One bright, cold morning in november, publisher and “page six” fixture Judith Regan stood on the monumental steps of New York State Supreme Court in downtown Manhattan, choking down a mouthful of bile. Seven years ago, Regan entered the world of divorce, Manhattan-style, when her husband, a money manager, served her with papers to dissolve their marriage. Finally, two weeks ago, she was granted a financial settlement (she won custody of her child in 1995), but she’s yet to see a cent; even though he lost, her ex can still appeal, which could tie her life in knots for many months more. The cost to date – not including time and emotional toll? More than $1 million.
It’s safe to say that Regan isn’t fond of her ex-husband; but she holds divorce lawyers largely responsible for the past seven years of torture. Divorce, she’s come to believe, is a racket, designed solely to benefit what might be called Divorce, Incorporated, a permanent establishment of lawyers and experts that profits from other people’s marital missteps. “Being the best divorce lawyer in New York is like being the best devil in Hell,” she sneers. “It means you’re avaricious, conniving, and vicious. It’s a game of monopoly played by an elite inside group. Lawyers?” She pumps her arm as if playing a slot machine. “Ka-ching. Evaluators? Ka-ching. Experts? Ka-ching. Psychologists? Ka-ching. Nobody ever explained it to me, so I’d ask questions all the time. You’d get billed just for asking. Ka-ching, ka-ching. Call back tomorrow. Ka-ching.”
Regan’s vitriol even splashes Joan Ellenbogen, the only one of seven lawyers who represented her whom Regan praises – if you want to call it praise. Ellenbogen, whose BMW bears the license plate drl 237 – for a section of the domestic-relations law that governs attorneys’ fees – “could spot a vein in your neck at 300 yards and suck the blood out of you in a second,” Regan says. “The real horror is that you need someone who gets off on that to win.”
Divorce, once a disgrace, has become a great diversion, a never-ending soap opera of boldfaced names, bald-faced lies, tawdry testimony, poor little rich kids, bulletproof prenups, and record-setting settlements – like the one expected any day in the divorce of Ronald O. Perelman and Patricia Duff. And as Duff, who’s gone through nearly three times as many divorce lawyers as has Regan, puts it, “Divorce law is not about justice or fairness or protecting anyone’s rights or what’s best for a child; it is big business.” The business has become even bigger recently, as a series of controversial judicial innovations that value not just property but such intangibles as celebrity and future earning potential have made divorce, as leading attorney Robert Stephan Cohen puts it, “exponentially more complicated on a week-by-week basis.”
For lawyers, complications add up to accounts receivable, amplifying the already considerable bitterness involved in the process. “The first thing they get is a net-worth statement,” says plastic surgeon Ronald Linder, another disgusted divorcé. “Then they make sure they get your total net worth.”
Sitting in his office high above Madison Avenue, surrounded by art, tchotchkes, and other signs of his prodigious wealth and (not always good) taste, Raoul Lionel Felder, the best-known, if not the best, divorce lawyer in Manhattan, wriggles his toes in one of his hundreds of pairs of monogrammed slippers (he also collects Nazi memorabilia, fountain pens, and defused hand grenades) and says that divorce and associated actions over support, temporary custody, visitation, relocation of children, exclusive occupancy of residences, stopping a spouse from spending marital assets, protective orders, paternity, palimony, and contempt generate about $200 million a year for local law firms.
“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.”
There are big profits in pain. A 1992 study pegged the price of a relatively simple middle-class divorce at $50,000. The biggest fees – $1 million and up – are earned at trials (there were 138 of those in New York County in 1998) and from contested divorces that end before or at trial (1,003 last year). But legal fees aren’t all that’s at stake in Splitsville. Divorce is a cottage industry, employing legions of guardians, social workers, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, evaluators, appraisers, actuaries, accountants, and private eyes, to the tune, Felder guesstimates, of $50 million more a year. That doesn’t include all the judges, court reporters, law secretaries, or public-relations counselors – or, just for the record, those recently revealed payoffs by high-volume divorce mills to courthouse clerks.
Regan is right when she charges that there’s a matrimonial mafia. The best lawyers constantly socialize, come up against each other in cases, cut deals, warn their fellows about clients who don’t pay their fees, represent each other in their own divorces, and rarely criticize each other – on the record, at least. “Smarter clients don’t have a problem with our ability to get on with each other,” says Donald Frank, who’s built up many alliances in his 30 years at the divorce bar.
Professional jealousy and pathological competitiveness lurk just beneath the surface, though. Felder sued Norman Sheresky for libel after the latter opined in an interview that the former didn’t know how to try a case; a judge found that to be constitutionally protected opinion. And a few months ago, Harriet Newman Cohen, a vocal feminist who is disdained by many of her colleagues at the bar, incurred the wrath of William Beslow after she replaced him as Patricia Duff’s attorney when she dissed Beslow in front of a judge as having a limited involvement in the case. (Beslow, by several accounts, was actually on the verge of achieving a settlement favorable to Duff.)
You don’t need to press too hard to get divorce lawyers to admit they love their backstage access to the rich and famous. “It was a big kick for me to go up to the top of the world,” Stanford Lotwin says, remembering the day Donald Trump hired him. “Matrimonial practice is stressful, but it’s never boring. Socially, it opens tremendous doors. You become so close to your clients that they invite you to their homes, on their boats. I have flown with Donald on his 727.”
“I live like my clients,” George Raft- style tough guy Bob Cohen says flatly, offering a peek at his pride – and his Sulka cuff links.
You have to press a little harder to get anyone in this self-made bunch to admit to ambivalence about what they do for a living. “There’s nothing to be proud of here,” says Felder, stroking his beard in a gesture perfected in countless client interviews. “Some of it is healing, helping. But a certain part of it is parasitic. Sadly, there will always be a place for me.”
It’s morning in Justice Marylin G. Diamond’s court. Rows of benches in the back of the room fill with lawyers and litigants. It’s easy to spot the splitting couples as they bounce away from each other like magnetic Scottie dogs, their attorneys shuttling between them like jittery iron filings.
One prosperous pair catches my eye as they studiously avoid each other’s. J. is fiftyish, swarthy, with a full head of gray hair. He wears designer sunglasses, a blue polo shirt, khakis, and brown suede shoes, and keeps sneaking peeks at his wife, L., a drawn but attractive blonde who wears her khakis with a beige tweed jacket and two-tone ballet slippers. They’ve been in court about an hour when they’re called into Diamond’s robing room; when they emerge fifteen minutes later, she is smiling and he is glumly reading a letter, muttering “Bullshit!” under his breath.
Forty minutes pass as lawyers shuttle between J., in the courtroom, and L., in the hall. Finally, all huddle as the lawyers argue and the clients affect to ignore each other. When L. heads out into the hallway again, I approach her, and, after assuring her I won’t use her name (“I’m not Patricia Duff,” she pleads), ask what’s going on. As she begins to explain – they’re arguing about money, of course – her husband bears down on us. “This is what he does, he follows me,” she says. Then her voice drops to a pleading whisper: “Act like you’re in love with me?”
Thirty years ago, in the divorce dark ages, the only ground for divorce in New York was adultery, and marital property belonged to whichever spouse had his name on the title. Stress his. The most a wife could expect was lifetime alimony, unless her husband’s lawyer’s private detective photographed her in flagrante, in which case she was lucky if she ended up with much else besides the kids.
Divorce began changing in the late sixties as innovations like no-fault splits and equitable-distribution laws made it no longer a matter of who did what but of who got what. The old and new styles of divorce-lawyering began to blend when California’s Marvin Mitchelson, whose invention of palimony made him a celebrity, stumbled in a sex, drug, and tax-evasion scandal, and New York’s Raoul Felder took his place, both literally – he picked off client Robin Givens, who was divorcing Mike Tyson – and in the larger sense, becoming the world’s most famous divorce lawyer.
Felder often jokes that the romance went out of divorce when New York belatedly caught up with the rest of the country and instituted its Equitable Distribution Act, which replaced permanent alimony for wives with temporary maintenance for the lower-earning spouse and a gender-neutral distribution of marital assets. Equitable distribution, though better than what it replaced, was far from perfect. For one thing, it left the most crucial matters in contested divorces – custody and money – up to the discretion of judges.
Nowadays, lawyers have to play constant catch-up as new, intangible assets are added to the marital-property pot. In 1985, in O’Brien v. O’Brien – a case in which a teacher stood by her man through medical school, only to be dumped after he’d gotten his license and left her for another woman – New York’s Court of Appeals established that professional licenses could be marital property. “Nobody felt sorry for Dr. O’Brien,” says David Aronson of the top divorce-law boutique Sheresky, Aronson and Mayefsky, “but the court didn’t say, ‘This only applies to pricks.’ “
In 1987, academic degrees were granted the same status. Then, in 1988, a judge ruled that actress Marisa Berenson’s “celebrity status” was a marital asset. Ironically, although Berenson’s ex-husband, pit-bull trial lawyer Richard Golub, established that principle, he was denied a share of her assets because he submitted no appraisal of their worth, while Berenson got 10 percent of the increase in value of his legal practice during their marriage.
With all those new laws, marital litigation was bound to get more creative. Men began demanding support, assets, and celebrity value from spouses like TV star Joan Lunden, designer Mary McFadden, and model Ashley Richardson. “The law is gender-neutral, but when a guy is seeking alimony, his lawyer still has to prove he’s not a slug,” smirks a female attorney. Still, in 1991, opera singer Frederica von Stade was forced to fork over a share of her earnings to her husband of seventeen years. And in 1993, financier-felon Ivan Boesky sought $1 million annually from his wife, Seema, and won $180,000 in temporary support.
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.”
That is, if you know it yourself. One day this fall, an associate of Dominic Barbara, the flamboyant Long Island lawyer best known for representing Mary Jo Buttafuoco, came to court to commence a curious divorce. Two months earlier, their client, a baby-faced investment banker with a wispy beard and a seven-figure income, had dumped his girlfriend of seven years and run off to Vegas to marry a petite, busty Dominican girl – a day after she gave him a lap dance at Scores. It was an expensive gyration – she’d maxed out his credit cards, hocked a ring he’d given her, cracked up his Porsche, and changed the locks on his East Sixties condo after moving her boyfriend in. But that’s not the truly odd part: After two hours in court, she’d seduced him all over again with a symphony of sighs, pouts, and sullen stares, gotten $7,500 and a sports-utility vehicle out of him – and then left 60 Centre Street leading him by the hand.
“Was that funny or what?” Barbara blurts out.
Funny is rare in divorce court, rarest of all in those cases that seem to go on forever. Often, delays are the fault of a spouse who is vengeful (“Fuck the bitch”), emotional (“Screw the bastard”), stubborn, or trying to grind an ex down. Other times, says Felder, “They understand they’re going to lose, but they want to make a point.” Then there are the “people who just can’t let go,” says Lotwin. Adds Ronald Perelman’s petite, chic attorney, Adria Hillman, “Sometimes, they have no other life.” These are the cases where husband and wife end up locked in a death grip. “Two scorpions in a bottle,” divorce lawyers call them.
That seems to be what’s going on this October morning as Justice Jacqueline Silbermann presides over a hearing in the case of actor John Heard and his ex-girlfriend and fellow thespian Melissa Leo, who’ve been battling over their 12-year-old son for ten years. In the process, Heard lost a bid to gain sole custody after he was arrested, when he returned his son late after a weekend visit and then slapped Leo in front of two policemen. He became a father’s-rights advocate, was sentenced to probation and counseling after he made 100 calls to Leo’s home over two months, was forced to pay most of Leo’s $340,000 legal bill, and ran through twelve lawyers of his own.
In this latest skirmish, over an alleged violation of an order that keeps Heard off the property of the child’s school, it’s clear that Silbermann is inclined to refuse Leo’s badly drafted request; representing herself, she’s asking for a contempt ruling against Heard because he’d arrived early to pick the child up for a visit and stepped onto school property to watch him play soccer.
But, ignoring his latest lawyer, Heard refuses Silbermann’s gentle request that he swear out an affidavit explaining how innocent his actions were. “You’re opening the door for her to write down any allegation and force me to respond!” he yells. “There’ll be no end!”
Faced with Heard’s obstinacy, Silbermann advises Leo how to perfect her faulty motion, then reads them both the riot act. “There’s a little boy here,” she scolds. “His name is Jack. Let’s litigate less and parent more.” In response, Heard keeps shouting. “We’re 125 miles away from this child now! Ten years! A million dollars!”
Out in the hall half an hour later, Heard is still screaming.
A onetime corporate lawyer, Silbermann became New York’s Administrative Judge for Matrimonial Matters in 1997. Sitting in her robing room, she explains how divorce cases are managed. New York used to consider it a priority to keep people married; now the state’s court administration wants cases to end quickly. Forty-five days after a divorce action is filed, a judge is assigned to the matter. Forty-five days after that, “I’m taking charge,” Silbermann says.
Small cases generally settle early in the process. In big cases, the judge sets a financial-discovery time line and brings in asset evaluators and a guardian to represent the interests of minor children, paying them out of marital assets “as the judge deems appropriate,” Silbermann says. “The good people make a fortune!” She acknowledges the complaints of both lawyers and litigants about court-appointed neutrals, particularly since enhanced earning capacity became a factor in big-money divorces. “It’s a big stinky issue with the judges as well,” she allows. Silbermann, who wrote the Golub v. Golub decision, thinks the distribution of intangible assets has gone too far. “Even if Dr. O’Brien had never become a surgeon,” she points out, “you can’t come back on equitable distribution. There has to be finality.”
(Of course, finality is relative. Lately, some moneyed spouses have taken to declaring bankruptcy in order to stay divorce proceedings and wipe out equitable-distribution agreements – although that doesn’t work with maintenance or child support.)
“If you’re power-hungry,” Silbermann says about her job, “there’s no better part to be in. Enormous power is vested in a matrimonial judge – and that’s only the money. What about the children? Parents get dysfunctional. And the more they spend on litigation, the less there is for little Joseph. Do you want to take from him and give to your lawyers? I have several cases where neither parent is fit to take the kid.” She smiles wryly. “So I’m taking them. Do you really want me to raise your child?”
“There’s no other area of the law – none – where there is as much discretion,” says Eleanor Alter, twirling a bracelet that looks like worry beads in her aerie high above Sixth Avenue. “Even in criminal stuff, you have sentencing guidelines. Here, unless the people settle, the judge gets to decide who gets the kids, how often the other one gets to see the kids, asset division, child support, maintenance, how long a time the moneyed spouse has to pay out, whether the prenuptial agreement is going to be enforced or not! The lawyers are crazed because we don’t know anything. Everything is a crap shoot.”
But it’s so much easier, safer – and more effective – to complain about lawyers than about judges. In 1992, Mark Green, then head of New York’s Department of Consumer Affairs, released a scathing report that accused divorce lawyers of a litany of abuses and led to the institution of new rules to protect clients from them (including a ban on sex with clients and on billing clients for discussing fees). But despite Green’s urging, judges retained their right to exclude divorcing couples from settlement conferences, though they didn’t get additional power to enforce their rulings. So, though no one with any sense says so out loud, behind their hands, lawyers whisper that New York’s real problem may be with the bench and the profoundly imperfect laws it is charged with enforcing.
They whisper because complaining out loud has proved disastrous. In summer 1995, lawyers from the local chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, including Norman Sheresky, Eleanor Alter, and Bob Cohen, complained that Phyllis Gangel-Jacobs, an opinionated divorce lawyer turned judge, was biased against husbands. “She made no bones about having an agenda; she wanted to protect women,” one lawyer says. Adds another, “If you represented a husband, you knew you were deep in a ditch and you would try desperately to settle.” Thirty-nine other lawyers promptly signed a letter supporting her, and the revolt resulted in a slap at the uppity lawyers: Three judges – including two the lawyers liked – were replaced.
High-end divorce regularly involves controlling people who’ve lost control of their lives to judges and mightily resent it. Divorce lawyers savor a remark attributed to a judge who worked on one of Ronald Perelman’s three divorce actions. “This man is worth $6 billion,” he supposedly said, “but if he wants to piss, he needs my permission.”
That’s why a good lawyer will always press for settlement – even if it means contradicting clients or playing a waiting game until they’re ready to listen. “All day long I tell guys, write her a check,” says Norman Sheresky, in his signature bemused whisper. “They say, ‘I’d rather pay you.’ Hundreds of thousands of dollars later, they say, ‘Give me the pen.’ ” Bob Cohen goes so far as to claim that he makes more money settling. “There’s somebody else right behind you,” he says. “And if I do it relatively quickly, I can get a success fee in excess of billable hours.” Adds David Aronson, “The people we want to represent appreciate resolution without destruction.” Not only that: “We can divide assets with a scalpel. Judges do it with a cleaver.”
“I have a case now where the father of a child is so angry at the mother for not marrying him that he has spent nineteen days on trial over whether the child support should be $1,900 a month or $1,000 a month,” says Beslow, a weight-lifting Yalie with a self-confidence bordering on arrogance. “He has now incurred in counsel fees more than the difference he would have paid for the rest of his daughter’s minority.” Beslow grimaces at the thought of all the money he’s made. “It’s a very expensive way to act out one’s anger.”
“My friends joke, ‘Is business good?’ says Robert Cohen. “We do a dirty business, but we change people’s lives for the better.”
Reluctantly, lawyers will admit that they can be obstructive, too. Some hide their deficiencies by being ornery. Others overlitigate and churn motions to generate fees. Whether they need the money to pay their overhead or are simply greedy, says Beslow, “there’s a built-in incentive to keep litigation going by either purposely misadvising clients or telling them what they want to hear, which solidifies the relationship but ensures conflict.”
But usually, they blame their clients. Promised anonymity, several of Patricia Duff’s former lawyers say she’s walked away from acceptable settlement offers. Duff angrily insists that’s not the case. “It’s insane for anyone to think I don’t want to settle. I’d walk away in a minute if I could be free from the anxiety of constant litigation hanging over my head and from the fear of wrenching interference in my mothering of daughter Caleigh. But there’s an inherent conflict for the lawyers: What’s best for the client is not necessarily best for them.”
Duff has been around the block with twenty lawyers (“representing the cream, the milk, and the skim milk of the matrimonial bar,” as Justice Franklin Weissberg put it in court one day) in three years of grinding litigation and has been branded – divorce insiders call her type “disgruntled ex-spouses” – as a result. “How can you represent someone who doesn’t trust you?” one lawyer says. “She’d listen, go home, and change her mind. Who is to blame but the lawyers? It’s too bad, because there’s no way Perelman can win custody, but she can lose it.”
That attitude infuriates Duff. “You’re the problem,” she says, “even if they’re slipshod” or “intimidated,” or they “sit on your case,” or “don’t answer your calls,” or “don’t explain things,” or “default,” or “just quit,” she says. “All that has happened to me. There is zero accountability.”
Patricia Duff’s attempt to establish household parity with Ronald Perelman is being watched carefully by divorce buffs. Duff, a multimillionaire herself, is testing the limits of a law that takes a curious view of Manhattan reality. It considers a high-income couple to be one that earns more than $80,000 annually. And it says children should not suffer from divorce – should not, in other words, be faced with a choice between Christmas at a mother’s mean little ski house at Mt. Snow and a father’s sumptuous chalet in Vail.
Duff’s demands for such things as a $19,500 antique desk for her daughter – which she admits were drawn up hastily and not carefully reviewed – are quite controversial. Feminist divorce lawyer Harriet Newman Cohen, an unabashed supporter of all the various legal mechanisms – from equitable distribution to enhanced earnings – invented to protect women in divorce, thinks Duff should get all she’s after, including “very, very substantial child support,” “the nannies that she needs, her traveling, her clothing,” and “a townhouse” – “and she certainly ought to have a chauffeur-driven car as well. I think that she’s entitled to it.”
Others have their doubts. Some divorce professionals consider Duff’s demands an attempt to win disguised maintenance. Others just think she’s gone too far. “When is enough enough?” asks Lotwin. For now, the law doesn’t say.
The system is simply not set up to deal with someone with the will and the funds to prolong a divorce. “Rich people have the capacity to manipulate it in ways others do not,” says Beslow. And according to Duff, that’s her husband. “I wanted a very simple, elegant agreement, and he kept adding things and adding things, pages of detail that made me uncomfortable,” she says. “It’s typical corporate litigation: Bury your opponent in paper and problems and issues. And I can’t stop it. When you have somebody who wants to settle scores and has the resources to do so, this system invites, encourages, and rewards it.”
The world knows about how rich Ron Perelman is, since Revlon is a public company; but the most complex issue in most divorces is to figure out just how many marital assets there are to divide. Divorce lawyers say they never help clients hide money but add that others do; trusts-and-estates lawyers protect assets for a living. “You worry about offshore accounts, and you look for paper trails,” says Lotwin. “You look at how they lived and what they spent, not the tax return.” Often, when the moneyed spouse has hidden assets, the other party either knows about or has benefited from them. It’s another compelling incentive to settle when both spouses are parties to tax fraud. Says Bronstein, “Most would rather see their wife and children get their money than the government.”
Bronstein once saw a couple he’d helped divorce walking hand-in-hand down 57th Street three years later. The husband, he surmised, had protected his assets – whether from the government or from creditors, Bronstein wasn’t certain – by bestowing them on his wife in a sham divorce. It was a rare happy ending in the annals of Splitsville.
The ending of a divorce, however, is often the beginning of another mess, one in which divorce lawyers have a personal stake. “We get stiffed an enormous amount,” says Eleanor Alter, “even when we win. For every client who says they were worked by a lawyer, lawyers have ten clients who haven’t paid. We’re a one-shot deal. They don’t need you again.”
“They’ll say ‘I used so-and-so,’ ” says Felder. “It’s not a casual use of the word.”
At a recent birthday party for a wealthy East Sider, Bob Cohen looked around the room and observed that he’d played a role in the lives of half the guests. When he got to his table, he discovered that the woman who’d been seated next to him had broken into tears when she’d seen that her dinner partner was to be the man who represented her husband in their divorce. Another woman volunteered for the hot seat; he’d represented her husband, too, but the wounds were not so fresh. “At a table for ten,” Cohen boasted, with just a touch of rue in his voice, “I’d done five divorces.”
Divorce lawyers are jackals, outsiders. They know too much about us, and little of it is pleasant. They help us in our times of greatest need, but they also prey on our misfortunes. And they know this. “My friends joke, ‘Is business good?” Cohen says. “We do a dirty business, but we change people’s lives for the better.”
“We’re a collection of caring, bright do-gooders who want everyone to love us,” says Norman Sheresky. “But we’re also voyeurs and mischievous thieves who take advantage of the unsuspecting and make money because our clients are angry, hurt, and greedy.”
Felder, as always, is blunter. “On one level, it’s sleazy,” he says, twisting his face sourly at the very thought of the work that’s made him rich and famous. “On another, I’m not robbing supermarkets.”