The Art of the Trial: John Shaeffer BS ’85, JD ’88

November 3, 2015 – In The News
Santa Clara Law Magazine

Los Angeles litigator John Shaeffer J.D. ’88 has been trying cases every year for the past 17 years.

Weekdays, he sleeps only five hours a night. On weekends, he catches up with eight hours of sleep and he sleeps 16 hours when he is on vacation, though “I haven’t taken a vacation in three years,” he admits.

What keeps him sane? He says it is the same thing that gets him through his 5 a.m. yoga class: “You get in crazy positions and you relax. You don’t internalize the stress.”

Shaeffer, a partner at Fox Rothschild LLP’s Century City office, is the rare attorney who loves litigation. It appeals to his curiosity about just about everything. Which is why he has never specialized. He tries environmental cases, patent, copyright, and biotech. “I’m a weird breed of lawyer,” he says, “Doing just one thing would bore me.”

Shaeffer feels that this is one of his advantages. “Research has shown that once you master a subject you become dogmatic about doing things a certain way. If I am litigating a trademark case, I can say, ‘Here’s how we do it in a products liability case.’”

A Supportive Atmosphere

At Santa Clara Law, Shaeffer fell in love with antitrust. He enjoyed sparring with his professors, but also the supportive atmosphere at Santa Clara.

After graduation he joined a small antitrust firm, Furth, Fahrner in San Francisco, then moved to Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, & Hays LLP in L.A., where he got eight years of “trial after trial after trial.”

He then joined an exiting Kaye Scholer partner to form O’Donnell & Shaeffer, in Los Angeles. Over the 10 years that he ran the firm, he litigated many different types of cases and settled the largest environmental case in U.S. history. (His client, Lockheed, having been required to clean up a Superfund site caused by its manufacture of airplanes, sued the U.S. government on the basis that the government had scripted every aspect of the manufacturing process, down to the toxic chemicals used.)

Consistent with his belief in bringing different perspectives into legal analysis and trial work, he often hired philosophy majors and history Ph.D.s as staff. “They couldn’t get jobs,” he says. “Deconstructivism had begun making philosophy pointless.”

Shaeffer joined the Los Angeles office of Lathrop & Gage in 2010, and this year moved to Fox Rothschild, where he is officially a litigator in the intellectual property department, but “will try any case.”

Mastering Chaos

If you are a trial lawyer, says Shaeffer, “you have to like chaos. You have to assume everything will go wrong.” In preparing for the worst, Shaeffer draws on an unlikely source: his undergraduate minor from Santa Clara University…in Art.

His art minor allowed him to try out different forms of art including painting, film, music, and performance art. He created massive abstract paintings, drawing on Carl Jung’s ideas of universal symbols.

For him, preparing for trial is not so different from painting a canvas. “You make something out of nothing,” he says. “I am always trying to position things into a painting, or into a story.”

Having a story and being super prepared (plus being keenly aware of the jury’s reactions) are the keys to success at trial, he says. “In a trial, I am so prepared that if I get hit by a truck, anyone can pick it up and do it. It flows so easily.”

That degree of preparation is not lost on the jurors. “Juries like the lawyer who best explains things to them,” says Shaeffer. “When I lose cases, I ask myself, ‘Where did I fail in not telling a compelling story?’”


Music, says Shaeffer, is what he uses, as well as yoga, to “stay sane.” He listens to all kinds, from all over the world, from death metal to an eight-hour DVD that is essentially silent.

Shaeffer also creates his own music, digitally. He has an eight-song album planned. “I have to have something to distract me,” he says, “because I love to work.”

Another distraction is cooking—the more complex the better. “Anything I eat, I can make,” he says, “I can taste all the spices in it.” (With nearly 500 spices in the kitchen, he says he has been stumped only by Oaxacan mole negro.)

Shaeffer finds LA’s “fine dining” “uninteresting,” but he and his wife, Melissa Shaeffer MBA ’88 (their two kids are at college at Syracuse and Berkeley) will drive from their home in Encino Hills across town for ethnic food. “When Melissa wants a steak, we drive 90 minutes to East L.A., to El Gallo Grill where they cook the steak on almond wood,” he says. “If you want good food in L.A.,” he says, “call me.”

In Class: “Entertain Me”

For the past 10 years, Shaeffer has flown to the Bay Area from L.A. to teach a class at Santa Clara Law on entertainment/new media law.

Shaeffer says he values his connection to Santa Clara. People talk about the “Santa Clara distinction,” he explains. “To me, it’s that people work together. It wasn’t as much a zero sum game in which ‘I have to do better than you.’ It was more like, ‘we’re all in this together and we’re going to get through it.’”

In his New Media Law class, Shaeffer challenges his students to tap into their own creativity. Their final project “has to be something you learned in class, and it has to be something that will entertain me,” he says. To date, students have submitted songs, music, and training materials for artists. Shaeffer would even accept a painting.