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Trouble In Splitsville

As matrimonial law grows ever more complex, getting out of a marriage requires a very good lawyer. Someone who can keep you out of the tabloid glare -- or put your spouse in it. And someone who can understand your suffering. New York's top divorce lawyers feel your pain. And they're crying all the way to the bank.

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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.)


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