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So You Want to be a Divorce Lawyer? Dishing with Eleanor Alter

Vivia Chen

April 3, 2017

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I must have been delusional: When I was a corporate associate many moons ago, I thought I might find happiness as a matrimonial lawyer.

Though I am a sucker for the human interest stuff, I am not a very patient person. I doubt I would have lasted in family practice more than two weeks. That said, I think for some unhappy Big Law campers, matrimonial practice—with all its human drama—has a certain appeal.

If anyone would know what it takes to be a successful divorce lawyer it's Eleanor Alter (above, center) A doyenne of the matrimony bar, Alter, 78, has been at it for more than 50 years. (She's also legal royalty of sorts: Her father was Charles Breitel, the former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, and her first husband is William Zabel, the marquis partner behind Schulte Roth & Zabel).

Alter's client list is studded with legends of the entertainment business: Mia Farrow (she represented the actress in her custody battles against Woody Allen), Madonna, Robert DeNiro, John Lennon, Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. (Alter represented Hawke in his divorce against Thurman; years later, she represented Thurman in her custody dispute against another ex-lover.)

It all seems so fun and glamorous, like binge-reading People magazine at the beach. But is that the reality of divorce law?

Recently, I met with Alter and her partners Jenifer Foley and Adam John Wolff to talk about what it takes to be a divorce lawyer for the rich and famous, or at least the well-to-do (that's you, Big Law types).

You all started at big firms, and now you are part of a seven-lawyer matrimonial boutique. What's it like to be totally devoted to doing divorces? Isn't it awfully draining?

Alter: Sometimes I wish I could look at documents for a month because documents don't cry. We're not trained as mental health professionals, and if you're not careful, you take on the emotional content of the client.

Foley: I always have a box of candy and a box of Kleenex at my desk. Most people at big firms wouldn't want to do this. Sometimes people think this is easier or that it's fun to work on matters in the paper. They come here for six months, then say, "I can't do this. I don't want to be where people are crying."

Wolff: Some people will say, "I can't stomach it"—like it's not legitimate enough. But what I do is just as sophisticated as what I did as a commercial litigator. It also requires patience that I didn't know I had.

Besides having infinite patience, what else is essential for a divorce lawyer?

Alter: Be honest, hardworking and smart. You don't need to be brilliant but you have to like people and accept the fact that they are emotional, scarred and greedy. I don't think divorce is different from a law practice that breaks up. The only difference is that there are no kids in a partnership breakup.

But divorce must be messier and more emotional than a business breakup. You must be as much therapist as lawyer. Can you bill for all the time that you spend comforting clients?

Alter: It's all part of the the relationship. There are a couple of hours a day you don't bill.

Wolff: You can't bill every hour. IBM is not writing the check in divorce cases.

What about your hours? Are you working less hard than when you were doing commercial litigation at a big firm?

Foley: I work as many hours as I did at [Strook & Strook & Lavan]. They are harder hours—more draining and emotional.

Let me see: You can't bill all your time, your billing rates are probably lower and your hours are just as bad as they were in Big Law. And your clients are basket cases. Why do divorce law?

Foley: I just like it! I feel I make a difference. I'll get baskets of fruit and flowers at Christmas time from clients. No one did that when I was at Strook.

Wolff: It's nice to help people reach closure. It's never boring. You learn about everything: law firm partnerships, hedge funds, what kind of dental practice make the most money, small businesses. We've read more partnership agreements than anybody else. We actually know how much people make. There's a little voyeuristic thrill involved.

Speaking of voyeurism, Eleanor, you're a big brand for celebrities getting divorces. Are they different from the rest of us when their unions fall apart?

Alter: Yes. They have so many people taking care of everything that they have no clue about their finances.  And sometimes they want press when they're getting a divorce, which is not a good idea especially if kids are involved. But there's a percentage of celebrity clients who are great parents. And some are really smart.

What? Celebrities aren't all stupid and vapid?

Alter: I don't think they're stupid at all! It's the [celebrity] culture that's hard—the drugs and drinking in the music world.

So celebrities are not that bad. Who are the worst clients?

Alter: Hedge funders, the master of the universe types.

Are there some clients you won't touch?

Foley: If we can't certify their tax returns, we won't represent them. . . I'll work at 7/11 before I take something that I don't think is right.

Wolff: If we see fraud, we tell them to file their taxes and put their nanny on the books before we'll represent them. It's a hard enough job without dealing with people who are guilty of tax or money fraud. We see more tax fraud than the IRS.

You've had a front road seat at marriages that fail. So what drives people to divorce?

Alter: A quarter of the time people get married for the wrong reason: They're hoping that the guy will change, or someone gets pregnant, or the parents force them. A big percentage is because expectations weren't met. Some marriages just wear out; you're married for a long time, then the spouse says one day, you're not exciting anymore.

Wolff: One husband said he was leaving his wife for his girlfriend because his wife only met 95 percent of his needs.

Alter: Can you imagine that—95 percent is not good enough?

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This is a good article and a great topic. I personally believe that practicing family has to be more challenging than most areas of practice, but it's nice to read about three lawyers who are smart and dedicated to those clients. Kudos to them!

Fun and enlightening interview! Met more than 95 percent of my needs.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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