A Day in the Life of a Divorce Lawyer
By Ruth Hochberger
Raoul Lionel Felder has been called "a shark," "a tiger," and a bomber," and he doesn't mind a bit- probably because some of those doing the name-calling are usually on the other side of the divorce, separation, and child-custody cases he handles for wealthy clients, many of them well known to the public.
He is willing, he says, to "go for the jugular" in the courtroom and has acquired a reputation as a formidable adversary in litigation. Also, he has a unique knack for calming people in difficult, emotional situations which (combined with what seems to be inexhaustible energy) may account for his professional and financial success.
6 o'clock Start
On a recent day spent with Mr. Felder, he was in his elegant, woodpaneled office on Fifth Avenue at 6 A.M., did paperwork and reviewed case files until at 8 o'clock he answered the first of dozens of that day's telephone calls. He had been in court the previous two days, which accounted for much of the paperwork on his desk. At 9 o'clock, he called two associates and one of three secretaries to his office for a meetings to discuss the day's work. The session, which lasted about twenty minutes, combined troop deployment, advice, guidance, and pep talk, as they reviewed a list of active cases.
The bearded, well-groomed Mr. Felder -tall, lean and clad in custom tailored suit and monogrammed shirt - paused to take another phone call from an interested party in producer David Merrick's divorce suit. In which he represented Mrs. Merrick in a hearing the day before.
At about 9:30, Mr. Felder began his first client meeting of the day - one of six he would have - with a man who is being sued by his wife for divorce, Mr. Felder had called him in to encourage him to agree to settle the case before trial.
Mr. Felder says he represents more women clients than men, but claims to have represented more men than any other matrimonial attorney in the city.
"Matrimonial lawyers always represent more women than men," he said. "Most of the husbands already have a lawyer for their businesses, so they have developed an intimate relationship with a lawyer."
He told his client that he has consulted with the other attorney on the question of settlement and he is convinced that the case can be settled by offering the wife $15,000 a year and the house. The client began by discussing the offer calmly and unemotionally but ended angry with his lawyer at what he believes is an unfair system.
"She's going to end up living better than I am," he muttered.
"You are the victim of a lousy system," Mr. Felder said, consoling his client. "But I want you to know that in a case like this, with no children involved, where it's just a matter of dollars and cents, the judge is going to spend about five minutes on it, and you'll end up paying just about the same."
The client agred to the settlement if Mr. Felder is able to arrange it so that with a change in his client's circumstances (such as sickness or retirement) the support agreement can be modified to the client's benefit.
Messages to Be Answered
Between appointments, Mr. Felder was constantly on the telephone -screening new clients, calming old ones, and trading gossip and settlement proposals with his colleagues at the matrimonial bar. Since he had been out of the office for two days, there were many messages to be answered.
In one conversation with a prospective client who wanted to divorce her husband, he told her that he would not give her advice over the telephone, advised her not to come late in the afternoon, lest her husband wonder where she has been, and assured her that if the appointment is canceled one of his secretaries will call and say that her "hairdresser appointment" has been cancelled.
Mr. Felder has appointments with between six and twelve new clients each week and only accepts one out of every four who come in for an initial appointment. At the outset. he determines the fee and gets some payment in advance - he sets one price for the whole procedure, whether it ultimately goes to trial or not.
"I have no idea how I set my fees; it could be anywhere from $7,500 to $100,000," he said "I don't think a guy earning $20,000 and a guy earning $500,000 should pay the same price. But the most important factor is how difficult I estimate the client will be."
Investigation Checks In
Another call came in from one of the private investigators retained on one of Mr. Fender's cases: "It's the same girl? And you got her there all night? It must be a real romance then. Did you get her name?
Mr. Felder advises his clients to retain a private detective on virtually every case he handles. "It's not only good to find out about adultery (which ls what people assume) ; also, you get a good feel for the person's habits and how he spends his money when you follow them for awhile,'' he said. "I have never used one on a case where I have felt that it was a sheer waste of time."
At 10:30, the second client arrived - a well-dressed socialite, whom Mr. Felder has called in to report a referee's decision in her suit for back-support payments against one of her husbands from numerous marriages.
The woman was nervous when she sat down to hear the report, but Mr. Felder quickly calmed her with a compliment and a quip. He could barely hide his glee at telling her that the referee has awarded nearly all of the $18,000 she was asking and she hugs and kisses him with joy. Mr. Felder says he never hires the investigator for a client. but suggests that if the client knows someone that he use that person. He is also quick to inform the client when the investigator's services are no longer necessary. Between the phone calls and apointments, Mr. Felder's associates appear in his office to have him review motions and briefs they have prepared and to get his signature on the court papers: he does not let any official papers out of the office without reviewing them.
"This guy's going to have a heart attack when he reads this," he said. "Now, the next thing we do is move to enter judgment and grab his property in Long Island. Since he's a Connecticut resident, he'll have to put up a substantial bond if he wants to appeal this."
Flattering the middle-aged woman, he said, "I told you beauty would out in this case." "No," she said, obviously adoring the compliment, "Skill and right will out and it did!"
Ending a Brief Marriage
The next client arrived at 11 A.M., a tanned, stylish twenty-six-year-old, who came in with her father to discuss a settlement for ending her brief marriage.
The lawyer and client compared the tax returns she pilfered from her husband's desk to the statement of earnings submitted to Mr. Felder by the husband's attorney.
The husband, who is said to earn about $175,000 a year had understated his earnings by about $50,000 and neglected to enumerate substantial stock and bond holdings. Mr. Felder was to meet with the husband's attorney the next day, so he wanted to be sure to prepare all the discrepandies accurately.
"Well, what do you think, Pop?" he asked his client's father. "Let's get a little more for her. He can afford to pay more. If I thought it was unfair, believe me, I would tell you, but I know he can afford more."
It is time for lunch, but Mr. Felder doesn't often break for lunch. He works five days a week from 6 A.M. to about 9 P.M. He said he sleeps two to three hours a night and eats only one meal a day. He got into "the skin game", as he calls it, by chance.
Wanted to Be Doctor
A graduate of New York university in 1955, he wanted to be a doctor, but was not admitted to medical school in the United States, so he went to the University of Bern college of Medicine In Switzerland for two years, before returning to NYU for a law degree, which he received in 1959.
He was in private practice for a year, before working for the U.S. Attorney's office from 1961 to 1964 as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern district of New York. Mr. Felder submitted his resignation without any idea of what his next job would be.
"About this time, there was a rock-and-roll singer who wanted a divorce and he was willing to pay at that time what I considered the tremendous fee of $5,000." he said, "He told me that he knew his wife was having an affair with the guy who was the best man at their wedding, but he couldn't prove it.
"So I suggested a technique which I still use and which has proven to be about 70 percent effective. I told him to call the guy and tell him that he knew about the affair and that it was all right with him, since it was over between him and his wife.
"Well, he did this, and, sure enough, the best man said that he was so glad that my client felt that way and that he was glad it was all out in the open. Well, I subpoenaed the best man my client got his divorce, and the Daily News ran a big headline the next day, 'Best man kisses and Tells.'"
His Big Case
That one case established Raoul Felder in the matrimonial area, he says. but the big money did not start coming in right away. "I chased space in another attorney's office, but somehow I managed subtly to imply to my clients that all these other people around were my employees." He told about how he would type his own retainer agreements the night before a meeting with a new client, and the next day, when the client arrived, he would buzz the receptionist and ask her to type and bring in the already typed agreement.
He also said that since he could only afford to hire a typist one day a week, he tried to schedule his motions so that she would be able to type them all in time.
A native of Williamsburg in Brooklyn where his father was a lawyer, the dark-haired, distinguished-looking Mr. Felder earned over $350,000 last year, which allows him to indulge his penchant for good modern art, Tiffany watches, and custom-tailored clothes.
Wife a Lawyer
Felder and his wife, Myrna, who has her own matrimonial law practice and recently stepped down as president of the New York women's Bar Association, live in what he described as "a palace" on Fifth Avenue with their two children. Rachel, ten, and James, six. Mr. Felder, who is forty-three years of age, has a house in Easthampton for weekends and recently bought a boat, but he has not taken a vacation or a day off for illness in fifteen years.
"I have a car I don't drive, a boat I never saw, a swimming pool I don't use and an apartment I barely see," he commented wryly. He feels that lawyers were given a "bum rap'' by Chief Judge Charles D. Breitel who recently stated that lawyers were becoming too "greedy." Mr. Felder has a notion that the remarks were aimed at matrimonial lawyers like himself.
"Why shouldn't the top man in the city name his own price? he said. "I'll bet the top silver engraver or the top jeweler can charge an astronomical figure." Mr. Felder charges a minimum of $7,500 for a litigated divorce and he gets a signed retainer agreement at his first meeting with a client.
At 1 P.M., Mr. Felder ushered in his next client -a young, scared, bitter woman, to prepare her for a settlement conference with her husband and his attorney.
Since her husband is unable to hold a job because he is unstable, Mr. Felder patiently explains to her that the judge will never award her alimony, especially since she is now working at a higher salary than her husband's, but he suggests that they try to obtain a better than 50-50 split on the proceeds from the sale of their expensive home.
At the settlement conference, Mr. Felder convinced the husband and his young attorney that the wife is making a "supreme sacrifice" bygiving up all rights to alimony now and in the future.
"Look, you're a young man. If you want to submit the support issue to the courts, I'll be happy to take a 50-50 spilt in the house, but you realize those payments could go on for the rest of your life. And, if you overcome your problem, which I'm sure you will, and become successful, she'll have the right to go in and ask for more. You don't want that and neither does she."
During the session, Mr. Felder picked swiftly at the keys on his pocket calculator and the last five years' cost-of-living increases were at his fingertips. He explained some capital gains aspects of the taxes on the house to his opposing counsel and the deal was all but settled when they left.
During a break between telephone calls and appointments. Mr. Felder identified some of his clients, a varied lot in life styles, including Mrs. Merrick, the wife of composer Alan J. Lerner, entertainer Tiny Tim, an Episcopal bishop, a Hassidic rabbi and several prostitutes.
He has also represented some of New York's "first families" but he declined to reveal the nature of the private, out-of-court arrangements that often get hushed up by means of Haitian and Dominican proceedings.
He does not like to represent entertainers, "It causes too many headaches, it's not real big-money business, and I wouldn't kowtow to them," he said.
He also tries to steer clear of adoption proceedings and limits the custody cases he will take on. He is adamant that he would never involve himself in the kidnapping of a child in a custody case.
"I would never do it," he said. "But until we get a uniform child custody act In all fifty states, I can understand why people do it."
Preparing a Client
His next client arrived at 3:30 P.M. Mr. Felder is going to trial on this one in a few days, and he wants to prepare the client preliminarily and reassure him, although they will spend several hours together on the day prior to trial wrapping up all the loose ends.
"Now, you tell me what the salient matters are for me to raise on cross- examination," he asked the client.
"Keep in mind that you are going to have a judge who is very busy and couldn't care less about this case."
Mr. Felder then gave his client a quick course in hearsay evidence and cautioned him not to be hostile on the stand at trial. He knew all the facts of this case (as well as all the others he has discussed on this particular day) without notes and recited most of the figures and dates from memory.
Mr. Felder said that the field of matrimonial law is wide open. especially for young lawyers and Women.
"It's really a field for young people; they can be out of school and treating their peers within three or four years," he said. "And it's a terrific field for women lawyers; they bring so much to this - sensitivity and caring." ''Maybe it's a manifestation of our society that no one cares. It's a rip-it- up-and-throw-it-away society, But the most important thing in this business is to care about people and their problems."
When asked why he works so hard, sleeps so little, and makes time to enjoy the pleasures of his income so rarely, he appeared a bit bemused that the question is even asked.
"Why do I do it? I do it because it's there. Because that's the way I was brought up - to work hard."
|© 2010 Raoul Lionel Felder|