It’s another excruciatingly dull day in the Los Angeles Superior Court building. The hallway on the eighth floor, with its sterile lights and insipid paint job, is the kind of place that drains energy from a person. Its stone benches, which were probably constructed to be as hard on the ass as the overhead lighting is on the eyes, are crowded with men in dark suits and women in darker suits. A somber place for somber affairs.
The scene gets bleaker inside one of the nondescript courtrooms. Each brown paneled wall is flooded with caustic lighting from above. The gray-faced clock is the same model that passes the hours in every high-school classroom in America. This is a family law courtroom, and it’s as uncomfortable as a dentist’s waiting room.
But then a star appears.
No, not a celebrity ready to pay (literally speaking) for an exciting but ill-fated on-set romance, but a real star. Well, actually it’s a tattoo of a star above the right ankle of a woman who’s making her way across the scuff-marked tiled floor. A wash of dark brown hair runs down the back of her Rebecca Taylor skirt suit. Her Dolce & Gabbana shoes — and the tattooed star — move confidently through the swinging doors leading to the clerk’s desk.
This star has hitched itself to Laura Wasser, a partner at Wasser, Cooperman & Carter. (In this case, the “Wasser” is Laura’s father, Dennis, who founded the firm and grew it into one of L.A.’s most successful family law establishments. Last year, for instance, Wasser the elder successfully represented billionaire Kirk Kerkorian in a dissolution suit.) Wasser the younger has been practicing with the firm since 1994. “But I was ‘Xerox girl’ when I was 11,” she clarifies.
Following in her father’s footsteps, Wasser, 36, is already carving out a very successful reputation as the go-to lawyer for Southern California’s plentitude of red-carpet clients seeking relief from the family court system. And in L.A., where that fateful relationship cocktail — equal parts money, fame and temptation — is served 365 days a year, business for Wasser is always good.
“I’ve already represented four of the five members from the band Korn for their divorces and custody cases,” she says while waiting for reassignment from one courtroom to the next. Then she adds, with a bit of melancholy draping her voice, “Now I’m working with the fifth member. That’s sad in a way. But they’re all really nice guys — good fathers, too.”
As Wasser winds through the downtown legal labyrinth, stares do float her way. Her attractive looks might seem familiar to some, being that she was tapped for The New York Times “Sunday Style” section and various magazine profiles; and then there is the face time on “Extra” and “Celebrity Justice.” Since she’s also been seen in the company of such celebrities as Stevie Wonder, Kiefer Sutherland and Angelina Jolie, it’s not a far leap to assume that she is, in fact, a star.
And she is, of a sort. But Wasser knows that most attention comes her way because of who her clients are, so she’s not delusional about her role: “When you represent a lot of celebrities, you have to remember that you are not a celebrity. You’re the lawyer. This is not about your life. This is definitely about someone else and what’s going to happen to them at the end of the day.”
So far, Wasser’s day has been a particularly unglamorous patchwork of piecing together the right court date and judge and whatever else has to be filed, amended, agreed upon, etc., in order for there to be some real movement in her case. But the tedium doesn’t diminish her energy. “I love going to court. I get a rush out of it. But for the most part, if I’m here, it’s costing somebody a lot of money,” she says. “If my client was here today, he would have said something like, ‘Jesus Christ! I can’t believe how much this is costing me for you to just sit around.’ And we do make our money by cashing in on other people’s misfortunes. But it’s a tremendous service, and I like doing it.” After a couple of hours of this routine, Wasser heads back to Century City.
Her small office demonstrates that she is not ostentatious about success. There is no illusion of grandeur, no framed photos of her dining at The Ivy with her clients. Instead there is an eclectic mix of art — including a print of Alice in Wonderland and a curious art deco piece that reads, “She was high society in a low Hollywood dive” — that suggests an ironic sense of humor.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Wasser spent two years at New York University before returning to California and graduating with a rhetoric degree from Berkeley. She attended Loyola Law School, where she had planned on pursuing environmental law or possibly entertainment law. She is still single but is in a long-term relationship. She has traveled extensively but says that returning home always affirms her fondness for the mountains and ocean and everything else Los Angeles offers.
Along with those geographic treasures, Los Angeles has (and this is most fortunate for Wasser’s practice) a high concentration of millionaires. “The clients we service are very high-income, and in L.A. almost everything somehow touches on the entertainment industry,” she says. “That’s good for us.”
Wasser handles most areas of family law, including custody, prenuptials, paternity and palimony. She always asks her clients up front, no matter what situation they’re facing, about their goals. If they’re not sure, she counsels them to go find out. When they can articulate exactly what it is they want, she’s there to accomplish it in a way that will be as pain-free as possible.
But it’s never really pain-free, she says. Along with the astronomical sums of money, multiple houses, possibly a private jet or two on the negotiating table, her clients are still dealing with raw emotions that Wasser needs to be mindful of when addressing their needs and when giving interviews.
“I have a pretty good relationship with the media, but my clients are going through the worst times ever, and I never feel comfortable trying to capitalize on that,” Wasser says. She prefers to keep things off the radar screen whenever possible, even when there is a media frenzy right after the initial court papers are filed.
Such was the case in 2001 when Stevie Wonder was sued by a former girlfriend, Angela McAfee. After the $30 million palimony papers were filed, the media jumped all over McAfee’s assertion that Wonder gave her herpes. It was high-profile and “juicy,” as Wasser remembers. Her opening salvo came in the form of a written statement to the press: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. … We’re sorry that Ms. McAfee has chosen not to be truthful. … Since [Wonder] does not have herpes, one can only wonder where she contracted the disease.”
And then — just as suddenly as the excitement began — it all seemed to fade away. There is nothing to be found on the resolution of the case. “And you won’t find anything,” Wasser confirms with a sly grin stretching across her lips. “When I have media calling me up and saying, ‘Wait a minute, what happened?’ that’s a good thing, I think.”
The case, she says, is settled, and everyone’s gagged from discussing it. She also says that herpes was a non-issue in the case, but that sort of tactic isn’t uncommon in family law. More often than not, Wasser says, it’s a blackmail tool designed to get a higher financial settlement out of a public figure: Put up if you want me to shut up.
That’s not to say that some celebrities — at least their people — don’t feel that even something as private as a divorce can’t be good for their own bottom line. “Every once in a while, if someone’s career isn’t quite so hot, I will get a publicist who calls and asks, ‘Can we spin this? Can we do something with this?’” Wasser looks up, rolling her eyes at just how low some people in the entertainment industry are willing to stoop for publicity.
Some of the cases that Wasser is most proud of are the ones that didn’t proceed to court at all and were handled outside the regular courthouse proceedings, such as the divorce of Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton. “Sure, they had a very public courtship, but they were very private about this. It was really resolved quietly and easily because no one wanted it to become a media circus.”
Wasser, though, has certainly seen her share of Big Top behavior. “I know I shouldn’t be shocked anymore, but sometimes people get so angry. I’ve seen a woman walk out of our conference room and throw a stiletto heel at one of my clients — and it got him.”
Then there was the show-business client of hers who retreated to a guesthouse after a fight with his estranged wife. When his wife asked him to come back into the house, he walked down a set of concrete steps in his bare feet, only to discover the hard way that his wife had covered them with tacks. He ended up falling down the steps, hitting his head on the pavement and screaming obscenities. The wife called 911 — but not for an ambulance. She had him hauled away by the cops. Hell hath no fury indeed.
Wasser’s father unexpectedly enters his daughter’s office and is at once engaging. “This is funny. This is great,” he says with a threatening smile while settling into a chair next to a stuffed Cookie Monster doll. “You know, a magazine did an article about us and Laura had a lot of smug little comments about me … so now it’s my turn.”
But after a few thoughtful moments, the man who’s called on by Wolfgang Puck, Tom Cruise and Tony Curtis for family law litigation has nothing but compliments for his young protégé. He’s suitably impressed with Laura’s talent. “She’s developed her own practice independent of me. She’s a fair, tough person who represents the firm well,” he says. It also comes out that he never had a doubt as to what Laura would grow up to be, as evidenced by the initials of her full name: Laura Alison Wasser. (“That is so geeky,” she says.)
And what if he ever found himself on the other side of the courtroom against his daughter? “I’d eat her alive,” he says dryly.
Laura rolls her eyes and dutifully — and diplomatically — agrees, before getting in her own jab before he leaves. “I didn’t even think I’d see you today. Isn’t it golf day?”
And she must return to work, too, but not before finally explaining that tattoo of hers. “Do you remember the story of the Star-Bellied Sneetches from Dr. Seuss?” she asks looking down at her leg. “This tattoo reminds me that everyone’s the same whether you have a star or not.” Even though Wasser got the tattoo in college (“I was sober,” she insists), she is not offering platitudes here. She began her legal career at the Western Law Center for Disability Rights; and she has spent years volunteering at the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law, which provides legal and domestic violence assistance to low-income families.
Most important, perhaps, is that the nonprofit organization teaches empowerment. “You know, everyone’s going through the same amount of shit out there, and sometimes you just want to try and get your point across,” she says. “And I’m just as passionate representing Joe Schmoe as I am representing Joe Superstar.”