To Dream a Dream of Family Law
Michael Maguire won a Tony for leading a failed revolution in the original Broadway production of Les Miserables; now he helps those with failed marriages
Published in 2013 Southern California Rising Stars magazine
on June 13, 2013
Updated on December 16, 2019
Q: You won a Tony for playing Enjolras in the original Broadway production of Les Miserables. You perform with symphonies all over the country. So I have to ask: Why law?
A: I wanted to go to law school for years. I just wanted the intellectual challenge. I mean, I do recognize that I have a physical gift. It’s almost like being a fast runner or something. I have a talent that I needed and still need to share.
But while I was singing with symphonies, I was also buying and restoring old houses in Hancock Park in Los Angeles. I love historic restoration. I made good money doing that. But the market started looking soft to me in 2005 and I thought, “If I’m ever going to go to law school I should do it right now before I’m just too old and lazy to do it.”
I was kind of lucky because I didn’t take an LSAT course but I managed to get into Southwestern’s SCALE program. It was very difficult, the first three or four months—the transition of going from just goofing around all day to law school—but I ultimately loved it. I just loved the struggle, and the fun of it, and the pain.
Q: And why family law?
A: I had a nasty divorce. During the course of that divorce, I started recognizing that my attorneys were billing me a tremendous amount of money for basically regurgitating what I told them. Or they were checking boxes that I could have checked. And they didn’t understand numbers like I did because I’d been a broker on Wall Street prior to going into the theater. I just had a mission in my life, and it continues to this day, to try to keep other people from going through that.
Q: How do you do that?
A: The key is to be as cost-effective with my services as possible. To be honest with them about the chances of them getting what they’re looking for. Trying to help them realize that sometimes the best thing you can do is get through the process as quickly as possible rather than spending $50,000 to fight over a $5,000 car.
I go out of my way to avoid winding people up. The butting-head process tends to push people farther and farther apart, which means it takes longer and longer to find resolution. I’m not saying I’m a mediation-type attorney. I’m not. But I think it’s important for everybody to lay their cards on the table and try to get through the process as quickly as they can. I’m like a boatman trying to get them from one side of a bad river to the other. If I can just do that safely, I’ve done my job and that business model will spread, and they’ll send other people to me. And I can actually help more people.
You know, it’s a short life we live, and you’ve only got so much time to live it. So why spend 5 percent of it fighting a divorce?
Q: You recently set up your own practice with …
A: Robert Cohen. He’s a very experienced attorney. It’s a perfect balance for me, and I hope for him, because I love what I’m doing. I love coming to work every day. I’ve been on vacation for 30 years, right? I love helping people with their problems.
Q: Even though family law is considered one of the most emotional practice areas.
A: I’m not bothered by it. People get very perturbed by the emotions. But for me, as an actor, that’s what you do all the time. You deal with people’s emotions. You learn how to read them. You learn how to read the subtext. People say, “I want this,” but that’s not really what they want. They want something else, and it’s usually got some connection to, you know, love or …
Often in family law, I feel like people are dealing with fear—What’s going to happen to me? How am I going to take care of myself? How am I going to take care of my kids?—coupled with rejection. That fear can often turn into anger or obstinance, which makes the process more difficult and creates suspicions where there should be none. So if you can find some way to sway or address the fear, you’ve helped. Ideally, it’s important that both sides can walk away from a divorce with some dignity.
Q: How do you drill down to get at what clients truly mean?
A: I think it’s important to know what the motivation is. Let’s say a wife comes in and she’s felt like she’s been the “out spouse,” as they call it. The husband’s made all the money. She’s been sort of isolated. What’s her motivation? What is she really going for?
Part of it is liberation. [But] people like that who have been repressed, at some point in the litigation, they start to turn and go, “I’m free. I want revenge.” So it’s finding a balance for that. And trying to educate them as to the balance and go, “Is that really what you want? Does going back and trying to put the screws to him going to give you satisfaction?” Most of the time, when people are mature about it, they say no.
Q: Do you mostly represent women?
A: Not at all. I have represented a number of fathers in move-away cases.
Q: Move-away cases?
A: Where one person wants to move out of state with the kids. If there’s a legitimate reason, when somebody’s, you know, worked for IBM, and they get transferred, and they are the primary custodial parent—meaning they take care of the kid 70 percent of the time or more—sometimes the court’s going to let them do that. But I’ve dealt with a number of cases where the parties break up, the father has some new girlfriend, the mother’s pissed off and angry and hurt and decides, “I’m going to go back home and live with Mom who’s on the other side of the world and I’m taking the kids with me.” So where it’s legitimate, you treat it legitimately. Where it’s not, you have to step up and deal with that, too.
Q: How do you go about that? Get clients to see it in some rational way?
A: What’s it worth? What’s it worth emotionally, what’s it worth financially, to have those kinds of battles? I think it’s important not to let the client, if you can, run away with their own case because they’re harming themselves.
On the other hand … after I graduated from school, instead of going straight to work, I went downtown and clerked for a lot of different judges and helped write opinions. In the course of doing that, I asked a number of judges, “What do you do when your client wants to fight and you know it’s not in their interest?” And to a person, they all said the same thing: If you tell your client that, they’re going to go get another lawyer. So the key is to understand why they want it. And give credence to why they want it. And to see if there’s some other way that’s also in their best interest to get something of what they want.
Q: You’ve mentioned the dealing-with-emotions angle. Are there other connections between stage and legal careers?
A: Oh, absolutely. I spent 25 years onstage. And part of what I do in concert is talk to the audience. I’m used to talking to 2,000 or 3,000 people off the cuff. Doing that, you develop skills that absolutely transfer to the courtroom. You develop a sense of timing, you develop a sense of reading the audience; you can just feel where their attention is.
It’s an invaluable experience. When I’m onstage, I’m pretty much the same person as I am offstage. I’m used to being myself onstage. And that’s something that people aren’t used to doing in court.
Q: Being themselves?
A: Being themselves.
Q: Earlier you talked about having that idea of going to law school. Where did that idea come from?
A: I started thinking about going to law school within a couple weeks of winning the Tony Award.
Q: You’re kidding.
A: I did. Just because I like doing different things. I was a broker on Wall Street. I loved doing it and I loved learning it. I loved being in theater and I did well in theater.
Q: You restored homes …
A: I restored Craftsman-style homes and won the city of LA restoration award in 1999 for one of the houses I did. And now I’m doing family law and I love what I’m doing.
Here’s another connection between my stage life and my legal life. Onstage, I have an ability to connect emotionally with a song in a way that’s believable to the audience and moves people. That gives me a great deal of satisfaction. That’s why I do it. I love sharing that gift. Now I’m in a place where I can take all of what I am and use it to actually make an impact, and hopefully, a positive impact on somebody’s life during a very negative time in their life. If I can help them get through this difficult time, I’ve done something that gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction.
Q: So in a certain way, this is your fourth successful career. Any advice you could give others as to why you’ve been able to do well in each of these careers?
A: It’s just my fascination with learning. We could go out to lunch, and I could walk back in the restaurant, and I’d start thinking, “How can I wash the dishes faster?” I just like learning things. I read about that all the time. I’m just voracious in my interest in the planet. Because I think we’re here for such a short amount of time and what else is there to do? Do you know George Plimpton?
Q: Paper Lion. Great writer.
A: He played all these different sports, right? When I was a kid, I was fascinated by that. I was going, “Look at this guy. He’s not afraid to try all these things.” That struck a chord with me.
Q: Did you see the movie version of Les Mis?
A: I did.
A: All my friends, they’re going, “Can you believe that movie? It sucks.” And I’m just … how do you get that? One, who cares what we did 25 years ago? Look at what this movie’s done. It’s brought this show to millions and millions of people who otherwise never would have seen it.
Q: Does it ever get in the way of your family law practice—the fact that you played Enjolras in Les Mis?
A: I don’t tell anybody about it.
Q: Right, but …
A: So if somebody knows, it may, and only for a minute, get in the way. Actually, if anything, it gets in the way of the opposing counsel. Because they think, “Oh, this guy’s just a singer.”
Q: So they’ll underestimate you.
A: They underestimate me big time. And that’s their big mistake.