Dennis Wasser, a partner at Wasser Cooperman & Carter, is one of the top divorce attorneys in town the go-to guy for Tom Cruise in his divorce from Nicole Kidman, as well as casino mogul Kirk Kerkorian in his divorce from Lisa Kerkorian. But not all high-profile clients generate that kind of buzz because many cases are settled out of the public eye, a move that Wasser said is usually preferable to a trial.
Question: Why is it better to settle than to go to court?
Answer: If the parties and their attorneys and their accountants can settle the issues, they can structure reasonable tax consequences, reasonable protections. If the court rules, there are tax dangers, there are corporate dangers, there are partnership dangers. There are all kinds of legal problems and financial problems that can’t be resolved just because a judge rules.
Q: What percentage of cases do you settle?
A: Our firm probably settles 90 percent of the cases. The ones that go to trial usually are long, complicated, detailed cases.
Q: At what point would you bring up the possibility of a settlement?
Q: If you were going to suggest a settlement to the other side, how do you initiate that conversation?
A: Since I don’t like to waste a lot of time, there’s a phone call. And it’s a quick phone call with me. I don’t have long phone calls.
Q: Is one side more likely than another to suggest a settlement?
A: It’s more likely depending on who the lawyers are and who the parties are. But I’ll know very quickly in a case because there are lawyers in this town that are really not good at settling. They’re good at trying cases and what they want to do is articulate their client’s position.
Q: Which lawyers are least likely to settle?
A: They know who they are.
Q: Beyond reputation, how do you know if the other party is willing to settle?
A: There are certain issues that almost have to be settled, they are so dangerous. Some people cannot afford to have a public trial meaning, they cannot afford to have the data about their lives or their businesses out there in public. That argues strongly for a settlement. There are some people who physically can’t go through a trial. It’s too hard on them. Those cases have to be settled. There are some cases that are so complex and would take so long to try that if the parties are logical and they can suppress the emotion, those cases must be settled. The cases that should be tried or that have to be tried are where there’s really a difference in the case law and so both sides think they have the right position, or it’s in a developing area, or there’s so much emotion they have to go to court and tell their story. But it should be rare that cases are tried.
Q: How do you decide to settle if the other side proposes it?
A: What we do mostly in our firm is we get together in a conference room with a retired judge. We might even make opening arguments. We might give briefs to the judge, and we say, “These are the issues. What will happen if we go to trial, judge? If you were the trial judge what would you do on issue x, y and z?” And that helps structure a settlement, because you have a lot of respect for the particular judge you bring in and if this judge is going to rule against you, it’s likely the judge in court will, so you better resolve the issues.
Q: What are some issues that come up in divorce cases?
A: Corporate, real estate, tax, estate planning, emotions, custody, visitation, spousal support, child support. And then, you think of an erudite question in law and it will come up in a divorce case. We are really generalists. We have to know lots about many different fields. Pension is another one. We get into every aspect of law.
Q: What are some of the craziest things that have turned out to be sticking points?
A: There was a case where the parties had three very valuable parrots from Africa. The parrots were like their children. When they went to bed at night, if they closed the door on the parrots, the parrots would bang on the door with their beaks and have to be let in. In the divorce, each party wanted at least two of the three; so of course, I had suggested that we cut one parrot in half. My client said if I ever said that again, I would be off the case. We get into all kinds of strange things. Remember the movie, “The War of the Roses”? We had a case that that was based on and I often tell the story of the night the wife found out that the husband had bought a brand new Porsche. At two in the morning she showed up at the house. The Porsche was parked in the driveway. They drove a cement truck up over the curb onto the lawn, broke the window and filled the new Porsche with cement. That started the fray and it deteriorated from there.
Q: What’s it like to deal with people who are so emotional?
A: There’s no truer saying that hell hath no fury like and instead of saying a woman scorned a spouse scorned. When spouses are scorned, it puts a lot of emotion into the case. When someone tries to take away your children or restrict visitation of your children, the emotion expands tremendously. Those are some hot-button issues, but other issues are community money that’s utilized for a girlfriend or boyfriend. There are a lot of discovery issues what things can be obtained from the other side. If the person is a member of a 150-person law firm, what disclosure do they have to make about the whole law firm? That affects other people, business partners, etc. Another thing that happens in divorce cases is there’s lots of testimony about valuation what is something worth?
Q: What if you think there should be a settlement and your client doesn’t agree?
A: If I feel strongly that the case is a bad one for trial and the client insists on it, generally speaking, we have a disagreement and we suggest to the client that they go somewhere else. There are also cases where the client believes that the case should be settled and we don’t like the settlement. We’ll either sign it and send the client a letter saying, “We told you you shouldn’t do this, but you’re the client. We’re doing this.” Or sometimes, we’ll also ask the client to go somewhere else.
Q: Someone has said that working out a settlement is a bit like poker you try not to show your hand and reveal whether you think the other side has a case.
A: I don’t agree. I think that with the disclose statutes we have, for the most part both sides know what the issues are. Something that’s very important in settling is your client has to be told they don’t have to get exactly the perfect amount. It’s better to give a little more to the other side to avoid the hassle and the expense of a trial.
Q: How expensive is it?
A: Good divorce lawyers are very expensive. Most charge between $500 and $700 an hour. That’s a lot of money. The lawyers that charge that represent the people that can afford it, but why pay that kind of money if you can get a resolution and protect the client better than you could if you went to court?
Q: You represent a lot of high-profile clients. How do you deal with the publicity?
A: Good lawyers talk to each other and try to stave off publicity. You won’t see a whole lot of lawyers talking on camera in divorce cases because most people want their lives to be private. Sometimes you get a case like the Kerkorian case and it’s so high profile that there’s no way to avoid it. Same with Tom Cruise.
Q: How do men and women differ as clients?
A: It’s more about how business and non-business people differ. Often, when the woman is a business person, they’re pretty much equal. If we’re dealing with a business-person and a non-business-person, the business person has a better grasp of business and finance concepts. The other thing is that business people tend to be more trusting than non-business people. If it’s a male CEO of a company vs. a homemaker, we probably have to do more in terms of explanations of financial and business dealings. But more and more, we are finding women in business and we do face stay-at-home fathers.
Q: Are there things that come out as you’re trying to settle a case that your client has hidden from you?
A: I was in the middle of a settlement conference and I found out that my client had re-married. It changes the dynamics a bit. It means now the client is involved in two relationships one that he was getting out of and one he was getting into. It does complicate the matter. He did receive a divorce in status, but nobody knew that the client had remarried. I had to get my faculties back pretty quickly because it was a shock and I had to regain my focus.
Q: Does that blow your chances of settling out of the water?
A: No. What it may mean is that the settlement has to be done differently. But everything can be settled.