Denis holds a wine glass aloft
Denis Clifford. Courtesy: Friends of Denis Clifford

One of the bright lights in the Bay Area firmament went dark on June 22 at the age of 83.

Denis Clifford was man of extraordinary intellect as well as artistic and literary talents. He was renowned as an author, an artist and a Nolo Press attorney, as well as a litigator for several years with the Alameda County Legal Aid Society protecting the interests of his clients against the powerful and the wealthy.

Denis authored many of the popular Nolo Press “self-help” law books. Denis sold over 1 million books under the Nolo imprint and Nolo believes that Denis’s books saved his readers over $1 billion in unnecessary legal fees. His specialty was estate planning, and he sought to educate and empower individuals to create their own wills and trusts or to be well prepared if they needed to hire a lawyer.

Over the years for Nolo Press, Denis authored many titles, including: Quick and Legal Will Book, Nolo’s Simple Will Book, Make Your Own Living Trust, Estate Planning Basics, among others. He co-authored: Plan Your Estate: A Legal Guide for Lesbian and Gay Couples, and Form a Partnership: The Complete Legal Guide. Many of these books are still in print. Denis was interviewed by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Money Magazine, and other major print and video outlets.

Given his growing reputation in the field, many people approached Denis for advice. Denis recognized that there was a need and became an estate attorney himself. He developed a private practice offering estate planning services at modest fees for hundreds of clients. He was working on estate plans for a client in his Berkeley office just days before he died.

Denis grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, the eldest of seven children. He remained extraordinarily close to his four brothers and two sisters for his whole life. His Irish family gathered every year at the Clifford family summer home in Old Forge, New York. Those idyllic Old Forge summers inspired Denis’ art and his creative writing. Denis always kept an art space in Berkeley which he regularly opened as part of ProArts Open Studios. His work in oils and pastels covered many subjects, but he was constantly drawn back to Old Forge, creating rich and realistic captures of the lake, the canoes, and the boat houses. The Adirondacks were his muse and his inspiration.

But it was his intellectual achievements for which Denis is particularly recognized. Denis graduated Amherst College in 1961 and from Columbia Law School in 1966 where he was an editor of the law review. He then clerked for U.S. District Judge Lloyd F. MacMahon in the Southern District of New York.

Soon Denis recognized that a conventional life as an elite lawyer wasn’t his calling. His political positions and social sensitivities landed him in the middle of the dramatic and turbulent Bay Area politics of the 1960s.

However, Denis had higher aspirations for his vision of how the law could empower and protect individuals. Denis became one of the earliest members of the Nolo Press group in Berkeley, where he was able to merge his skill as a writer with his acumen as an attorney. Nolo developed a series of  “do-it-yourself” law books. Denis decided to dedicate himself to a neglected area of “self-help” law: estate planning. Through Denis’ books, many people acquired the necessary knowledge so that they could do their own estate planning.

If one word were to describe Denis Clifford it would be “passionate.” He was passionate about art; he was passionate about his friends from Amherst, world travel; and his ongoing love of learning. He was a bibliophile, raconteur, bon vivant, and bicyclist, par excellence. He devoured books by the shelf and he wasn’t satisfied until he became proficient in French and then added a modicum of Spanish. But these passions were secondary to his love for his life partner of 42 years, Naomi Puro. Denis and Naomi were a dynamic team first in Berkeley and then for the last 20 plus years in Albany.

In the days before his death, Denis bicycled down to his beloved San Francisco Bay with Naomi and his next-door neighbors, Arno and Jim. He made sure to join his best friend, Dick Duane, at the Berkeley Y where Denis was a regular who loved to shoot baskets and shoot the breeze.

There are many people who make the Bay Area special. When we lose one, it is imperative to pause for a moment to acknowledge and savor a life well-lived, and lived well on its own terms, without compromise. Denis knew exactly what he wanted. He chose to write books to give himself the freedom to live life to the fullest.

His passing leaves a gaping hole in many hearts. But that feeling of loss is mitigated by our having known a Renaissance man who never experienced a boring day and who never drank a cappuccino or a glass of wine without a stimulating conversation to go with it.

He was the best of us, and he was one of us. We became better people having known him.

If you are able, please consider a donation in Denis’ memory to:

  • Life Learning Academy, a local non-profit youth-serving organization with three distinct activities: a high school, a dorm for unstably housed students, and a transition home for its graduates.