Hollywood's top divorce attorney speaks to Laura Pullman.
In Hollywood's thriving divorce industry, Laura Wasser is the go-to lawyer. Her bread and considerable butter is dealing with the kind of high-profile, high-emotion celebrity break-up that most of us would run a mile from.
"You take what happens with these folks with a grain of salt because they're going through what's often the hardest thing that they've ever experienced," she says. "You can't expect great behaviour from them."
One memorable line in Marriage Story, the heart-wrenching 2019 film about a couple's separation, rings true: "Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best; divorce lawyers see good people at their worst." Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson played the warring spouses in the movie, but it was Laura Dern who won the Oscar a year ago for her portrayal of a glamorous, cut-throat divorce lawyer — and it was Wasser who reportedly provided the real-life inspiration for that character. Noah Baumbach, the film's director, had recently been embroiled in lengthy divorce proceedings with the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, whom Wasser represented in court.
On Friday, US media reported that Wasser had filed divorce papers on behalf of Kim Kardashian, who is ending her marriage to Kanye West after seven years and four children. (The rapper's disastrous presidential campaign was said to have been the "final straw".) . Wasser previously represented Kardashian when her marriage to Kris Humphries, a basketball player, crumbled after 72 days.
"I have represented members of that family for years, and they're lovely and wonderful to do business with," the lawyer, 52, tells me.
She also steered Johnny Depp through his ferocious divorce from the actress Amber Heard after their 15-month marriage imploded in 2016. Although she plays down her rottweiler reputation, she is not above mudslinging, allegedly calling Heard's demand for more millions after the settlement was closed "a blatant attempt to extend her 15 minutes of fame".
She fought too for Maria Shriver in her $400 million divorce from Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom she left after he had a love child with their housekeeper. Britney Spears, Heidi Klum, Jennifer Garner, Ashton Kutcher, Mariah Carey and scores of other A-listers all turned to Wasser in their hour of need. After seven months of marriage to the pop star Miley Cyrus, the Hunger Games actor Liam Hemsworth hired Wasser to sort out his divorce as stealthily and speedily as possible.
It's little wonder Wasser appeals to the Tinseltown set: she's glossy, straight-shooting, reassuringly expensive — charging US$950 ($1,300) an hour plus a US$25,000 ($34,000) retainer — and impeccably discreet. She's well connected too. Kamala Harris, the US vice-president, has been a friend for years. "I'm so proud of her," says Wasser from her enviably chic LA living room. "Kamala is an awesome girlfriend. I mean, she's fun, you can have a drink with her, she swears, she's amazing and she's supersmart."
You could say Wasser was born for law. She was given the initials LAW by her lawyer father and in her mid-twenties began her legal career at the firm he set up. At that time her own marriage ended after just 14 months and now, more than two decades on, she describes the idea of predicting which relationships will last and which won't as a fool's errand. "Even at weddings I'd be, like, 'I don't know how this is ever going to work,' then they stay together. Whatever it is, the passion, the crazy, those are often the ones that work, and the most lovely, evolved, mild-mannered couples come in and they just couldn't make it work."
The enlarged egos, endless jet-setting and strange work schedules surely make it hard for Hollywood stars to maintain a marriage, but do they behave differently in relationships from the rest of us?
"There is an element of entitlement that I think wealthy and celebrity people have," she says cautiously. "But divorce is the great equaliser. You're terrified, heartbroken, angry. You feel maybe guilty, what was it that I did wrong? You feel like a failure."
Most people who knock on her door are already in marriage therapy — this is California — but if they're not, she recommends they try it. "In the entertainment industry we see a lot of people that bought the dream, wanted the beautiful wedding and the romance," she explains. "Then, when the bloom is off the rose, it's not as exciting any more, you don't get the same butterflies, you're ready to move on. I'll often say, 'Look, unless you're just one of those addicted-to-love types and you're going to keep finding someone, this woman or man's shit is just the same as the next one, so let's see if we can work through it.' "
A plague-hit year of couples being stuck under one roof has proved to be a catalyst for separations. Wasser says her online divorce platform, It's Over Easy, has seen a surge in visitors in 2021. Some people vow to escape their marriage as a new year's resolution. As one woman put it to Wasser: "I've resolved that I'm going to lose 165 pounds, and his name is Steve."
The balance between fighting for a relationship on the rocks and knowing when to call it quits is a tricky one. "There's no divine epiphany, there's no lightning bolt. You know, sometimes you walk in and your husband is getting blown by the nanny. So that's kind of a good sign [that it's over]," she says bluntly.
That said, she has witnessed plenty of marriages bounce back from infidelity: "The ones that are more difficult are when they've really just grown apart. There has been too much resentment, too much growth in opposite directions, or one growing and the other stagnating. Not enough communication, not enough working on the relationship — because it's hard to be in a marriage."
Family lawyers talk of doubling up as therapists, but Wasser wears that hat lightly. "I'm always very careful to tell people I'm not licensed. Personally I'm a bit of a hot mess, there's no reason that I'd be a good person to be talking you through your next relationship," she says, laughing.
Following her own divorce she had two sons — now aged 15 and 11 — with different partners. She broke up with a long-term boyfriend just before coronavirus struck and is now seeing someone else whom she met through mutual friends. "It's very new and we'll see even what happens," she says. She dismisses the idea that she's intimidating to men. "I'm very conflict-averse in my relationships — romantic and otherwise — because I do it all day long." Her friends agree: "They'll say, 'She's not going to get into that argument with you. If she's not getting $950 an hour, she's not playing.' "
It also helps when men learn that she has no interest in walking down the aisle again. Don't marry young is the advice she would give her children: "Marriage is a contract. As long as you understand what the terms of the contract are, go for it. I always say the same thing to my kids about leasing a car or purchasing a home — this is a contract, are you good with those terms?"
Wasser, who grew up in Los Angeles and attended Beverly Hills High School alongside David Schwimmer, is openly sceptical that humans are suited to one decades-long monogamous relationship.
"Getting into bed night after night after night with the same person 'till death do you part' must have been much easier in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s," she says. "Now it's a longer period of evolution in our lives. Look, if you find your soulmate and you stay married for 50, 60, 70 years, God bless. But we can see from the statistics that that's not the norm. So, if this many people are experiencing divorce, can't we do it better? Can we do it in a way that's less detrimental to our kids, to our psyches, to our physicality?"
She reportedly stopped working for Angelina Jolie when her drawn-out divorce from Brad Pitt, with whom she shares six children, became too aggressive.
"It's our job to kind of be the spirit animal to get somebody through a divorce," Wasser says. "But the more conflict there is, the more money we make, so I do have colleagues who I can see are running the clock, making it more difficult, stirring the pot and making more money."
Being direct with her clients is key. "I say, 'I'm not going to blow sunshine up your ass,'" she says, explaining that she'll turn away people if they seem overly out for blood. "I can see the crazy."
The demands surrounding prenuptial agreements are gobsmacking. One basketball player wanted the contract to include how quickly his wife should lose her baby weight after giving birth. Another sportsman tried to insist that his partner couldn't keep his name if they divorced. One woman, the wealthier partner, wanted a contractual obligation that if her husband-to-be routinely left the loo seat up, hairs in the sink or the cap off the toothpaste, she wouldn't have to stump up in a divorce. Wasser explained to them why these conditions were not legally enforceable, or the best way to embark on marital life.
High-earning, high-status women who married their "equal" but later outpaced him often find their way to her office. "Now he's on the couch in his boxer shorts," she explains. "He's not really a stay-at-home dad, because they have a nanny, housekeeper and chef. She's working, she's killing it, and she's, like, 'Laura, help me get this albatross off from around my neck. He never hit his potential at all.'"
She sets out to these women how, post-divorce, they will be paying child and spousal support, might have to sell their home and will lose half their money. "And she's, like, 'That's so unfair.' And I say, 'Yeah, men have been saying that for years. That's the law.' It's very interesting when these women first realise that what's good for the goose is good for the gander."
Talk turns to co-parenting, where her secret to success is the three Cs: co-operation, consideration and communication. During the pandemic — with differing opinions about facemasks, socialising and home schooling, for example — the consideration element is particularly pertinent. Wasser's parents divorced and were "amazing co-parents" and she is "super close" with the fathers of her sons: "They're my family members. Just, you know, we haven't decided that we were going to have romantic relationships till death do us part."
Even over Zoom Wasser is flawlessly glamorous though she admits, shockingly, that she hasn't bothered with high heels for our interview. She is as gym-toned as her actress clientele while her wardrobe is one of Prada briefcases, Christian Louboutin heels, and Oscar de la Renta dresses. "Nobody ever wants me to be hotter than them," she says, before quickly adding, "which, by the way, has never been a problem."
After we have spoken for almost an hour — the clock is about $800 — she unexpectedly mentions that she has legally married friends after getting ordained online. On New Year's Eve Wasser married her cousin over a Zoom call. All the couples she has wed, she tells me proudly, are still happily together. "I love a good wedding," she says, her face lighting up. "I love romance. I love falling in love. I'm still very much for it."
Written by: Laura Pullman
© The Times of London