Life is a constant balancing act for family-law powerhouse Laura Wasser, and it’s not due to her signature six-inch heels. She’s a single mother with two young sons and her clients are as demanding as they come. Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian and Angelina Jolie are just a few of the boldface names who have called for her help when their relationships fell to pieces and, inevitably, hit the tabloids.
Laura got an early start honing her negotiating chops from one of the top family-law attorneys in the country (her dad), then added her own brand of toughness and empathy. When we spoke at her West Hollywood home, holiday celebrations and obligations were in full swing and she’d just just spent three weeks commuting from Los Angeles to San Francisco, consulting on a trial. She fielded my questions along with calls and emails from her office, indulged her son’s curiosity about self-defense against (imaginary) ninjas, handled a scheduling concern with the dad of one of her sons and briefed her assistant on some upcoming tasks and appointments ? all with aplomb and without a hair out of place. Perhaps once you’ve dodged a stiletto hurled toward you in the middle of negotiations, juggling whatever daily life tosses your way comes easier.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Laura Wasser: My busiest time of year is generally the first week of January. People think, “I won’t ever do this again. I can’t go through one more holiday with his or her family.” I think people also want to start fresh. I get a lot of calls on January 3rd and 4th.
It’s also busy because custody issues come up, due to travel. We represent a lot of clients who have the means to take their private planes and go wherever. There are always calls right around the 26th and 27th of December ? when the transitions are supposed to take place, and someone didn’t get back from Cabo or Deer Valley in time.
Not as much. In my father’s generation, it was all men. Now, we see many female family law attorneys. I’m not sure why that is, but I think it’s nice. The guys in their 70s and 80s, a lot of whom are still practicing, don’t have the same understanding of custody issues as the younger generation. Colleagues who are my age, both male and female, address custody completely differently than our fathers did.
Sometimes they do. I see the female or maternal perspective. But I also see it these days in dads, particularly in Southern California, where so many people are entertainers. Writers, musicians and actors don’t work 9 to 5. They have a lot of time around their kids. If they split up, they are every bit as able and willing to remain involved. Often, women say, “Wait, what? I don’t get the house and the kids, and he just goes away and sees them every other weekend?” I also hear a lot of women who are breadwinners say, “What do you mean I have to pay him support? The reason I’m getting divorced is because he never made anything of himself and I had to pay for everything.” The law is kind of blind to gender. If you were the breadwinner during the marriage, you’re going to be paying support. That’s a blow to a lot of people.
It’s been funny. I’m 46 now; I’ve been doing this for 20 years and grew up with all of these gentlemen. I definitely got more, “honeys” and “sweeties” and, “I was at your Bat Mitzvah, remember?” Earlier on, they would say, “She’s just here because of nepotism.” I don’t necessarily mind it. It’s actually an advantage, because I surprise them. I’m still young enough and hungry enough to really know my clients, whereas a lot of people are just phoning it in. I don’t have any kind of chip on my shoulder about it. I’ll take whatever comes at me and use it.
I care about these people; I care about their children. I am, ultimately, a problem-solver. If I can settle a case, I would far prefer to do that. Going into court is prohibitively expensive. Nobody’s happy with the outcome when a judge makes a decision. Judges don’t have nearly enough time to get into the minutiae. I think what makes anybody good at their job is having the experience behind you and caring about doing the best job possible.
I think a lot of it’s hype. I really am quite nice, but if members of our firm are in court, we almost always win. It’s not because we’re that much better. It’s just that we don’t go to court unless we really believe that we have the most reasonable position.
I have two kids, with two different dads. I’m not with either dad anymore. Sometimes I pull my hair out trying to schedule everything, but we all respect and love each other, and it works. I know how hard that first week of not hearing little feet coming down the hall in the morning can be. And I know how hard it is to end the relationship ? it’s sad, and it’s scary, and you feel like a failure. So, yes, I do have empathy. But I try to focus on my work as a business transaction. Some attorneys get very close with their clients and become their buddy, which doesn’t serve them so well. You’re getting paid an hourly rate. You don’t want to be paid to be somebody’s friend, you want to be paid to be their advocate ? their voice of reason ? and get them to the next step.
Yes. I try to see that everybody is in some kind of therapy. In this town, it’s not too big of an ask. I say to them, “Look at me, I’m a hot mess. I have two kids with two different guys, I’m not good at relationship advice. Go see somebody who is far more qualified.” What I can tell them, based on personal experience, is that time heals.
Maybe it is something that comes naturally to me. Standing at a podium in front of the courthouse, talking about a case, never did it for me. Or yelling, I was never a yeller. I always felt that if you’re yelling, you’ve lost it. I have heard people refer to women as “that shrieking lawyer.” I know a lot of women who are constantly swearing ? I guess that gives them more testosterone, or whatever. I try not to do that, either. I try to be straightforward and say what I’m thinking. Last month, a man said to me, “You might be prettier than me, and you might talk nicer than I do, but I’ve been doing this for 15 more years than you, and when we get into that courtroom, I’m going to win.” Of course, he didn’t. At counsel table, I said, “So, I’m better looking, I speak better, and I’m winning.” It was fun and he laughed, recognizing that what he said had been chauvinistic and stupid. I’ve always found that a quiet and direct approach works the best?with a lot of eye contact.
We seem to get more publicity with women ? I don’t know why ? but I represent more men. I usually represent the breadwinner. Of course, there are many more women who are breadwinners these days. I’m known in the community for being the attorney people come to if they’re the one with the money. It’s better not to be chasing the money.
I’ve gotten that before, too. Women seem to know what’s going on before it happens, so I’ve gotten a lot of women who beat their husbands to the punch. If it’s a long-term marriage and it’s all community property, I’m fine with that. We’ll try to find somebody good to represent their husband, somebody with whom I work well, and we’ll get it done. But I don’t come in with some vendetta against men and husbands and let my clients nail them to the wall. I always say, “I’ll represent you if we’re going to be reasonable about this.” I have also had men come to me and say, “I definitely want a woman, and a mom, because I need the judge to know that the person representing me understands what I’m talking about in terms of my children and wanting to be the best parent I can be for them.”
It got stuck in a door. We deal with a class of people, if you will, who are very, very used to being told yes. All the time. I’ve had people call and ask, “Could you just meet with my assistant?” And I’ve said, “No! I’ll give you phone numbers for lawyers who’d be happy to do it through your assistant. I don’t want your autograph, but if I’m going to represent you in your divorce, we need to meet.” I need to know what their goals are, and, frankly, whether we’re a good fit.
Somebody who is too angry to look at what we’re doing as a business transaction. Somebody who says one thing but I can feel means another ? when they say, “Of course my kids are the most important thing to me,” then use their kids as pawns in a game against their ex.
I really do believe that in almost all circumstances, it’s in the children’s best interest to have contact with both of their parents. Of course, there are exceptions. I try not to get involved in those exceptions. If somebody has a terrible drug problem or there’s violence or threats, I will sometimes say, “I don’t think that this is the right case for me.” I want to facilitate a resolution that doesn’t involve anybody going to jail or getting killed.
A lot of working moms assume that when they split up, they’ll get a check every month, keep the house and the kids will live with her. That’s not how it is anymore, particularly not in Southern California. Say, for example, two intelligent and striving people meet in college and both have promising careers. The wife ends up working as a studio executive, while the husband just never really made it. Then, something happens in the relationship. He’s home, but, in my experience, generally not taking care of the kids much more. They still have the nannies. He starts to feel crappy about himself because he’s not contributing financially, and a resentment issue builds. She wonders, “Why am I paying for everything, busting my ass and still packing lunches, scheduling play dates and going to parent-teacher conferences? What is he doing?” He’s resentful that he’s been treated like a second-class citizen. So they split up. She comes to me and says, “Thank goodness I’m getting out from underneath this albatross of a relationship, with him not doing anything.” Then I say, “Okay, so guideline support is going to be?” and she responds, “What? I have to pay him, even after I’ve been supporting him for years?” That’s the deal. If she’d been a trophy wife whose job was to look beautiful and make dinner reservations, while her husband made the money, she’d get a check. In California, whoever earns more money will be writing a check every month so the other person and the kids can continue to live a lifestyle to which they all became accustomed during the marriage. I feel like there’s a sentiment across America, and it may be different outside of California, that fathers are sometimes discriminated against when it comes to custody issues.
You really cannot judge somebody’s parenting ability based on gender. I like the idea that the presumption is 50/50. Then you can make your case as to why the presumption should not prevail.
I don’t bring it home, and I never argue with my boyfriend ? I’m arguing all day long for other people. Neither of my kids’ dads and I have any real documentation between us. I mean, we have wills and stuff like that ? god forbid anything happened ? but we don’t have a custody agreement or a support order or anything like that, because things change. I’m a bit of a control freak, but they know what I do for a living and that I’m fair. They feel like we don’t need it, and everybody kind of gets along. They’re both very differently situated in terms of finances and childrearing. So my kids are being raised very much the same under my roof and differently outside, and that’s okay. For the most part, it works for us.
No. I don’t recommend it for others because I think it’s somewhat irresponsible. It’s not irresponsible for me because it’s a pretty quick fix if I ever needed to fix it.
It’s not something that I’m necessarily interested in participating in again. I just don’t think I need it. I was married a long time ago (not to either of my kids’ dads). It was a beautiful wedding. I was 25, had my beautiful bridesmaids, and it was great. I feel like having the state of California involved in my personal affairs doesn’t make sense. I can love someone and share with them and be with them without having to agree to some support system or division of property or anything else. I love weddings though, I’ll go to anybody else’s.
I don’t. I’m one of the greatest optimists around. Living in this day and age, seeing the number of splits, everybody is a bit jaded, but I’m no more jaded than anyone else. And I’ve been more surprised than anyone. When you’re writing the prenup for people who meet and get married two weeks later, you think, “Oh, my God.” And they stay together forever. Then, there are people who have been together for years and years, finally decide to take the plunge and everything falls apart. You just never know what goes on inside somebody else’s relationship.
We’ve been doing same-sex relationships for years, because people in Southern California are very open-minded. Couples would end up living together, register as domestic partners and write cohabitation agreements that kind of define their rights. For us, the greatest thing that’s happened recently is that it has been legalized and the federal government is recognizing it. Before, for example, when a same-sex couple lived together for 10 years and accumulated $5 million, while one person was a homemaker, we’d treat the $5 million like community property, with $2.5 million going to each. The federal government looks at that $2.5 million as a gift. If you were married, you could do a non-taxable transfer to your spouse. But when you gift somebody $2.5 million, gift taxes have to be paid. So, I had to tell my client that they’re paying $2.5 million that may get taxed 40%. Same with support. Until recently, the federal government didn’t look at it as spousal support. We’re really glad that everyone is being treated the same. It enables us to settle more cases.
I think some of the guidelines about support are inequitable. Let’s say you meet a guy in a bar, he’s an NBA player, and you get pregnant. He ends up writing a check every month for the next 18 years. His check is to ensure that the child lives a lifestyle that’s commensurate with his. I know it’s for the kids, not for the mom, but there’s something that inherently doesn’t seem right about that, and I don’t know exactly how to fix it. I also don’t think California does much to make sure that a supported spouse or parent actually makes an effort to become self-supporting. I think it’s important for kids to see their parents working. I’m not talking about an infant; when your kids are in school, if you’re still young enough to be able to have a career, you should.
I did all the grunt work of a junior associate before I had my kids. I was able to take three months off for maternity leave, but I went back early because I had a case. I don’t pull all-nighters anymore. I go home and I’m with my kids. But they would tell you that I’m always on my phone, that I text too much. I say to my kids, “In order for me to be here with you right now in Hawaii or Santa Fe or wherever we are, I need to be able to do this for two minutes. So chill out.” And they’re usually okay with that. I think that being in touch with clients, handholding to get them through and providing them with the information that they need to feel comfortable is important. So, I am always working and I’m not away from the office for extended periods of time.
Except for these last few weeks, when I was in San Francisco doing a trial. That was extremely difficult. I was hired as a consulting attorney and didn’t know that we would be going to trial until about four or five months ago. I arranged to go up on Sundays and return on Wednesdays. At that time of year, there are the Christmas pageants, I needed to be home for the first night of Hanukkah and, of course, got sick. In some kind of a manic episode, I felt guilty and decided that we should go to New York. We got there Friday afternoon, went to FAO Schwarz and Dylan’s Candy Bar and came back Sunday afternoon. We had an amazing time, but I don’t even know if you’d call it balanced.
And there are times when you’re in a groove and everything goes and then it takes a village. My family lives here. My nanny lives in our back house. My housekeeper’s been with me for years and years; sometimes she’ll offer to watch the kids for an hour if I need to run out to a meeting. My office is near my home, so I can get back and forth easily. Both of my kids spend a lot of time at the office with me. They know everybody. They color, they draw. The older one is on the computer. We just make it work.
I’m just used to it. It doesn’t really bother me that much. I sleep really well at night, most of the time, and over the last three or four years, the ability to begin delegating to the really good people who work with me helps a lot.
No. I’ve never missed a doctor’s appointment. I’ve never missed a parent-teacher conference. I have made it a priority to be at those things, not just for the kids, but for me too. As an older parent, I realize how fleeting it is. I want to make sure that my kids and I don’t miss this important time.
Go easy on yourself. Give yourself a break once in a while and pick the things that are really important to you. Make memories that they can remember, and that you are really present for. That’s my one thing. If I come home for dinner, I’ll put my phone in the other room. As I said, if I don’t get my work done, I can’t be here with the kids. But if I’m not present and engaged, that doesn’t help. So, be present when you are present, and when you’re not present, cut yourself some slack.
Being physically healthy is really important, particularly in a job like litigation, where you have so much stress. It’s really important to let off steam. I’m a morning workout person so if I can get the kids off to school and go to Pilates, or for a run, it’s important from a physiological and emotional standpoint. I don’t meditate; I have to get sweaty, with endorphins raging, before I can feel better and relaxed.
It’s not any better or any worse than other areas. There might be more personal contact. You are not going to be dealing with GE at two o’clock in the morning, but you may be dealing with a client who’s on tour in Australia. I am available to my clients a lot, all-hours type of stuff, but you’re very rarely at the office in the middle of the night. I try to be very conscientious about the young associates at my firm getting home to their families.
My job’s not glamorous. My clients’ jobs are glamorous. It doesn’t help me if they’re on tour or making a movie; it makes it more difficult to figure out the timing. The paparazzi only take pictures of me if I’m with somebody famous. People call us celebrity divorce attorneys a lot. We’re not the celebrities. We represent celebrities. I’ve been asked, but I would never do a reality show. You do get to meet interesting people. But for me, a museum curator could be just as interesting as a pop star.
I guess. I am younger and I’m into fashion. I’m not some older man in a suit. But I get really close with these famous people for a very short period of time. I know all their secrets. They cry to me, and then it’s done. I think a lot of people who do what I do fall into the trap of thinking that they’re friends. You see the client in a restaurant maybe a year later and they’re like, “Oh, hello.” You represent what is probably one of the most miserable times in their lives. They may feel a bit of shame or embarrassment, having been so completely vulnerable during the time you were getting paid to talk to them. They think of me fondly. They remember me. They send me other cases. But I have a lot of friends and have my family. I don’t need new friends. The most that I can hope for, or expect, is that somebody says, “She got me through a really bleak period in the best possible way, and I will always be appreciative for that. But I don’t want to hang out with her anymore.”
The custody. My most loathed cases, and my most difficult ones, have been move-away cases. That’s where two parents live in California and one is moving, perhaps across the country or across the Atlantic. You can’t be Solomonic and split the baby. You can’t do 50/50 custody. I may never get married again, but I will never leave the state of California while my kids’ dads are living here. It doesn’t matter if I’m madly in love or get offered an awesome job. I just won’t do it. Far be it from me to say what others should or could or would do. For me, my choice is to be in the same state or, preferably, city as the other parent of my kids. When someone can’t do that, for whatever reason, we get these cases determining how to serve the children’s best interests. We’ve come a long way in terms of blocking out the entire summer, the entire Christmas vacation, and in almost every month of the year, there’s a good, chunky three-day weekend. You work it out, but then you have one parent who is never with their child on Christmas, never gets to do summer break. It really is tough. It’s heartbreaking.
A couple of years ago, I represented a dad in a move-away case. The mom was moving. They had both remarried. The mom and her husband made a decision to move because it was better for his work. The children had lived in a pretty small community; they had half-brothers and sisters on both sides. And it was really, really heartfelt. You can’t have kids in court, so they were evaluated and the report came back saying they should go with mom. I said to my client, “It’s a long shot if we go to court on this.” And he said, “I have to do it for my kids.” We went, and we won. It was huge. The mom had said she would stay if she lost, but she didn’t stay, she went.
I haven’t had any terrible disappointments. I’ve had some situations with colleagues I thought were more trustworthy than they turned out to be. When my dad was practicing, you could do things with a handshake. You can’t anymore. You have to do it in writing. That’s frustrating.
It’s all the same. You can add or take away zeros, but it’s all the same thing. The clients go through the same fear. One of the reasons I decided to write the book, It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way, was that people had approached me for years. Do a reality show, do a talk show, do this? None of it really spoke to me. But when I spoke at family-law panels and to younger lawyers, one of the things that I found coming up again and again was people saying, “You really want to get it settled?” Living in this town and getting older, I’d also heard so many friends say, “God, I wish I knew then what I know now. I wish I would’ve known to not waste $50,000 to get Wednesday nights. Just work it out.” So, I sat down and I started writing. We made it really simple ? whether you’re making $4 million or $40,000 a year ? to figure out what the basic law is. Which states are community property? Which are equitable distribution? And what does that mean? What does a normal custody plan look like? I used the names of people we grew up watching on TV, the family from Growing Pains or The Cosby Show. Didn’t you always want to see Alex Keaton’s parents split up and see how would they share custody? It’s a pretty quick read; it’s not all legalese. You know more about your situation than anyone else. If you can get a legal pad, sit down at your kitchen table and discuss, “What works for you during the next six months, custody-wise? How much are you going to need to budget to live on? Should we hang on to the house and sell it when the market’s better? How do we figure out our kid’s 529 accounts?” If you can discuss those things and get a little bit of guidance from somebody who knows and can apply the law, you can and get it done.
Oh, yes. When I was in high school, and even during my first couple years of undergrad, I never thought that I’d be a lawyer. That’d be so pedestrian. I was going to be a travel journalist or do something in fashion. I went away to boarding school when I was 16 and lived in Europe. I never thought that I would move back in the town I grew up in, live a mile and a half from my childhood home and work at the same firm as my dad. No, never.
Well, I went to law school, and thought, “Okay, I’ll be a lawyer, but not family law. I’m going to do environmental law; I’m going to save the world, it’s going to be great.” And then I got married, before my last year of law school. When we split up, I was waiting for my bar results and working at the Western Law Center for Disability Rights. I actually went to my dad and said, “I need a job that actually pays me some money. Can I come work here? Can I clerk while I wait for my results?” And he said, “Sure.” And I liked it. The thing that I like the most about it is that it affords one the ability to be a dilettante. You meet people in all different walks of life and you become very close with them. Directors, music composers, you get a window into their personal and professional lives, and then you’re done. And you get to know other things ? I’m now an expert on private equity. My ex is an entertainment attorney. He has to hold hands with these people for their entire careers and gets 5% of what they make. I’m in, I’m out. I mean, there are pros and cons about that, but I get to learn so much about so many different professions and families and religions and cultures. It’s really cool.
Well, the advantages were that my dad’s firm was a good place to be and it was comfortable. Was I particularly worried about getting fired? No. A disadvantage was that nepotism card. It also took me years to make as much as other people who were third-, fourth-, fifth-year associates at other firms. Family law doesn’t pay very well in the early years. It does when you start becoming a partner. Working for a family member is something that is helpful and not helpful. I didn’t do very much work with my dad at the firm. We’ve probably had five or six cases together in 20 years. We operate independently. Back then, I worked with one of his partners. I was his apprentice. And he was terrible to me. I mean, he taught me everything I know, but he would come out and say, “Does Laura Wasser work here anymore? Where is she?” when I had just gone to the ladies’ room for five minutes. He would feel the hood of my car to see whether it was warm and what time I got in that day when he arrived, I mean, just merciless. But I get to see my dad every day, which is really nice. He’s amazing at what he does. He taught me the art of negotiating at the dinner table and I was on the debate team in high school, I learned it by example. Both of my parents are attorneys, and both of them are extremely intelligent, and both of them can see both sides of any story. I advocated for my first car. I advocated for a later curfew. I’d bring my little legal pad and state my argument. There are pros and cons with anything, but I definitely do not think it came easy to me.
No, I was already 16. I was on my way out the door to Switzerland. Many of the kids I went to school with at Beverly Hills High School had divorced parents; it wasn’t taboo in the ’80s in Beverly Hills. I think it’s much better for kids to see two happy parents, even if they’re single, than parents that aren’t really happy and have outgrown each other. My parents are still really good friends; they have so much respect for each other, and for years they never had any paper between them. It didn’t have any effect on me going into relationships, but it definitely had an effect on how I conduct my own relationships in terms of the breakup and how I counsel people. My dad has always been a very settlement-oriented practitioner. And that’s how I learned.
“Never let them see you sweat.” He’s also not a yeller. As he would get angrier at my brother and I, he would get quieter and quieter. When my dad’s angry, he’s super quiet. He doesn’t lose his cool. Looking at other attorneys, he’d say, “See that? See how they’re freaking out, and waving their arms? They’re losing it, they’re sweating. Don’t sweat. Cool, calm, direct, reasonable.”
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