The Roughest Divorce Lawyers in Town
By Charles Sopkin
A bomber is a divorce lawyer who will do almost anything to win a case for his client. Divorce lawyers never refer to themselves as bombers; in fact, they prefer being called matrimonial lawyers. Bombers are called bombers by other lawyers because they'll cheerfully throw a bomb into the proceedings to win a point, set, or match.
One lawyer in New York City -who refuses to have any truck whatsoever with bombers- can recall pausing one day in Matrimonial Court and overhearing the following defense: " Your honor," shouted the bomber, "your honor, this man's wife is a f - - - - - - hoor."
In his book Divorce, Raoul Lionel Felder, a New York City divorce attorney, points out "If it comes to a fight, it is the lawyer's function, using all ethical, legal, and moral means, to bring his adversary to his knees as fast as possible. Naturally, within thin this framework the lawyer must go for the 'soft spots.'"
Felder discusses some rather hair-raising techniques of the trade, one of which involved a merchant prince who hired a gigolo to seduce his wife. The seduction, needless to say, was visited upon by a band of private eyes, and a divorce ensued. Some years lather, this merchant prince's son also was in the mood for a divorce, and surprise of surprises, the deus ex machina was the same gigolo, obviously passed from father to son. It was discovered only when ex-wife compared notes with exdaughter-in-law and the two of them realized that their gigolo was one and the same: same pointy mustache, same pointy ears, same pointy incisors.
Felder says you've got to hire private eyes sometimes; they're expensive. but often they are worth it. He also advises wives to look around the house for financial records, diaries, strange keys, and scraps of paper. Felder is adamant about joint bank accounts; "Usually the one who has physical possession of the bankbook and gets to the bank first gets the money."
If any or all of this turns your stomach or causes your left anterior descending artery to go into an occasional spasm, understand, as Felder puts it, that "all this may not be cricket, but it is legal."
Obviously picking a divorce lawyer who can latch on to the scent of blood a mile off is not an easy task. There are, in the state of New York. 40,000 practicing attorneys, give or take an ambulance chaser, and there are in the city of New York a good 25,000 practicing attorneys, give or take a few bail bondsmen loitering around the courthouse, but out of the 25,000 there are but a dozen or so universally acknowledged, dyed-in-the-wool bombers.
" ...If big-time money is at stake and you want to leave your husband/wife with nothing but scorched earth, get a bomber..."
It is an interesting profession, that of matrimonial lawyer, and it exists as a subspecialty because most people are downright innocent and/or na´ve about the crudities of divorce. The statement, "Oh, we're having an amicable divorce," ranks right alongside "My stock options are really going to make me rich" as one of the absurdities of our time. Show me a man who thought he was eating an "amicable divorce" and faced a bomber, and I'll show you a man five flights up and into laundromats.
It must be said at the beginning of this exercise in matrimonial horror that every divorce lawyer says he makes a stab at settling whatever ailed the marriage. However, most divorce lawyers know in their heart of hearts that by the time a marriage shambles into their door, the situation is hopeless and beyond redemption. Almost every divorce lawyer will make an attempt to resolve issues if the prospect of a horrifying custody case looms in front of them . "Children are the sufferers in the best of divorces," says William G. Mulligan, who prefers to call himself a trial lawyer rather than a divorce lawyer. Mulligan. a Harvard Law School gradulate and a well-known practitioner of matrimonial law, is also one of the more elegant lawyers in the field. Mulligan is quick to point out that he doesn't mind being called a matrimonial lawyer but hates being called a divorce lawyer. "In fact. clients think that a divorce lawyer lives by getting divorces, like an abortionist lives by performing abortions."
If divorce lawyers truly have a distaste for custody cases, they all seem to enjoy the prospect of trying a case against a lawyer who has strayed into their part of the legal jungle without ample warning. Let us say, hypothetically, that you are an executive with a large corporation which has strong connections with a Sullivan & Cromwell, a Lord, Day & Lord, or a Dewey, Ballantine. These are wonderful law firms, with distinguished histories and glowing futures, but they are, by and large, innocents adrift in the sea of matrimony, especially if they are thrown into the pit with the likes of an Irving I. Erdheim. Esq. Let us say that you decide to divorce your wife, and the counsel of your company suggests that "one of the boys" at the distinguished law firm will "straighten the matter out for you." With all due respect to the prestigious firms, the odds are that you'll be given a junior partner who is liable to land you in alimony jail if you're not careful.
Most divorce lawyers are fairly charitable about downtown Wall Street competition: they relish it and yet they know it can cause immense headaches, because the junior partner from the prestigious firm has to be taught matrimonial law by his opposition and the court as well, or else the case is likely to drag on for years.
It is inconceivable after viewing Irving Erdheim in action that anyone but a fellow professional in the same rat race would stand a chance against him and his fellow bombers. Erdheim is 64 years old, looks perhaps a fast 50, and is able to juggle in his office at the same time a brittle blonde reading a deposition with a cold-hearted grin, a private eye sitting in his outer office (despite Erdheim's assertion that these days one rarely has need for a private eye), and a sticky custody case in which he is trying to prove that a man in a wheelchair is more fit for the custody of his children than his spouse.
Lest anyone regard the divorce industry with the slightest trace of charity, the entire business from separation to final decree is indeed ruthless, brutal, and filled with as much ugliness as the human psyche can conjure with. "We do a lot of yelling, carrying on, calling each other names." says Erdheim, and herein lies the heart of the matter.
When a prospective client walks into the door of Erdheim, or Mulligan, or Vincent J. Malone, Esq., or Morris H. (for Happy) Halpern, Esq ., or Raoul Lionel Felder, Esq., or William Herman, Esq., or even Dr. Mitchell Salem Fisher, Esq., said client is out for blood, two ears, and at least a tail. This blood lust can lead to behavior patterns which are bizarre to say the least. "They're highly neurotic people when they walk in here," says Erdheim, shaking his head in wonderment. Thus, says Erdheim, "I get my money up front." meaning Erdheim doesn't shilly-shally around, neurotic or not.
Erdheim is not alone in his assessment of his clients. Mulligan says one of his first questions is whether the client also has considered therapy. Mulligan, in fact, seems to be more oriented toward therapy than any other lawyer I interviewed. He is also acutely aware of the going rate at the neighborhood shrink and he admits that paying his retainer and a therapist is not for the Robert Hall crowd.
All divorce lawyers try to assess the client emotionally and economically. Raoul Lionel Felder says, "After a while, if you are fairly successful, you don't deal with the crazies and believe me, there are crazies. I look for little, minimal clues. If a woman comes into my office with a shopping bag, I don't take her. In her bag, she's carrying her 'evidence' against her husband. Out. If she tells me she's had another lawyer, out. And if she tells me that her lawyer or the judge is crooked, I don't even say another word. Out."
William Herman also uses the shopping-bag method of separating the crazies from the noncrazies, but he is willing to concede that if someone is carrying only one shopping bag from Bloomingdale's the level of stability is obviously greater than four shopping bags from the old John Wanamaker's in New York.
As for money, well, that's what big-time divorce lawyers are all about. You don't go through the grinding humiliation unless there is something at stake, and hate is a primary motivation. Herman says, "If the lady comes in here and she starts to tell me her story and I look at her and I look at her clothing and I hear a little bit of her story, then I make a judgment. I might say, "Yes, this is a typical Larchmont commuter, middle-level executive situation where the fellow is earning $40,000 to $60,000, wife and two kids, and he's got to worry about religious school and the summer camp and the house at Amagansett and the case falls into a certain niche..."
Adios, Larchmont commuter. If you save your pennies, you might make Mister Laff's on a Monday night.
Divorce is not really for the middle class pocketbook. Adultery is okay, and Several lawyers implied that perhaps that is the only way out. Living a life of quiet desperation is also okay; in fact, it's the American way of handling the situation. Felder recalls trying a case recently where he represented the husband and before the case got going the wife tried to commit suicide in the law- yer's office. She was rushed off to Belle- vue. But divorce is truly the last refuge of the upper class, and a first-class bomber is a servant to the upper class. Depending on which bomber you talk to. he either discusses fees during the visit or he leaves the matter until the second visit. All of the lawyers I interviewed admitted that their fees were high. Erdheim said flatly, "I have probably the highest fees in New York."
"...Bombers are in business to accommodate hate. Like Doberman pinschers, they get directly to the heart of the matter..."
The retainer for a top-flight bomber will range anywhere from $7,500 on up, and there truly doesn't seem to be any upper limit. Some of the lawyers try to calculate whether litigation will be involved; others simply include the potential of court appearance in the fee almost as if they were calculating the tennis fees for a summer weekend at Grossinger's. Malone claims that he doesn't discuss the fees at all during the initial visit. Others say that they bring the subject up immediately to clear up any fantasy the client might have.
Everyone is highly sensitive about fees, and whenever you bring up the subject. bombers tend to evade the issue, citing various and sundry codes of ethics, which prevent publicizing of legal fees. Some bombers try to bill on a fixed hourly rate, but since most bombers are in small offices, or indeed practice by themselves, this traditional billing method of the larger firms really doesn't work for them. The thing to remember about fees is your degree of hate. if you don't think you'll ever be able to negotiate a settlement and you're prepared to fight your spouse mano a mano through the courts, the combat is costly. Getting a lawyer out of his office is expensive, but to crank up a bomber, pump him full of righteous indignation, and ship him down to the matrimonial courts can be terribly expensive running fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five thousand dollars.
What most people don't seem to realize when they walk into a bomber's office is that bombers are in business to accommodate hate. Even therapy-oriented Mulligan admits to only a 5 per cent rate of salvaging a marriage by the time it reaches his office. Bombers, like Doberman pinschers and proctologists, are in existence to get directly to the heart of the matter -to use a slightly mixed metaphor.
One man in New York was interviewed by one of the aforementioned bombers prior to his suing for divorce and was asked routinely about the place of birth of his wife. It just happened that the man's wife was born in England and had moved to the United States. "Well," said the bomber, "then it's a simple matter. We'll get her deported." The man (despite the urgency with which he wanted the divorce) was appalled at the ruthlessness of the bomber. "What's the matter?" asked the bomber. "I'd prefer something a little less, ah, violent," said the man. "Then you don't want the divorce, and naturally you don't want me," said the bomber, dismissing the man and his case and moving on toward more fruitful occupations, like wrenching children from custody.
A young woman in the city was truly frightened by her initial interview with her bomber. She and her husband were desperately trying to keep bitterness out of the separation and divorce: they had two children and were acutely aware of the emotional damage that a divorce can wreak on a child. The bomber's opening remark was something out of the nineteenth century: "Little girl, how has this man wronged you?" The woman says that she hadn't heard the expression "wronged" for perhaps fifteen years. "He was a despicable man ," the woman says of her bomber, adding that the exposure to him was the worst thing which happened to her -including the divorce.
The woman's experience raises the question of how much bombers do contribute to exacerbated feelings, egging on individuals and taking a situation which potentially could be soluble and turning it into a nightmare, The woman feels that this was absolutely the situation in her case; no attempt was made at reconstruction, just destruction. The woman Went on to another lawyer and although she is still separated from her husband, she hasn't divorced him, and who knows? They still are quite amicable, are concerned about their children, and certainly have a sensible dialogue. Needless to say, bombers claim they only do what they are asked to do, and never would they accelerate the agony.
Bombers say they step in only when the marriage is "dead." The quotation marks are deliberate and they go back to a landmark case of Jackie Gleason and his wife, who was Malone's client. The Gleasons had been separated for some fourteen years and finally Gleason sued on the ground that the marriage was not viable, it had no "life" in it. Mrs. Gleason claimed that she had been abandoned, but the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Gleason. Malone lost the case and to this day doesn't think much of the "dead marriage" theory. (Although Malone refuses to talk about his victorious days in court, he has been on the winning side of some nifty. page-three-of-The-Daily-News cases: he represented Dr. Murphy when Happy Murphy Rockefeller lost custody of her children and he also was involved in the Ali Khan-Rita Hayworth divorce.)
Malone wishes New York State didn't have its current divorce law (passed in September, 1967) but instead we were back in the good old days when men were men, women were women, adultery was the only ground for divorce, and the woods were full of love nests being broken into, complete with private eyes, adulterous guys, photographers with Speed Graphics at the ready, and evidence which was evidence. Malone is not alone; Happy Halpern feels the same way. What disturbs some of the older lawyers about the current divorce laws is the relative ease with which a divorce can be obtained. Halpern feels that fewer divorces would take place if more couples adhered to his new version of the Ten Commandments: "1. Thou shalt not marry in haste. 2. Thou shalt not marry to remake your spouse. 3. Thou shalt not stop courting your spouse. 4. Thou shalt not love too blindly. 5. Thou shalt not marry for love alone. (You must also like your spouse.) 6. Thou shalt not marry for security alone. (You must also love your spouse.) 7. Thou shalt not take each other for granted. 8. Thou shalt not vacation separately. 9. Thou shalt not envy your neighbor. 10. Thou shalt not aim to outdo your neighbor."
"...A man may have loved his wife when he told her the number of his Zurich bank account, but he will regret it in a divorce..."
Speaking of shalt not marrying for security alone, several lawyers say they see an increasing number of just the sort of marriages Halpern warned about in his Commandments Five and Six. They have had a number of cases recently where the woman has come to them seek- ing relief from a marriage which has gone dead as a belly lox. Upon examination, it turns out that the husband married, and lo and behold, there he was in the wife's family business. Doing nicely, thank God, with a real head on his shoulders. Years went by. business got better. the husband rose through the ranks of brothers-in-law, errant nephews, and the like, and then suddenly the husband, now guiding the future of the family business, says he has had enough of his wife. His father-in-law, happily ensconced in a condominium in West Palm Beach, doesn't want to hear about his daughter, who now is in her desperate forties. Her husband is in his suave forties, deftly starting a new life. Enter the bomber, laughing uproariously. In this kind of situation, where the husband can't be casually booted out of the family business, the woman must have a bomber at her side to guide her through the darkening trauma.
Financial settlements are the murkiest areas of all divorce cases because of the Alice-in-Wonderland relationship to reality that many of the cases have. Although tax returns are very much admissible evidence to a court, neither the lawyers nor the court lets them dictate a settlement. This is especially true when the husband is either a partner or the full owner of a privately held business. Although the W2 aspect of a man's salary in such a situation might be suspiciously low, the corporation might be kicking in from $l0,000 on up in expenses, a company car, petty cash, free life insurance, and all of the other perks that don't show up on a tax return but certainly have a bearing on standard of living.
Taxes and tax law are intimately involved in any divorce settlement. Alimony is deductible from a man's taxes, but the woman who receives it must pay a tax on it. child Support. however, can't be deducted by the man; the woman doesn't have to pay taxes on it. In 1961, the Supreme court ruled if alimony and child support are lumped --- together that is, specific allocations are not spelled out the whole package can be deductible. Lawyers, even those who are out to lunch regularly, are aware of this ruling and rarely let a husband get away with such a maneuver.
There are no hard and fast rules about alimony. some judges work out alimony and child support to be worth 40 per cent of a man's gross income. other rules of thumb take one-third to one-half of after-tax income as the basis of alimony and child support. In 99 per cent of the cases, what's left rarely pays the bills adequately, or in the style to which both man and wife were accustomed to having. one lawyer said that a man with a $60,000-a-year income, paying $20,000 a year in alimony and child support of $3,000 a year, might have left after all the shouting $19,000, while the woman would have to try to live on $17,000 a year.
Today, instead of admissible evidence of errant husbands being caught delicto with frowsy blondes in the local Cozy at stake, or serious custody questions at cabin, the lawyers often are found walking around and negotiating with secret financial reports of a man's worth. He may have loved her when he told her the number of the secret account in Zurich, but he'll regret it in a divorce. No bomber admits to anything but up and-up behavior when it comes to the handling of financial documents, but one bomber I visited was sitting in his office chortling over a secret second set of books, which his client had managed to steal from her husband. Sure enough, there were two sets of figures for the family garage-one in red and one in blue. They could have been in a purple for apoplexy for the color of the husband when he found out what was happening. obviously, the bomber will quietly confront the man's lawyer with the second set of books and a terrific settlement will be made.
Finally, paranoia. One gets the impression of a very private club after talking with the top divorce lawyers. They all seem to be on a first-name basis, full of good cheer about each other, and although they may despise one another, you can't tell it until you hear them savaging each other in court. "Hap is one of my oldest friends," says Erdheim. "Vinnie and I are really close friends," Mulligan says. "I think Malone is one of the finest lawyers in the country," says Raoul Lionel Felder. That being the case, do any of these friendships lead to deals leaving the clients shortchanged? "We absolutely do not make 'sweetheart' deals," Mulligan says. I tend to believe Mulligan, but the client is faced with the fact that the top eight or ten divorce lawyers in this city have opposed each other time and again, and know each other like a book. Thus when they start to negotiate. it is not as if they were negotiating with no previous knowledge whatsoever. There are parameters to divorce settlements. just as there are parameters to any negotiation. and one must as-sum: that the top bombers know the Parameters down to the last penny.
Obviously, it is better to settle out ofcourt rather than in. Just as obviously, it's cheaper to stay married than to getdivorced. But the incontrovertible fact remains that if there is big-time money Stake. or you want to leave your husband/wife with nothing but a little scorched earth. get a bomber. Although it is against the canons of ethics to recommend one bomber over another. I might add just one fact aboutone of the divorce lawyers. Dr. Mitchell Salem Fisher. Fisher is a bomber of the first rank. but he also happens to be anOrthodox rabbi. Thus, if it comes to passon the fourth day that he is bombing Out your spouse in court, and you just happen to be head over heels as Earl Wilson might say with someone brand new, comes the seventh day and Dr. Fisher can marry you. Shouldn't be a total loss.
|© 2010 Raoul Lionel Felder|