The definition of family has changed and the law is changing. it needs to change more, and it needs to change more quicklyLaura Wasser
Everybody loves a good Hollywood romance. But as the ’80s British metal band Def Leppard pointed out, love has a way of biting—and when it does for married people in an irreconcilably different way, it’s time to call a divorce lawyer like Laura Wasser of the Los Angeles firm Wasser, Cooperman & Carter. While divorce makes up a good portion of Wasser’s practice, her ever-mounting caseload runs the gamut of family law, and if she were a talent agent and not an attorney, the list of people who she has represented would rank her as one of the most powerful women in the entertainment industry. Britney Spears, Angelina Jolie, Ryan Reynolds, Kiefer Sutherland, Maria Shriver, and, more recently, Kim Kardashian and Heidi Klum are among those who have sought out Wasser’s services in their attempts to dissolve their marriages. (She has also represented the former wives of both Kobe Bryant and Mel Gibson.) But while Wasser’s better-known clients can pull a lot of shine, her work, which includes representation of a number of non-famous pro bono clients via the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law in L.A. as well, engages directly with several issues at the heart of the practice of family law in America today. While each case is different—and it’s impossible to ever really know why people come together or relationships fall apart—one thing is certain: Divorces are emotionally fraught, intensely personal affairs. And as the laws that govern marriage have grown more complex, the definition of family has broadened, and the voyeuristic pastime of gawking at the carnage of celebrity relationships gone haywire has become a cottage industry unto itself, the role that lawyers play in helping their clients navigate these rough, murky waters has only magnified.
Wasser, 44, is the mother of two sons from separate relationships. Though she isn’t currently married, one of the first divorces she handled as a lawyer came shortly after she graduated from Loyola Law School when she represented herself in her split from her then-husband of a year. She is currently at work on a book, due out next year from St. Martin’s Press, about how people who have come to a crossroads in their relationship and need to disentangle can do so, in a financially—and emotionally—effective way. Wasser’s friend (and former client) Stevie Wonder caught up with her recently to discuss the changing face of marriage and family today, the advice she gives her high-profile clients, and why getting out is usually better than getting even.
STEVIE WONDER: Let’s talk about your practice. A lot of the cases you handle involve family law—and, in particular, divorce, which can have all kinds of consequences, not just for the people whose marriage is ending, but also their children if there are any. First of all, are you married?
LAURA WASSER: You know that I am not married.
WONDER: So that makes this next question a really good one: Why aren’t you married? What are your personal feelings on marriage?
WASSER: My personal feelings on marriage? Samuel Johnson once said that second marriages—although I could probably say this about any marriage—are about the triumph of hope over experience. I think that’s true. I don’t know that human beings were meant to mate for life or be monogamous. But, for me, the aspect of marriage that is troubling is that it’s a contract that is governed by the state, and I don’t want the state to have control over my personal affairs. Do I believe in coupling? Do I believe in commitment? Do I believe in co-parenting, raising children together, having a family, and growing old with someone? I absolutely believe in all of those things. I just don’t believe that you need to be married to do that. I love going to weddings, though. I do love a good wedding.
WONDER: But isn’t the whole concept and the institution of marriage tied to a kind of societal responsibility? What other way could it work if you didn’t have that?
WASSER: The way it works for me. You live with someone, you make a commitment to honor them, respect them, and love them, and if you’re going to have children, then you make a commitment to raise those children together. Why does the state have to get involved with that?
WONDER: Does the state not have to get involved because there are so many men—and sometimes women as well—who are the breadwinners in certain situations, but who don’t handle their responsibilities?
WASSER: The state gets involved anyway. The state gets involved in paternity action. If someone is not paying child support, then the state gets involved. I guess, to a certain extent, that’s the thing: If you’re living with someone, then you need to have a conversation about who the breadwinner is going to be. If you marry that person, you have to have that conversation, too. The way we define family today is so different from what it was 25 years ago, so you have to have an open mind about what you’re getting into when you cast your lot with another human being—whether you’re signing a lease together, buying a house together, walking down the aisle together, or having kids together.
WONDER: What are your feelings on prenuptial agreements? Do you see them as a positive or a negative?
WASSER: I see them as a positive—not only from a professional standpoint, but from a personal one as well. I think it is really important that people at least have some potentially difficult discussions about what their expectations are—and not just financially—prior to getting married. It should really even happen prior to people living together or casting their lot together. Prenuptial agreements can be a good follow—through of those discussions. If some people try to make a prenup into a pre-negotiation of a divorce . . . Well, that’s really sad. But I do think that it’s important to understand what each person has coming into the relationship, and what each person expects from the relationship. They aren’t always fun discussions to have, and they can be very eye-opening. I find it so interesting that so many people rush into the commitment of marriage, which is a legal contract, without knowing anything about what the expectations of the other person are, and they’ve not explained or articulated their expectations of the other person.
WONDER: Do you think the way that divorce is dealt with in the public eye, with things like Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown and Kim Kardashian and her husband and so on, has affected the way that people view their own marriages and relationships?
WASSER: Oh, gosh . . . I don’t know. I think that people might watch reality television or what they see played out on media outlets and get ideas. We might be more anesthetized to divorce or bad behavior now because of what we see on television or on postings on TMZ. So it definitely could be filtering in to how we conduct ourselves.
WONDER: Well, we’re in a time when the media and reality shows make a lot of money off of showing what happens when things get crazy in relationships.
WASSER: Absolutely. If I had my way, matrimonial cases would be sealed. In California, they are not. I believe in New York State, to a certain extent, they are. But when those cases are sealed, then you can’t get information about them and print it publicly. That’s a legislative thing. I’m a huge supporter of the First Amendment, but I just don’t understand what the benefit is in the public being able to read about what somebody is going through in a legal proceeding that is a private matter regarding their family—particularly custody proceedings. So I think that if those cases were sealed, then that would cut down on a lot of the craziness. But I’ve definitely had cases where one side or the other is completely playing to the media and not really focusing on the matter at hand: dissolving the marriage, extricating the couple from their contractual business relationship, figuring out what kind of a custody plan works for the family if there are children involved, and helping everyone to move on to the next stage of their lives.
WONDER: Have you ever been offered anything in exchange for information about a celebrity or a client?
WASSER: No. I think that people in the media industry know me well enough to know that I wouldn’t do it, so no one has ever offered me anything in exchange for any information about a celebrity. I wouldn’t do it, so they know better.
WONDER: Do you ever turn away potential clients? If so, what would drive you to pass on a client or case?
WASSER: I think that I probably would pass on a client if I felt that they had really unrealistic expectations. In my first meeting with somebody, I kind of say, “What are your expectations?” And there are some people who say, “I just want to be fair,” so then we have to qualify what that means. But when somebody comes in and says, “I just want to nail him. I just want to exact as much punishment as I possibly can.” Well, that might be a case where I say, “We may not be the right firm for you.”
WONDER: Do you think the fact that you’ve seen so many different kinds of situations where marriages are coming apart has influenced your own feelings about marriage?
WASSER: I don’t know about that. I think that anybody who lives in today’s society has seen as much break-up and split-up as I have.
WONDER: But you’re seeing it right up close.
WASSER: I’m seeing it right up close and personal every day, yes. But I think the involvement of the state is the reason why I don’t want to have a formalized wedding, and what I’ve seen makes me very aware of issues that people will go through prior to, during, and at the end of a marriage.
WONDER: How has the definition of family changed in the last 25 years—and how do you think those changes play into the practice of family law today?
WASSER: Whether you like it or not, the definition of family has changed. We have same-sex marriages now. We have more people who live together and have children even if they’re not married. We have so many different definitions of family. I’ve got clients who have brothers and sisters living with them in the house, helping them raise their kids. It’s a much wider definition now. Family looks different. There are also all of the mixed-race marriages, mixed-religion marriages, adoptions at all different ages, people taking in foster kids. Family can be surrogates and donors. There are all different kinds of ways to define a family, and we have to take that into consideration when practicing family law. The law, they say, is always the last thing to change. Fault divorce was done away with in California years ago—and more recently in other states. I don’t believe any states in the U.S. are fault states anymore, where you can say, “Oh, he committed adultery and therefore we are getting divorced.” Now it’s, “We don’t want to hear why.” “Irreconcilable differences” is usually the box that you check, and I think that’s good because I don’t think our court system in any jurisdiction has the man- or woman-power to be able to try all of these evidentiary hearings about who did what. The fact is that the marriage is not working out—you don’t need to tell us why—so now let’s extricate you and move on. But yes, there are new laws that are being worked on and passed that provide for same-sex marriages. I mean, right now in California, you can be in a domestic partnership, and if you split up, then your assets acquired with funds earned during the domestic partnership are treated as though they were community property and you could be ordered to pay support to your significant other. And although at the state level, that would be treated one way tax-wise, on the federal level, it would be treated a totally different way, and these people are just in a morass of difficulty with their taxes while they’re trying to resolve their differences. So it’s already a difficult time, and now it’s made even harder because we can’t all get on the same page in terms of who is allowed to get married. That strikes me, in 2012, as somewhat ludicrous. So absolutely, the definition of family has changed, and the law is changing. It needs to change more, and it needs to change more quickly. But to engage in lengthy, expensive, knock-down, drag-out legal battles in this day and age doesn’t make sense. It’s prohibitively expensive. You need to figure out who it is that you shared a bed with for all those years and how to get through this in the most cost-effective and amicable way—and it starts with you, because we can’t wait for the legislature to start making changes.
WONDER: Do you ever think there will be a time when it all opens up so much that things like polygamy will be viewed differently under the law?
WASSER: I don’t know. That’s a hotbed of discussion. I think people should be allowed to do what they want to do. I think that it doesn’t make sense for a certain class to be able to get married and be treated differently when others are not. But I don’t equate polygamy with same-sex marriages—and I know you don’t either. Polygamy is a different story because it has different class differentiations in it. I do know that people live together and they have certain responsibilities to each other, particularly under their religion—and if they work that out, then it’s okay with me. There are certain other things that may go along with polygamy in terms of the age of the people being married off that are somewhat offensive to me personally. But when the state gets involved to define those things, it becomes difficult to draw lines. If you could opt into some kind of a system governed by the state in terms of what you are agreeing to when you enter into a marriage contract and whether or not polygamy is part of that, then so be it. “I want to have two wives and I want to pay spousal support to both of them if we break up.” Why somebody would agree to that is beyond me, but if they do, then fine. If we’re going to have a paternalistic society in that sense, then at least let us opt into it.
WONDER: How do you manage your client’s emotional expectations during these highly sensitive times in their lives? Do you find yourself sometimes having to be their attorney as well as their therapist, in a sense?
WASSER: To a certain extent, yes, but I mean, in this town and in this day and age, I find that there are very few clients I have who aren’t already in therapy or haven’t tried therapy, whether it was marriage counseling with their spouse or on their own. I don’t try to be a therapist. I think if they have a therapist, then that person is way more qualified than I am to do that job.
WONDER: What role do you feel the media and paparazzi play in high-profile divorces today? How do you advise your clients to handle themselves under the microscope?
WASSER: I think the media plays probably too big of a role in most of the high-profile divorces that I do, and I don’t love that. The people who I represent who are living under a microscope were probably living under a microscope before they came to me to get divorced, so they are far better poised to deal with it than I am. I mean, sometimes I will talk to their publicist. Our firm will not comment publicly about any of our cases or our clients, so that kind of takes me out of it. But there are things that I can do to decrease the media attention on certain cases. We can take things out of the system and do them privately by virtue of using retired judicial officers for settlement. Instead of filing a petition without the other side knowing, we can make sure that both parties are aware of what’s going to be filed so that when it does come out publicly, everyone is prepared to make a joint statement about it or their publicists are prepared to talk about it. I can basically tell them, “You’ve lived in the spotlight for however many years because you’re a famous person. Now it’s going to be interesting to people that your marriage is coming to an end, through Schadenfreude and perhaps nothing else. To the extent that you can keep it out of the public, you and your family will be better off. So anything that we don’t need to file publicly, anything that you can do between you and your spouse without the necessity of angry public statements—that’s all good. Don’t give them what they want because it’s a feeding frenzy out there.”
WONDER: What are some of the strangest requests or demands that your clients have had?
WASSER: Well, here’s one I get frequently: “I want him to take a sexually-transmitted-disease test before this is over.” I’ve had that one a few times. People have strange things that they attach emotional value to.
WONDER: Why do you think they do that?
WASSER: Because they’re angry and they have one moment to kind of get their pound of flesh. I’ve had somebody ask for an AIDS test in exchange for a get, which is a Jewish divorce. Pets are always tough—I had a very big fight over a parrot one year. I didn’t get that one. I mean, I could maybe understand a dog, because you can cuddle up to the dog or whatever. But a parrot? People ask for strange things, but I try to get them off the emotional reasoning because really, when you get to this stage, it’s a business transaction aside from what you’re doing with your kids. And in terms of your kids, you’re doing whatever’s going to be best for them. So asking for crazy things doesn’t really work too well in my world.
WONDER: What inspired you to want to become an attorney?
WASSER: My parents. Both of them are attorneys. I practice with my dad—as you know, he’s one of my partners. I was actually conceived the night that my dad found out that he passed the bar exam, so they decided that my initials would be L.A.W.—Laura Allison Wasser. So I didn’t really have a choice. [laughs] But watching my parents and the way that they raised me . . . They got divorced when I was 16 years old, but my dad always did right by my mom. They still speak on the phone probably once a week, and they have been at both of my children’s births together hugging and crying. They taught me what the meaning of family is—even beyond a divorce.
WONDER: Finally, tell me a little bit about the pro bono work that you do.
WASSER: I work with the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law. They’re an organization here in Southern California, and we represent low-income families, men and women, in divorce. I raise a lot of money for them and people often say, “You know, I’ve got kids with cancer and we have rape victims. What do I want to give money to an organization that’s just promoting divorce?” But it’s not that. I had a woman last month who was living in her car because she was afraid of her husband, who had been beating her up. So she and her two kids are living in the car because they can’t get in front of a judge to get enough money so that they can pay rent on their apartment. Divorce is the great equalizer. A lot of people don’t have the money to get in front of a judge or don’t know the court system or don’t speak English as their first language. These are the people that need our help, and I try as hard as I can to give as much time as I can to doing that.
Stevie Wonder is a Grammy-award winning artist, songwriter, arranger, and producer.