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Print exclusive: Laura Wasser, Hollywood’s divorce queen

The lawyer who brokered Brad and Angelina’s break-up, as well as countless other A-list divorces, surprisingly still believes in happy endings – but, on her terms. CARINA CHOCANO meets LAURA WASSER, Hollywood’s most in-demand “disso queen”, to find out what fires her up and how she’s helping women to take back the power

Photography Matthew SproutFashion editor Jill Lincoln & Jordan Johnson
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When Laura Wasser was growing up in Beverly Hills in the 1970s and 1980s, she watched her friends’ parents go through miserable divorces. “It was the Reagan era, the era of Kramer vs. Kramer,” she recalls. “There was a lot of wealth, a lot of drugs, a lot of new money and some really ugly divorces. People were burning the house down.” Beverly Hills was a small community then, with a limited number of practices specializing in family law, so her father, a prominent divorce attorney, often ended up representing them, and occasionally Wasser suffered the consequences. “I’d go to a friend’s bar mitzvah or sweet 16 and the mom would go, ‘Oh. Wasser. You’re at the bad table.’”

As the daughter of Dennis Wasser, founder of Wasser, Cooperman & Mandles, she has law in her blood and is now the firm’s most famous senior partner. Wasser has helped dissolve so many celebrity marriages she is known as “the disso queen”, and her client list includes Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie (twice), Heidi Klum, Ashton Kutcher, multiple Kardashians, Britney Spears, Ryan Reynolds, Jennifer Garner, Christina Aguilera, Maria Shriver and Gwen Stefani. Wasser’s mother also went to law school and became a legislative aide, and Wasser grew up talking about marriage and divorce at the dinner table. “We discussed cases and what to say to the judge,” she says. “My brother is now a psychologist. He deals with marriage – couples counseling, kids, stuff like that. So, I guess it sunk in.”

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Wasser has been described as “tough” and “a bulldog”, but nothing about her demeanor backs this up. On the contrary, she could easily pass for a lady who lunches. She and I meet for lunch at Craft, just across from her office; she arrives fresh from court, and is scheduled to head back there as soon as we’ve eaten. She recently turned 50 and is small and pretty, with long, highlighted brown hair, a runner’s physique and a killer sense of style. Today she is dressed in a black lace Valentino dress – “for court” – and gold Anita Ko diamond-studded, safety-pin earrings. (If there’s another divorce lawyer who gets ambushed by paparazzi outside restaurants after dinner with friends, I’ve never heard of them.) When we meet again, two days later, Wasser tells me she won the case, securing a restraining order against her client’s ex-husband, who was having her and her family surveilled. “He was paying guards from an agency for nine months – which must have cost a million dollars – just to annoy her,” she says. Sometimes, people with limitless funds get caught up in the drama of their divorce, which strikes her as unhealthy. “It’s almost as if they feel some kind of engagement, even if it is negative, is better than none.”

Among the things that make Wasser a fascinating subject is the way she combines qualities we might think are irreconcilable in a way that makes perfect sense. She’s pragmatic without being cynical and empathetic without being a heedless romantic. While she speaks fondly of her wedding, with 250 guests at the Hotel Bel-Air in 1993 – “You have to have that day, I think everybody should, I really do. I just didn’t need to do it twice” – she also remembers thinking, “This is rather absurd.” She continues, “It was a great party, I totally love him, but we never discussed kids, or where we were gonna live. It was folly. He’s a great guy and I’m still happy to know him. I loved my wedding, and I’ll never look better than I looked in those pictures. But, if you had asked me that day, ‘Do you think that you’re going to be with this man until the day you die?’ I think I’d have had the wherewithal to say, ‘Probably not, but isn’t this a fun day?’”

As a child, Wasser was certain she’d never be a lawyer, despite her parents’ belief that she’d make a very good one. “I was in there with my little yellow legal pad negotiating – my allowance, curfew, what car I’d get – from day one,” she says. Still, if you’d told her then that she would end up in LA, working with her father less than a mile from her high school, “I would have absolutely scoffed at you,” she says. “I wanted to be a travel editor, or to work in fashion.”

If you had asked me on my wedding day, ‘Do you think you’re going to be with this man until the day you die?’ I think I’d have had the wherewithal to say, ‘Probably not’

Wasser was educated in the Beverly Hills public school system from kindergarten, before moving to a boarding school in Switzerland for a year aged 16. “I had taken all the AP classes [Advanced Placement classes for college], I had dated all the juniors and seniors, and I guess I just thought I wanted to try something new,” she says. “Things were also getting kind of dodgy and intense with my parents,” she adds, and they split soon after she left. (“My poor brother was stuck there with it.”) The divorce was amicable. “They’re still dear friends,” she says. “Two years ago, my dad had cancer and went through chemotherapy, and now he’s in remission. Now my mom has cancer. They talk all the time. My son was bar mitzvah’d in May and they were both there, in all the family pictures. They divorced the way we always tell people they should divorce.”

After she graduated, she spent a year living in Sydney, Australia, and then moved to New York for college, spending a year at NYU, before transferring to University of California, Berkeley, because she wanted to be a Rhetoric major. “I love arguing, I love thinking about both sides of the story, solving puzzles. It’s also a major that allowed me to continue being a dilettante. My favorite classes were Rhetoric of Avant Garde Poetry and Rhetoric of Romantic Comedy Films, particularly anything by Preston Sturges.” She lived in Madrid with her Spanish boyfriend, Alvaro, until her parents told her they’d only continue to support her if she was in school – “So I was like, OK, law school.” She and Alvaro were married in 1993 – Wasser had just taken the bar exam and was working for the Western Law Center for Disability Rights – but after one year, she decided to get divorced. She went to her dad’s office to let him know. “He said, ‘Well, you can do it yourself. And you can clerk here this summer if you need the money. And I’m not paying for any more weddings!’” Wasser agreed. She and Alvaro represented themselves. “We had some credit card debt, a Jeep Wrangler and our dog, Raul,” she says. “And I got all of it.”

Her A-list practice began to grow in the early 2000s, when entertainment attorneys, managers and agents started sending her their younger clients. She was a good ten years younger than the other attorneys at her level and looked cool; she had a tattoo and called people “dude”. “When a Travis Barker or a Britney came into my office, I wasn’t some old white guy,” she says. “I was someone they could relate to.” Now she’s the lead rainmaker at her firm with a reputation for handling high-profile cases. “We don’t talk to the media, we keep things quiet and we try to resolve them,” she says. “Laura really does want a happy ending,” Kris Jenner, mother of three of Wasser’s clients, tells me via email. “No matter if a couple can’t stay together, she wants the ending to be OK.”

When a Travis Barker or a Britney came into my office, I wasn’t some old white guy, I was someone they could relate to

Wasser says the speed with which information gets disseminated is alarming. “If I had my druthers, family-law cases would be sealed. But the minute you file for somebody famous, it gets picked up everywhere. I’ve had several cases where I’ve tried to seal things that involve children, but even they get leaked.” Actually getting to court can be a struggle, too. If a case is high-profile, it can sometimes be contained by using a private judge in a conference room. “But if one side doesn’t agree – and usually it’s the non-famous side – you end up trying to get into Los Angeles Superior Court with reporters everywhere. It’s scary walking through that. They’re all in your face, and I’m not a very big person.”

Wasser’s issue with marriage has nothing to do with love, romance, commitment, monogamy or co-parenting. Her biggest issue is allowing the state to have so much say over assets and affairs, especially given how poorly the law has kept pace with the reality of people’s lives. “There were so many people in the same-sex community that used to have these amazing wedding parties, but the ceremonies wouldn’t be binding,” she says. “I used to say to my gay friends, ‘You’re good! Have the parties, have the ceremonies, this is fine!’” When I ask if being the daughter of a divorce lawyer made her averse to marriage, she says no: “I don’t know that humans were meant to mate for life. Maybe we were when we were dying in our late thirties and early forties – you procreated in your teens or twenties and then you died. But we’re living until our nineties. Some people meet, fall in love and stay soulmates forever, God bless them. But that’s not the majority of the world. A million Americans are getting divorced a year. Our marriage rates are down, but our divorce rates have stayed the same.”

Wasser likes to compartmentalize – in life (“significant others have complained about this”) but also in divorce. “To me, separating love and the law makes a lot of sense,” she says. “I believe in: ‘I love you, I want to have babies with you, I want to live with you, but I can’t promise that it’s gonna be ’til death us do part. I also don’t want to be financially responsible, or, frankly, have you be financially responsible for me. We’re both adults. We both have a lot to offer our children, but we also have a lot to offer the rest of society, so let’s both go to work. If you choose not to, that’s cool, but I don’t want to be writing you a check every month.’” She raises some interesting questions about the function of marriage in modern society – the huge part gender plays in the way the law is written, and the way we think about marriage. “For better or worse,” she says, “marriage is a bargained-for agreement.” Wasser bills clients $850 an hour and requires a $25,000 retainer for her services – in other words, she has never really needed the financial security of marriage. “I went to Cal Berkeley with some amazingly brilliant young women who never went into the workplace, or went just long enough to find a husband. I don’t judge them. That’s their decision, but I know that when they did get married, they weren’t signing prenups that said they didn’t get anything if they split up,” she says. “You have to ask the question, as I often do – in a socio-economic situation like most of our clients have, where you have nannies, housekeepers, coaches, tutors, drivers and personal chefs, what is the home spouse actually doing during the day? What’s their job? I respect homemakers, but what are those people doing? They’re just delegating. I mean, I guess that’s OK.” But some of the established ways rankle her. “So, you have a kid and all of a sudden that kid becomes your meal ticket forever? That strikes me as wrong,” she says, expanding to say she believes children should live a lifestyle that’s commensurate with both parents, but unless the child is an infant, both parents should do something to contribute. “I don’t think it’s good for children to grow up seeing all the money coming from just one parent. You can’t disguise it. Do we really want to raise our children, particularly as women, seeing all the money coming only from their dad?”

Do we really want to raise our children, particularly as women, seeing money coming only from their dad?

Her own children, Jack, eight, and Luke, 13, have complained about her work ethic. (She had her boys with two different fathers, both of whom she did not marry but with whom she successfully co-parents, and says she was madly in love with both men. “I still love them. They’re my family. We lived together when we were together. We were monogamous. I was pregnant with their kids. I just couldn’t think of a good reason to get married.”) “My children ask: ‘Why do you work? Why do you come to school in your high heels? All the other moms come in their yoga clothes.’ And I’m like, ‘Dude, I do this so you can go to camp. I do this so you see a working mom and know how important that is.’ And at the end of the day they say, ‘We love you so much. We like it when you dress up. All the other moms always say they’re a little afraid of you.’ I’m glad I’m raising my boys that way. I’ve never missed a doctor’s appointment, I’ve never missed a school performance.” Wasser had her children later in life and admits that makes things easier. “I’m able to say to my colleagues, ‘You need to handle this.’ It’s a balance, but it’s a balance I believe we, as women, can make work.”

Five years ago, having practiced family law for 20 years, Wasser published her book It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way: How to Divorce Without Destroying Your Family or Bankrupting Yourself. “If you’re going through heartache, it’s really not fun to also be going through a very confusing legal system,” she tells me. “I was trying to educate women in particular about the contract they enter into when they get married. You sign a contract with your florist, the venue, the band – but there’s nobody advising you about the marriage contract, and the laws of the state you are getting married in.”

In January this year, Wasser took it a step further and launched her online business, It’s Over Easy. Like most high-end divorce lawyers she knows, Wasser gets calls several times a week from former clients asking if she might represent their assistant, or their nanny, or their younger sister’s best friend – people who certainly can’t afford to pay $850 an hour, and probably not even $250 an hour. It’s Over Easy allows a couple to divorce for somewhere between $750 and $2,500 total, and provides education and access to key services – to help a client get new medical insurance if it’s not available through their spouse anymore, say, or find a new house, or start dating again through their collaboration with dating app Bumble. Most importantly, the site helps women who cannot afford to get divorced to leave bad relationships.

“Of course, getting divorced is never easy, but the legal part, the financial part, that should be easier,” she says. “You’re going to grieve, you’re going to have to go to therapy, you’re going to have to find a support group. But if we can compartmentalize that and not let the grief, the anger, or insecurity color the legal part, that would be amazing.”

She’s compartmentalizing again, but then Wasser’s life is full of moving parts. As well as her boys, she has a boyfriend of five years with two teenage daughters of his own. “We don’t live together,” she says. “But on weekends there’s a lot of scheduling going on. ‘When can we go out to dinner, just us? When can we have sex? When are the kids going to be here?’” Her children and their fathers are in and out of the house all the time. “It’s absolutely the hub. There’s always food, always somebody around. It’s where the dog is.” When I ask her friend and neighbor, former film and TV director Mary Kumble, how Wasser manages, she says: “The thing about Laura is she literally fires on all cylinders. Between family, work and social, she just covers it all with such ease. She sets her intention and doesn’t let herself be held back by any obstacles.” I suggest that some people play Sudoku to keep their minds working. “I don’t need Sudoku,” Wasser answers, seeing my point. “I just have my schedule.”

Wasser is certainly keen for women to move on from what she considers outmoded views of marriage. “We’re all raised to think about getting the ring, having this beautiful day, the honeymoon, getting pregnant, a ‘push gift’. It’s absurd. It’s fun if you have the other stuff in perspective – career, the realities of raising children – but if the wedding is all you’re focusing on? That’s a huge problem.” Wasser likes doing prenups, “because it’s nice dealing with people who are about to get married”, but it’s also the prenup discussions that can expose cracks in the relationship. “Most of the time it does work out because they love each other,” she says. “But there are still those people who come in and say, ‘I’m not signing this! I thought we were a partnership!’ and the guy’s like, ‘But I make $20 million a movie, and I’ve been working for 20 years to become Joe Superstar. Why would you get half of that?’ What ends up happening is that the person who has more to lose – and I usually represent that person – says, ‘If you don’t want to sign a prenup, I’m perfectly happy with us just living together. I love you. We don’t need to get married.’ And then the other person goes, ‘Well, fuck you,’ and they’re out. They wanted to get married, they wanted the security. They figure, ‘These are the best years of my life. Am I gonna blow them if I’m not getting half of everything?’ It’s ingrained in our psyche, that’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s the Cinderella story!” She’s the first to admit that we never know what really goes on inside someone else’s home. “But I have had women sit in front of me in my office and say, ‘I couldn’t possibly live on less than $150,000 a month.’ Does that make me kind of roll my eyes? Sometimes, but that’s the law.”

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