami Law. As a 3L, he clerked for Chief Judge C. Clyde Atkins, on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District, and then moved over to Judge Eugene P. Spellman’s court, when President Jimmy Carter created a new seat. Judge Spellman inherited the Haitian refugee case when Judge Alcee Hastings was indicted; Fisher stayed on past the term of his clerkship to finish the case.
Fisher was hired in 1982 by U.S. Attorney Stanley Marcus to work on immigration cases. Initially, the young U.S. Attorney was working solely on immigration cases, but soon he was handling forfeitures, banking, personal injury, and anything else in the civil division. He expanded his knowledge by moving over to the criminal division where he worked on cases of everything from counterfeiting to bank robberies to guns to prosecuting drug mules.
At six years out of law school, Fisher felt like it was time to move into the private sector. “I called Joel [Kozol]. He had been editor of the law review at Harvard, he had clerked on the U.S. Supreme Court, and he happened to be in Florida for a case,” Fisher says. “I didn’t want to stay so long in the public sector that I couldn’t be laterally hired into a firm.”
Kozol told Fisher he was going to take him on. He had a big case in Florida – big enough to staff an office, so Fisher brought two other Assistants and they opened an office. “It never really took off,” Fisher said. “In 1989, I was living up on 36th Street and my wife and I were supposed to go see the Heat play the Bulls, but downtown Miami was shut down because of rioting. [A Miami policeman killed two black men on a motorcycle triggering three days of civil unrest.] It seemed like a good time to leave Miami.”
Fisher opened a small office in Palm Beach handling regulatory problems for the controlling shareholder of three banks using the experience he obtained out of a couple of cases he had worked on at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “I had learned a lot about bank regulatory work and bank loan documentation,” he said. Then he took up golf.
“I happened to join a golf club,” Fisher says. “And I started representing the golf club owner. One night Joel Kozol calls – he had always done big divorces – and says, ‘How would you like to do a divorce?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do divorces.’”
The next day, Fisher is playing golf and the owner asks him if he had gotten a call to handle a divorce the night before. As it turns out, the woman who Kozol wants Fisher to represent is the sister of the owner of the golf club as well as a friend of Kozol’s. Fisher turns the club owner down, too.
That night the phone rings and on the other end of the line is a crying woman. “She says, ‘He hit me and he threw me out of the house and I don’t have a penny, and I can’t get a lawyer,’” Fisher recalls.
“So I meet her the next morning,” he says. “She tells me her husband owns 10% of the New York Yankees, and that George Steinbrenner hates her husband’s guts. I don’t believe a word she says.”
Fisher asks the woman if she has a number for Steinbrenner, and she does. He leaves a voice message, and is shocked the next morning when Steinbrenner calls and says he is a friend of the woman, calls the husband some unprintable names, and asks how he can help.
And so began Fisher’s long, memorable career in divorce law.