This Lawyer Is Hollywood’s Complete Divorce Solution
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 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 split-up,” 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 at 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 high-rises 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 glass-top 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 another client out of initiating a custody battle because her ex-husband fed a hamburger to their vegan child. “Vegans, man”—Wasser rolls her eyes. “I’m sorry, but no 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.”