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Trouble In Splitsville


The latest innovation is called enhanced earnings. "It's an accounting formula that puts a value on the growth of a spouse's earning power during the marriage and in effect gives the other spouse a share of future earnings until retirement," says John Vassallo, who's represented Mick Jagger, Peter Jennings, and Harvey Keitel. "It's a nightmare that makes it extremely difficult to settle cases, because the end result is huge numbers without hard assets to back them up. It's like trying to value an illusion."

How bad can it get? Lawyer Stanley Plesent is currently representing a colleague whose wife, at trial, was awarded half their marital assets (all purchased with his earnings), half the value of his law practice, child support, and lifetime maintenance -- and then the appellate court, the second-highest in the state, added in half the value of his law license. "It's all based on what will happen, and while she's waiting for full payment -- she's getting annual installments -- the appellate court added 9 percent interest on the unpaid balance," says Plesent, who's been granted leave to appeal.

In high-profile cases, or those whose details are especially sordid, divorce lawyers have always had an additional weapon: the tabloids. Settle, or I'll call "Page Six." This is what might be called the Felder gambit, after its acknowledged master. To those who call it extortion, Felder counters, "Isn't every lawsuit a form of legal extortion? The law is constructed that way. Pay me or go to court."

While most top lawyers insist they go to the press only when their clients want them to, they'll happily admit that others do spill secrets, as Bob Cohen puts it, "to bootstrap their careers." Still, many consider divorce lawyers the worst kind of glory hounds. "They call the tabloids and give them dirt on you and overstate to make themselves look good," says Judith Regan. A gossip columnist confirms, "They'll do anything to see their names in the papers."

We're in family court, where Felder is arguing that reporters should be allowed to watch his client, Natalia Khodaeva, a freelance model, press a paternity suit against politically connected insurance businessman Jack Rosen. Rosen, who is married with children, fought the suit for months until, the day before this hearing, an item about his alleged dalliance and the daughter that allegedly resulted ran in the Post. "People remember things that appear in the press," Rosen's studious young lawyer, Alton Abramowitz, tells the judge, arguing that more coverage could stigmatize the child. The two reporters present are soon asked to leave, but it's an empty gesture. Fifteen minutes later, Felder and Khodaeva emerge triumphant. Rosen, who isn't present, is no longer contesting paternity.

That doesn't mean he's stopped fighting. Felder's press ploy may have backfired. The bullet of embarrassment only has cash value when it's in the chamber. Rosen hasn't actually admitted the child is his -- and he clearly plans to fight Khodaeva all the way. "There'll be a support hearing," a source close to the case says, pausing meaningfully, ". . . in the next few years."

Rosen's side considers Khodaeva a mercenary. "She has nothing to be ashamed of," Felder counters. "They are bullying her. She's gone eight months without support. The city is paying medical bills for a multimillionaire's daughter! The message has to get out that you can't do that. She'll win; the only question is how much." Felder pauses for breath. "What does a girl like this do without a loudmouth like me?"

Actually, Khodaeva seems quite capable of taking care of herself. Outside the courthouse, she dons Versace sunglasses, poses for a Daily News photographer, then slides into Felder's black Lincoln Navigator. Riding uptown, he tells me her story. He says that she met Rosen, who'd just bought a cosmetics company, at a modeling audition on September 20, 1995, and soon started seeing him regularly; that they first had sex on July 30, 1997; and that their daughter was conceived in the Parker Meridien Hotel on October 29, 1997. Boggled by the detail, I ask, "How can you be sure?" Khodaeva's husky, accented reply is wrapped in a proud smile. "Because I have diary," she says.

"The people we want to represent appreciate resolution without destruction. We can divide assets with a scalpel. Judges do it with a cleaver."

In a divorce lawyer's office, such revelations are heard every day. "You're sitting at your desk, and in walks a famous artist, an actor, the chairman of a company, and in fifteen minutes, you know their every deep, dark secret and they're dependent on you," says second-generation society lawyer Peter Bronstein. "It gives you great insight into the human condition."

Those insights make divorce lawyers experts at sizing up both their clients and the messes they've gotten themselves into. "You see people at the worst time in their lives," says Bob Cohen. "They have no understanding of the process. The typical investment banker says, 'Get it done,' with no notion that someone on the other side doesn't want it done. Tell me who the other side is and I can suggest when it might get settled, what it might cost, the likelihood that it will be tried."

Though some lawyers are known for their work with one sex or the other -- Bob Cohen for men, William Beslow for women -- most say they try to keep a balance. Regardless, sex often adds an extra kick to the already volatile mix. Sexual behavior can still be an issue. "Women always want to sue for adultery," says Lotwin. "But adultery is very difficult to prove. So to placate them, you'll have two causes of action, one for cruelty -- adultery is cruelty -- the other for plain adultery."

Then there's the sexual behavior of divorce lawyers. Sleeping with clients is, of course, highly unethical -- which doesn't mean it doesn't happen. "I don't know if I want to fuck you or represent you," one said to a pretty potential client. "Maybe I can do both." Wisely, she chose a third option: neither.

"They're feeling unattractive, unloved, scared, and there's somebody sitting across from them who is going to save them," says Eleanor Alter, Bob Cohen's ferocious female counterpart. "There are men who clearly would like you to be available. But men also come to woman lawyers as someone to confide in. It's hard to talk to another man about your sex life, your insecurities. It's easier to talk to a woman. Maybe it's like Mommy!" Alter laughs, then adds, "I think the most important thing is to pick a good lawyer, not the one who tells you what you want to hear, and to tell your lawyer the truth."

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