What do Heidi Klum, Ashton Kutcher, Christina Aguilera, and Stevie Wonder have in common? They were all represented by divorce attorney Laura Wasser. In an exclusive Q&A, Laura explains her reasons for writing the new book, It Doesn't Have to Be That Way, and offers some important tips for couples considering divorce.
LW: My personal experiences have absolutely modified how I see and handle my clients' divorce cases. Having children and co-parenting and dealing with issues regarding shared expenses during and after a relationship ends all play a huge part in understanding and having compassion for what clients are going through.
QDT: How has the American family culture changed since our parents' divorce and how has it affected divorce law?
LW: The American family culture has changed significantly in the past 50 years. There are same-sex couples who marry or register as domestic partners and become parents, couples who live together for prolonged periods of time and have children, step-parents are integrated into family life more than ever before, and an attitude of "it takes a village" often permeates our American family culture.
QDT. In your book, you call for people to let go of their old concept of divorce – mud-slinging and fault-based – in favor of a new type of divorce. What should the new picture of divorce look like?
LW: Marriage is a contract. Dissolving that contract should be handled as an arm's length business transaction. Fold into that the fact that you are having such a transaction with someone who you have shared a lifetime of intimate familial moments. Remember that this person will no longer be your spouse, but he or she will continue to be your co-parent, family member, and possibly business partner in certain assets or entities.
Pro bono work has shown me that divorce is the great equalizer. You can hack off or add some zeros to a person’s worth, and yet they experience the same fear, sadness, and anger going through this process.
QDT: What do you find surprises people most about the current divorce culture?
LW: Firstly, that the norm has changed with regard to child custody - generally joint custody, legal and physical, is the norm. And secondly, that when the breadwinner in a family is a woman, she is expected to pay child and spousal support just like a male breadwinner does.
QDT: Tell us – in brief - one of your most hilarious stories from your career.
LW: It was the early 2000s. I was representing the bass player for an alternative rock band—I’ll call him Zack—and we were on the phone going over the settlement offer sent to my office by Zack’s wife's attorney. It was about 10am. As I presented my analysis of the first couple of terms, I heard on the other end of the line an unmistakable bubbling sound. “Dude,” I asked incredulously, “are you taking a bong hit?”
Silence. Heavy exhalation from the receiver—a long sigh ending in “Yeahhhhh.”
“You cannot take a bong hit while you are on the phone with your divorce attorney,” I said somewhat sternly.
Another long silence. “Dude,” he replied (it is either a blessing or a curse that I often still speak like a 14-year-old skate punk and am responded to in kind), “is there a better time to take a bong hit than when on the phone with my divorce attorney?”
QDT: Tell us – in brief – one of the hardest experiences of your career.
LW: Recently, I had a case where the judicial officer, at the recommendation of minor's counsel, split up the children, a sister and brother two years apart (12 and 14) in a move-away custody matter. Mom was moving across the country with her current husband and their children. Dad opposed the move as he and the children (and his current spouse and their children) had all been living in Southern California for the entirety of the children's lives. As we battled it out, the situation grew worse and worse for all involved. It was truly one of the most difficult cases I have ever dealt with. Ultimately the teenage daughter stayed in California with dad and the son went to the East Coast with mom. We were told that the stress being put on the sibling relationship because each wanted a distinctly different outcome was such that if either had their way and the other had to go or stay based on that child's "win," the relationship may never recover. The counselor brought to our attention that the children would in all probability outlive the parents and that their relationship was, at this stage, more valuable and in need of repair. Giving each what he/she thought they wanted could effectuate that. The custody schedule was manipulated so that the kids could spend the maximum amount of time with each other while on school breaks and while taking into consideration the need for each of them to see their non-custodial parent, step-parent and half siblings with whom they did not reside.
QDT: You have done a great deal of pro bono work with the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law. How does your pro bono work compare to your celebrity work?
LW: Pro bono work has shown me that divorce or separation is the great equalizer. You can hack off or add some zeros to a person’s worth, and yet they experience the same fear, sadness, and anger going through this process.
QDT: What’s it like working for and with the biggest Hollywood celebrities?
LW: Pretty much the same as working for any other client - but for the unwanted media attention.
QDT: What is the first question you ask people who say they are considering getting divorced?
LW: What are your goals? In a perfect world, how does this work out?
QDT. What are your top 3 tips for choosing a divorce lawyer?
LW: As I write in It Doesn't Have to Be That Way, in seeking a lawyer, you are looking for an advocate, an expert advisor on the law and on your rights and responsibilities, a strategist, a negotiator, and a litigator. But remember: No lawyer is as invested as you are in the outcome of the process, so it is necessary to become and stay involved in the process. That is also the best help you provide to your lawyer. Here are 3 quick tips – excerpted and condensed from It Doesn't Have to Be That Way - for choosing a lawyer:
- To find a pool of lawyers from whom to choose, solicit referrals from other professionals you know or deal with—an accountant, banker, or business leader. Check out Bar Association listings as well, and don’t neglect internet research.
- In a preliminary fact-finding consultation, determine the lawyer’s fees, terms, and schedule availability.
- An in-person meeting is worthwhile, even if you pay for it, to explore the lawyer’s record of achieving settlements via mediation/negotiation versus via court proceedings, to get a feel for the lawyer’s manner, and to see if there is chemistry and a sense of comfort between you.
QDT: What is your number one quick tip to people considering (or getting) divorced?
LW: Be nice. Be reasonable.
QDT: What advice do you find yourself telling clients the most?
LW: You can pay to litigate or you can pay your ex. In other words, in most cases it is cost-effective to resolve issues rather than to pay your attorney and often your spouse's attorney to litigate. Do not spend $1,000 to save $15.
Laura Wasser was named one of Hollywood Reporter's 100 Power Lawyers in July 2012, one of the California Daily Journal's Top 100 Lawyers in September 2012, and one of Southern California’s Top 50 Women Attorneys for 2012 and 2013. She has been profiled in publications ranging from the Los Angeles Times to Vanity Fair and has represented the likes of Heidi Klum, Ashton Kutcher, Christina Aguilera, and Ryan Reynolds, as well as many pro bono clients from the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law. Her latest book, It Doesn't Have to Be That Way, is available now.