What’s So Funny About ... ?
Family lawyer Sue M. Moss talks comedy, the begging strategy and losing your mind on Oprah
Published in 2014 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
on September 15, 2014
Updated on November 3, 2014
Divorce may not be funny but Sue M. Moss is.
“I represent clients going through the scariest, most nerve-shattering times in their lives,” says Moss, 45, a founding partner at Chemtob Moss & Forman. “You can make it a little less horrific if you can get your client to laugh at least once during the process. Also, being funny causes clients to be at ease, and when they’re at ease they can be more rational.”
She’s also not above begging. Literally.
The wall behind Moss’ desk holds over 30 plaques and pictures, various honors and awards, but the picture at the center, a 1994 clipping from the Chicago Sun-Times, marks her first brush with national fame, when she was a student at the University of Chicago Law School.
Moss was part of the Illinois Clemency Project, representing women like Betty Jordan, who had been imprisoned for shooting her abusive boyfriend, purported gang member Richard Williams. Moss invoked the “battered woman defense” in her request for clemency.
“We were asking the governor to look at cases where the perpetrator was a victim of systematic physical, emotional and verbal abuse over a period of years, and asking him to grant clemency or pardon those convicted,” says Moss.
After meeting with Jordan in prison, Moss visited the South Side housing project where Jordan and Williams had once lived to find people to speak on Jordan’s behalf.
“I went door to door,” says Moss. “Unfortunately, everyone I spoke to then received a visit from the deceased’s former gang members. [The people] asked me point blank [if I] can I keep them safe, and the answer was no.”
Moss then went to the public defender who had initially represented Jordan.
“At first, he totally dismissed me: ‘Who is this law student? Why does she think she can do better than I did?’” says Moss. “I then realized an important legal strategy, which is begging, and I literally got on my hands and knees, and said, ‘I am begging you! Can you give me whatever you have?’ You’d be surprised how the begging strategy tends to work. He gave me all of his files.”
The files showed that when Williams had been imprisoned in the 1950s, he had been diagnosed as a serial sexual psychopath. Moss also found other compelling evidence that led to Jordan’s eventual release.
“I presented the entire story—the years of abuse that she suffered, the humiliation in front of others that he put her through, the years of rape, the beatings,” says Moss. “Although these things did not happen during the specific time that she killed him, these things were in her mind when she killed him. The totality of the picture is what I think moved the panel to support the clemency.”
The morning after Jordan was released from prison, she went to the University of Chicago to see Moss.
“When you see a prisoner you have very limited touching contact,” says Moss. “They would let me take [Jordan’s] hand in a warm handshake, with both my hands covering hers, but that was the extent of what I was able to do. As she came into our law school, we gave each other the biggest, longest hug. No one told us to stop or walk away.”
The case garnered national attention, and Moss appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. “It doesn’t matter how intelligent you are,” Moss says. “When the lights come on and you’re standing in front of Oprah, you just start to scream as loud as you can.”
Moss grew up in Oceanside, Long Island. Her father, Jason, sold advertising for the New York Daily News, and her mother, Carolyn, worked in the fashion industry.
“I am her greatest disappointment,” Moss jokes, adding, “But while I may not understand the world of high fashion, I do understand that my clients need this amount of money to stay in that world.”
Moss’ older brother, Peter, says she showed an early knack for lawyering.
“She was always a very intense person and she loved to argue, especially with an uncle of ours who was a Supreme Court justice in Kings County,” says Peter.
“At family dinners, at the end of the dinner, she and her Uncle Freddy would go at it,” says Moss’ father. “She was ultra-liberal and Freddy was pretty conservative, and boy did they have some to-dos.”
She was also good with numbers. “I am one of the only divorce lawyers who was also a mathlete, and that is essential to divorce law,” she says. She attended the Wharton School of Business, and that background in math and finance has indeed proven useful in combing through and dividing assets.
During Moss’ stint at the University of Chicago, family law attorney Eleanor B. Alter of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman was a visiting professor.
“And we thought, ‘She hasn’t seen the real Chicago,’ so we picked her up in a ’78 Ford and took her bowling and to an all-you-can-eat Polish restaurant on the South Side,” says Moss. “After I graduated and decided to go back to New York, she offered me a job. If you understand bowling and pierogies, it’s just a small leap to understanding divorce law.”
In 2002, Moss received a phone call from Nancy Chemtob, a family law solo practitioner, against whom Moss had faced off over the years. “I thought she thought I was the meanest person she’d ever gone against,” Moss says, but admonishing Moss wasn’t the purpose behind the call. “She said, ‘Quit! Let’s start a firm. We don’t have a lot of clients, we don’t have a lot of money, but that’s OK, it will come. Let’s just do it,’” Moss remembers. “And then she called me every 20 minutes for the next three days, asking ‘OK, did you decide yet?’”
Eventually Moss decided it was a good move—she was in her early 30s, recently married, and if things didn’t work out at the fledgling firm she could always use the begging strategy on her former bosses.
That wasn’t necessary.
“She has an incredible memory, almost photographic, and she really knows the law,” says partner Joshua Forman.
Moss has appeared on CNN, the Today show and Entertainment Tonight. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and a member of the Legal Advisory Council of Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit organization that assists survivors of domestic violence. It’s a recurring theme in her work.
“Domestic violence affects every socioeconomic layer of society,” she says. “I have literally sat with a ruler measuring a billionaire woman’s bruises and photographing them. Some of the most successful women in New York—top lawyers, heads of departments at Ivy League universities, hedge fund managers—have a dirty secret: that they are survivors. This work definitely continues.”
One client says she was in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship when she hired Moss to represent her in a divorce and custody battle.
“I found myself in a marriage where I was slowly brainwashed; I was a well-off, educated, upper-middle-class Jewish woman, and [my ex] convinced me I was a terrible mother,” says the client. “When he served me [with divorce papers], I was sufficiently emotionally and psychologically beaten down that I did think I was a bad mother. I didn’t think I was worthy [of custody].”
Still, she wanted to fight for custody of her then 4-year-old, who has special needs. She was referred to Moss, and decided to hire her when Moss said during the consultation that if she wasn’t an attorney, she’d be a stand-up comic.
“I said, ‘That’s the lawyer for me.’ It was so intense, and I knew that was what I needed—someone who would make me laugh,” says the client. “Sue is like a stand-up comic. For three years I was going through this, and what I counted on was that she was going to make me laugh and keep me in good spirits.”
Even so, there were times when things got so dispiriting she wanted to give up fighting for custody; and while Moss generally advises clients to compromise and avoid the all-or-nothing of court, in this instance she urged her client to persevere.
“This was one of the most challenging cases, where, when you looked on the surface, there appeared to be nothing wrong; but when you scratched down and delved into it, there were horrible things happening in the family,” says Moss. “The father was insisting he knew how to care for a child with special needs, but was taking the child to different people he thought were experts, who came up with really frightening treatments to ‘cure’ the little boy.”
The client was encouraged not just by Moss’ sense of humor, but by her skill in the courtroom. She says Moss read a book written by an opposition witness and found a quote that contradicted what the witness said in court.
“I knew no one could outsmart Sue,” says the woman, who won custody and everything else she was seeking. “She knows what she’s searching for and gets what she wants. She turned their hired gun to testify for our point.”
While Moss enjoys family law, she says that she might have had a much different, and perhaps even more high-profile, career had she not taken that Illinois Clemency Project class.
“I was deciding between the Illinois Clemency Project for battered women and this public policy class, and all my friends were like, ‘Dude, you have to take the public policy class, it’s taught by a really interesting new guy,’” says Moss. “But this guy had just graduated a few years earlier, he wore ripped T-shirts and jeans, he had a funny name, and I said, ‘I’m not giving up doing God’s work to take a class with a 27-year-old in a ripped T-shirt.’ That guy? Barack Obama.”