The Safety Net

Sandy Ain provides unshakable stability to stressed-out clients

Published in 2008 Washington DC Super Lawyers magazine

By Tom Callahan on March 23, 2008


Sandy Ain prides himself on consistency. He has been married 30 years. He has occupied the same office overlooking the corner of 19th and M Street for more than 30. He doesn’t change. That’s why his clients, who come to him in times of intense and often painful turmoil, are so comforted. He is there for them, no matter what, even when others are abandoning them.

Ain is a divorce lawyer. He considers his role to be that of an advocate and educator. As he once wrote in a chapter of the book Inside the Minds of Leading Divorce Lawyers, “I try to help my clients get through the process in a way that keeps them as emotionally and financially intact as possible and also keeps an eye on their children.”

Ain’s philosophy is to encourage civility and avoid the courtroom. He also focuses on an aspect of divorce that rarely titillates the tabloid imagination.

“Getting divorced is a business decision,” he says, “and handling it in a cost-efficient way is very important for the family. Every dollar they spend on a divorce lawyer is a dollar less they have to educate their children and provide for their retirement.”

Ed Mathias, a partner in the Carlyle Group who has known Ain for more than 10 years, marvels at his strategic sense. “He has what I call good business and tax savvy,” he says. “He is not a one-trick pony. He has the attributes of a great chess player. He can look at the board, see the situation and anticipate the results so you don’t get trapped.”

After graduating from Georgetown Law School in 1972, Ain did antitrust litigation, estate work and real estate law, and was the Washington counsel for the Bank of Nova Scotia. Then he discovered divorce law. It felt perfect to him.

“I realized I wanted to work with people,” he says. “I wanted to try to help families. I saw family law as a way to have a lot of clients, contacts and develop relationships with people.”

Divorce can have a huge impact not just on people’s emotional lives, but on their business assets, company succession plans and tax liability. Ain’s client roster has included people with multiple assets, like Tom Clancy; Monica Tyson, the second wife of Mike Tyson; Sheila Johnson, the president and managing partner of the Washington Mystics; and businessman Herbert Haft.

The Haft split went to court and brought a lot of publicity, which Ain “abhors.” But he did his job. Haft was able to keep control of his retail and real estate empire, although he reportedly had to pay out somewhere between $40 million and $60 million to his ex-wife, Gloria. Asked if the figure is correct, Ain responds with a cryptic “if that’s what they say.”

Discretion is a large part of Ain’s work, and he prides himself on it, refusing to discuss his clients. He was delighted in August 2007 when the Washingtonian described Ain & Bank, the firm he started in 2003 with his longtime rival Rita Bank, as the “Victoria’s Secret” of law firms.

He gets referrals not just from clients, but from their ex-spouses as well. Some clients have been so happy with his work they’ve hired him to be general counsel for their business affairs.

“A lot of clients trust and respect my judgment and business experience and we work with them,” Ain says. “If they need additional help, we bring in other levels of expertise. It is important to emphasize that if the client already has corporate counsel, we are very conscious of the need to protect the relationship of the client and their current counsel.”

One of those special clients is Sheila Johnson, called “the nation’s first black female billionaire” by Ebony magazine. Ain represented Johnson in her divorce from Robert L. Johnson, with whom she founded and eventually sold the BET network. Not only is Ain general counsel to Sheila Johnson and her holding company, Salamander Farm, but he gave the toast when she remarried.

“Sandy Ain is not only the best lawyer I ever had, but a very determined person who never takes ‘no’ for an answer,” Johnson says. “Nothing is ever impossible, and he is always optimistic. Not only is he a professional friend, but he is also a dear personal friend. I cherish the relationship I have with him and his wife more than anyone could imagine. He has been my safety net and my lifeline.”

How many divorce lawyers have been thanked by a client from the podium of a nationally televised award show? That is what happened in January 2006 when S. Epatha Merkerson of Law & Order won a Screen Actors Guild Award. She told the audience, “I have to say a public thank-you to my divorce lawyer, Sandy Ain, and Clare Miller!” (Miller is a partner at the firm.)

Ain was watching at home and was shocked. Had Merkerson not mentioned him in such a public forum, he wouldn’t have even confirmed she was a client.

“One of the things I have admired greatly is that his relationships with his clients are something more,” Mathias says. “A lot of times they develop into friendships or business relationships that go on for years. Most lawyers bill some hours and then move on. Sandy cares about his clients. He is a genuinely nice person, a major league player without a major league ego.”

Ain’s office is filled with mementos of 35 years of dealing with divorce—gifts from grateful clients, awards from the bar, a chalk drawing of a successful courtroom argument. And then there are his two most prized possessions: sculptures made by his sons, David and Daniel. Ain describes them in an e-mail:

“The clay-fired and kiln-dried sculptures done by my children—they bring me the biggest smile. There are two fisherman, sitting upright on the edge of an air-conditioning convector, with their fishing poles staring into the office. Each one done years apart by each child but sharing the same look of contentment, sharing the office where so much happens. I have taken the children fishing since they were very young—wonderful times together. The fish are generally pretty safe when we are there.”

His clients would say the same about time spent with him. 

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