Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - BY CLAIRE SUD­DATH PHO­TO­GRAPH BY DANIEL SCOTT

On a flight from Ire­land to New York in June 2004, Brit­ney Spears pro­posed to Kevin Fed­er­line, a backup dancer she’d been dat­ing for about three months. “We were a cou­ple hours into the flight and we’d been talk­ing the whole time, stuff about life, want­ing to have kids,” Spears told Peo­ple mag­a­zine shortly after­ward. “All of a sud­den, I said, ‘What if you want to get mar­ried?’ ” She was 22 at the time, had sold 27 mil­lion al­bums, and had about $30 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to Rolling Stone. She had also been mar­ried be­fore. Six months ear­lier, Spears had spent 55 hours wed to a child­hood friend af­ter mak­ing a 5:30 a.m. visit to a drive-thru chapel in Las Ve­gas. When Spears’s man­age­ment team heard about her en­gage­ment to Fed­er­line, they set her up with a wed­ding plan­ner, a jew­eler—and Laura Wasser.

Wasser, 47, is a part­ner at the Los An­ge­les fam­ily law firm Wasser, Coop­er­man & Man­dles, which was started by her father, Den­nis Wasser, in 1976, and spe­cial­izes in help­ing mul­ti­mil­lion­aires, ath­letes, and celebri­ties get mar­ried or di­vorced. Laura has a big smile and thick brown hair that falls half­way down her back. She’s pe­tite but strong and looks like some­one who might have been an aer­o­bics in­struc­tor—which she was for a while, at a Crunch gym, dur­ing col­lege.

Wasser’s client list in­cludes An­gelina Jolie (when she filed to di­vorce Billy Bob Thorn­ton), Denise Richards (Char­lie Sheen), Nick Lachey (Jes­sica Simp­son), Ste­vie Won­der (twice, ac­tu­ally), Maria Shriver (Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger), and at least three Kar­dashi­ans. She charges $850 an hour, re­quires a $25,000 re­tainer, and rarely rep­re­sents peo­ple who have less than $10 mil­lion. She’s one of the top lawyers in what, when you in­clude cus­tody bat­tles and pa­ter­nity test­ing, has turned fam­ily law into what re­search firm IBISWORLD calls an $11 bil­lion busi­ness and one of the most lu­cra­tive ar­eas of law.

“There’s a mythol­ogy of Laura Wasser in Hol­ly­wood,” says Brian Grazer, the co-founder of Imag­ine En­ter­tain­ment, who hired her for his 2006 di­vorce from Gigi Le­vangie Grazer, and who still calls her from time to time for ad­vice. “She has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing tough.” The celebrity tabloid web­site TMZ, which some­times fol­lows her around to see which clients she’s meet­ing with, has nick­named her the Disso Queen.

Spears’s team wanted to in­tro­duce Brit­ney to the com­forts of the prenup­tial con­tract. Wasser says she gets phone calls like that all the time: “A lot of times what will hap­pen, par­tic­u­larly with young women, is they don’t want a prenup. They’re in love. This is fan­tasy time—‘we’re never go­ing to get di­vorced, and I don’t want any­body, cer­tainly not some old guy in a suit, telling me how it’s go­ing to work out.’ So they bring me in. We have the con­ver­sa­tion.”

Wasser talked with Spears on the phone and laid out for her the fi­nan­cial con­se­quences of mar­riage: Cal­i­for­nia, un­like most states, treats any­thing ac­quired dur­ing a mar­riage as com­mu­nity prop­erty, which means that ev­ery­thing a cou­ple has earned will be di­vided evenly if they split. “In New York it’s dif­fer­ent, it’s an eq­ui­table dis­tri­bu­tion. Here you can sit on the couch and eat bon­bons while your hus­band’s at work, and you’ll still get half of ev­ery­thing,” Wasser says. And if you’re an ac­tor or mu­si­cian who earns roy­al­ties, those fu­ture pay­ments are half of some­one else’s, too. “I mean, love, honor, and obey—ok, fine, what­ever,” Wasser says. “But the point is the minute you get mar­ried in the state of Cal­i­for­nia, ev­ery dol­lar you earn, ev­ery page of that novel you write, ev­ery paint­ing you paint is com­mu­nal prop­erty. It’s half-owned by your spouse.” That is, un­less you have a prenup­tial agree­ment that says oth­er­wise.

Spears hired Wasser to ne­go­ti­ate her prenup, then mar­ried Fed­er­line in Septem­ber 2004. Two years later, when she filed for di­vorce, she hired Wasser again. Wasser rep­re­sented her

for a year but left the case in Septem­ber 2007, dur­ing the cou­ple’s ac­ri­mo­nious cus­tody bat­tle for their sons and a very pub­lic break­down by Spears. Wasser won’t say what led to her de­par­ture; she still rep­re­sents Spears’s father, Jamie, who re­mains the pop star’s le­gal conservato­r. “It was an ugly splitup,” is all she’ll say. “We got out of that case.”

Since Spears’s di­vorce, the speed with which scan­dals spread has only in­creased, mak­ing Wasser, who’s as ex­pert at nav­i­gat­ing pa­parazzi as she is prac­tic­ing law, Hol­ly­wood’s com­plete di­vorce so­lu­tion. Di­vorce is just as heart­break­ing for those with their own Walk of Fame star as it is for those with­out one. But when you’re fa­mous, the demise of your re­la­tion­ship can also af­fect your rep­u­ta­tion—and ca­reer.

For decades, the of­fices of Wasser, Coop­er­man & Man­dles were on the 12th floor of the Cen­tury Plaza Tow­ers, a pair of mono­lithic high­rises in Los An­ge­les. At­tor­neys worked in the same bland beige suite that Den­nis Wasser moved into when he founded the firm. Last month, Laura per­suaded her father to move to a larger, brighter space else­where in the tow­ers. “She wanted to move us to West Hol­ly­wood and re­ally hip it up,” Den­nis says. “We com­pro­mised.” Laura has also re­dec­o­rated: Her of­fice is clean and mod­ern, with a fur rug and a gold hand grenade for a coffee-ta­ble cen­ter­piece. When clients visit, they sit in one of two bright green leather chairs that face her glasstop desk. A box of tis­sues sits nearby, while be­hind hangs a framed can­vas printed with the omi­nous words, “The End.”

The Wasser firm has al­ways drawn clients from the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try. “I started my ca­reer rep­re­sent­ing en­ter­tain­ment lawyers in their di­vorces, who then re­ferred their clients,” Den­nis says. At 73, he still works there, han­dling a small num­ber of high-pro­file cases for $950 an hour. In 1981 he rep­re­sented Bil­lie Jean King in her so-called pal­imony case, in which a for­mer girl­friend claimed she was en­ti­tled to al­imony even though King was still mar­ried at the time to her hus­band. The law­suit forced King to come out as a les­bian. “That put us on the front page of ev­ery news­pa­per in the world,” Den­nis says. He won.

Laura joined the firm in 1995. She was 26, just out of Loyola Law School and in the process of get­ting her own di­vorce af­ter one year of mar­riage to “a guy from Spain,” as she now puts it (they didn’t have chil­dren). She’d been work­ing at a dis­abil­ity-rights law firm—“fight­ing for handrails in pub­lic bath­rooms, that sort of thing”—when, newly sin­gle, she de­cided to pur­sue a le­gal ca­reer that paid bet­ter. She was men­tored by her father’s late part­ner, David Rosen­son. “He was much tougher on Laura than the rest of us,” says Me­lanie Man­dles, an­other part­ner. “He would feel the hood of her car to see when she got to work.”

For a while, Wasser worked on low-pro­file cases. Then in 2001 she teamed up with John­nie Cochran to rep­re­sent Ste­vie Won­der in a $30 mil­lion pal­imony suit filed by a for­mer live-in girl­friend. (The case was de­cided through me­di­a­tion.) “I don’t think Ste­vie Won­der would make a move with­out talk­ing to Laura,” says Den­nis. From there, the door to Hol­ly­wood swung open.

Wasser turned out to be adept at cul­ti­vat­ing celebrity clients, a tal­ent she at­tributes to her abil­ity to speak their lan­guage. She’s funny, stylish, and able to talk about restau­rants and movies as eas­ily as she does court cases. “I also text a lot, which is good for a lot of my younger clients, es­pe­cially the ath­letes,” she says. “Ath­letes are big tex­ters, for some rea­son.”

“It helps that she looks fab­u­lous, which un­for­tu­nately is re­quired of women in Hol­ly­wood,” says Rob Shuter, a for­mer pub­li­cist for Jen­nifer Lopez who’s now a VH1 host. Ap­pear­ances and emo­jis aside, Wasser’s great­est skill as a lawyer is ne­go­ti­at­ing. “You can call Laura and say, ‘I’m so an­gry, blah blah blah blah,’ but Laura does not op­er­ate in that space,” Grazer says. “She will be calm and log­i­cal, and she’ll tell you to think about what you’re say­ing.”

She’s also un­flinch­ingly blunt. One of Wasser’s wealth­i­est clients likes to com­plain that when she has cus­tody of her two kids on the week­end, it’s too much work. “I’m like, ‘ That sounds like ev­ery week­end to me,’ ” Wasser says. “‘Also, you have no job.’ ” She once talked

IS an­other client out of ini­ti­at­ing a cus­tody bat­tle be­cause her ex-hus­band

GO­ING fed a ham­burger to their ve­gan child. “Ve­gans, man”—wasser rolls her eyes. “I’m sorry, but no

TO judge is go­ing to take away cus­tody be­cause you gave the kid IN-N- Out.” This frank­ness makes her well suited for big-name clients with an in­cen­tive to hash out a deal and avoid a pub­lic spec­ta­cle. “You go with Den­nis if you want to go to trial,” says Stacy Phillips, a fam­ily law at­tor­ney who works in the same of­fice build­ing as the Wassers. “You go with Laura to get a deal done.”

Not ev­ery­one wants a deal, of course. Or at least not one that costs $850 an hour. Alec Bald­win briefly hired Den­nis dur­ing his 2002 di­vorce from Kim Basinger, but fired him af­ter a few months. “The Wassers thought I was some­one like Tom Cruise, where I was so suc­cess­ful and so wealthy that their le­gal fees didn’t mat­ter,” Bald­win says. “Well, I’m not Tom Cruise. I don’t have his money.”

Won­der may have been Wasser’s first big celebrity client. But it was Spears’s case that taught her how high-pro­file a breakup could re­ally be. “I think there was a change hap­pen­ing at that time,” Wasser says. Gos­sip mag­a­zines were giv­ing way to 24/7, pa­parazzi-fu­eled news sites. “There wasn’t so­cial me­dia the way there is now, but there was TMZ, Radar, Perez Hil­ton. It was so pub­li­cized. The coun­sel for Kevin Fed­er­line was very in­tent on mak­ing sure the case got played out to the press. Much more in­tent than Mr. Fed­er­line was, re­ally.”

In Cal­i­for­nia any­one can read—and pho­to­copy—a cou­ple’s di­vorce records and ac­com­pa­ny­ing fi­nan­cial in­for­ma­tion. “You have to phys­i­cally go there and can’t leave the court­house with it, but you can look up pretty much any­thing,” Wasser says. She and sev­eral other di­vorce at­tor­neys out­side her firm claim that the county clerk’s of­fice at Los An­ge­les Su­pe­rior Court tips off tabloids when a fa­mous name shows up on a fil­ing. (Mary Hearn, a spokes­woman for the court, says it has “no such knowl­edge” of em­ploy­ees work­ing as in­for­mants for TMZ.) “We’ve tried sev­eral times to in­flu­ence the courts to seal fil­ings, keep things


con­fi­den­tial, but we’ve not been suc­cess­ful,” Den­nis says.

The best time to file a di­vorce pe­ti­tion used to be Fri­day af­ter­noon, she says, be­cause news out­lets weren’t pay­ing close at­ten­tion. Now her only re­prieve comes right be­fore a hol­i­day week­end. She files in branch of­fices when she can (“Santa Bar­bara is great”), be­cause, she says, their clerks leak fewer doc­u­ments. She urges clients to tell their spouse that they’re fil­ing for di­vorce so they don’t find out about it from the news. “The turn­around is so fast,” Wasser says. “I have to tell my clients, ‘OK, the courier is fil­ing it to­day. OK, he’s in line to file. OK, it’s filed. It will be on TMZ within an hour.’ ”

When Wasser has sev­eral clients she knows will wind up on the cover of Us Weekly no mat­ter what she does, she sub­mits their cases to­gether, so me­dia at­ten­tion will be di­luted. “I’ll tell my clients, ‘I have some­one else, I can’t say who, but you should re­ally wait and file at the same time,’ ” she says. “Why all the celebrity di­vorces lately?” USA To­day asked in Au­gust, point­ing to the tim­ing of Gwen Stefani’s breakup with Gavin Ross­dale and Jen­nifer Garner’s split from Ben Af­fleck. Stefani and Garner are both Wasser’s clients.

Wasser is so tight-lipped about her clients that some­times the other part­ners at her firm have no idea whom she’s work­ing for un­til their di­vorces show up in the news. Tabloid head­lines “are how I find out about some of Laura’s di­vorces,” says her father, sit­ting op­po­site his daugh­ter in her of­fice. Laura smiles. “Then some­times you say, ‘Who is that?’ ” “Es­pe­cially the peo­ple in the rock bands,” he says. “I don’t know those peo­ple.”

Wasser urges many clients to ne­go­ti­ate an agree­ment be­fore fil­ing of­fi­cial doc­u­ments. “I think we worked on it a good year— no, a year and a half—be­fore it came out on TMZ,” says Me­lanie Grif­fith, who hired Wasser when she di­vorced An­to­nio Ban­deras in 2014. “And when we did file it, there were some per­sonal things that were agreed upon by An­to­nio and my­self that we had re­moved from the of­fi­cial pa­pers so they wouldn’t get out.”

A lot of Wasser’s clients hire a pri­vate judge to de­cide their case out­side the pub­lic court sys­tem. The cou­ple and their at­tor­neys meet some­where—wasser prefers to host at her of­fice—and have their case ad­ju­di­cated as it would be in a court­room. The prac­tice is sim­i­lar to ar­bi­tra­tion, al­though the de­ci­sions ul­ti­mately be­come pub­lic and can be ap­pealed. The main ben­e­fit is that no one knows about the de­tails of the split ex­cept the two peo­ple go­ing through it. “In a nor­mal di­vorce case, the press and the pub­lic can sit in on ju­di­cial pro­ceed­ings,” says Melissa Mur­ray, a fam­ily law pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley. “With pri­vate judges, since it’s not re­vealed when and where it’s go­ing to hap­pen, they never do.” A good judge can cost as much as $1,000 an hour, al­though that’s of­ten less than the le­gal fees ac­crued in a drawn-out trial.

This rent- a- judge sys­tem has had a rip­ple ef­fect on Cal­i­for­nia’s courts. Be­cause fam­ily law judges can now make more money in pri­vate prac­tice, they tend to re­tire from the pub­lic court sys­tem ear­lier, leav­ing newer, less ex­pe­ri­enced judges to fill their robes. Cou­ples with­out the means to hire their own judge are left with lower-qual­ity ones. “You used to be able to get to know a judge and guess which way he or she was likely to rule on your case,” says Bruce Coop­er­man, an­other part­ner at the Wasser firm. “Now judges ro­tate through the sys­tem more quickly. We find our­selves try­ing cases in front of judges who don’t know fam­ily law as well, which means we some­times have no idea how a case is go­ing to go.”

The high sea­son for di­vorce at­tor­neys is Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary, when the hol­i­days are over and peo­ple can fi­nally stop pre­tend­ing to be happy.

“What does her im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney say?” Wasser says into her cell phone. It’s a Mon­day in Jan­uary, and she’s ar­gu­ing with an at­tor­ney about a fash­ion model’s prenup. “I don’t un­der­stand. … Is she try­ing to be­come a ci­ti­zen? My only con­cern is, why waste the money? Why throw it away? … OK, OK. … I’m happy to in­dulge it, but I want to talk to the im­mi­gra­tion judge.”

Wasser is work­ing on about 45 cases now, many of them di­vorces. Sev­eral will be filed in March, af­ter the Os­cars; her clients don’t want to walk the red car­pet alone. She’s half­way through a tuna salad when Sa­man­tha Klein, one of the younger part­ners at the firm, opens the door to ask Wasser to look over an e-mail be­fore she sends it to a client. Then Wasser gets a call from her child’s school. One of her two sons has a re­port due to­day, but he’s for­got­ten his ipad at home. She calls his father to see if he can help out. In the af­ter­noon, Den­nis Wasser drops by to talk about a for­mer NBA player who just came in for a pre­lim­i­nary con­sul­ta­tion and the Euro­pean royal who needs help with an eighth di­vorce. “Eight?” Laura says. “Why do you get mar­ried eight times?” “It’s se­rial monogamy,” her father says. “It’s a fairy tale. And it’s as­tound­ing how of­ten the new wife looks a lot like the old wife did when they first got mar­ried.” “Peo­ple go back for the same thing.” Laura nods. “Just a newer model.” Later, alone in her of­fice, she says, “I don’t want you to think I’m anti-love, be­cause I’m not.” She still be­lieves that most cou­ples, if they ap­proach their prob­lems hon­estly and with re­spect, will prob­a­bly get through them. “I know plenty of peo­ple with won­der­ful, life­long mar­riages,” she says. That’s why she at­tends past clients’ wed­dings. She of­ten ad­vises friends con­sid­er­ing di­vorce to work things out. But at the same time—well, just the other day, she says, she got a call from a woman mar­ried for 19 years, who just found notes in her hus­band’s of­fice de­tail­ing plans for di­vorce. “I was like, ‘Maybe he’s writ­ing a book?’ And she’s like, ‘No. He’s an in­vest­ment banker.’ So she’s com­ing in to talk.”

Wasser never re­mar­ried. In­stead, she prefers long-term, live-in boyfriends. She’s no longer with ei­ther of her sons’ fa­thers, with whom she shares ver­bal cus­tody agree­ments that she’s never felt the need to put on pa­per. “Is it a lit­tle bit of the cob­bler’s son not wear­ing shoes? Maybe,” she says. “But I don’t want to get mar­ried. I don’t like the idea of en­ter­ing into that con­tract.” <BW>


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