From Crosswords to the Courtroom

Stacy Phillips’ reading includes complex financial documents and iffy national gossip rags

Published in 2008 Southern California Super Lawyers — February 2008

Westside divorce guru Stacy D. Phillips is fielding media calls—again. Between bites of her lunch, she declines a steady stream of inquiries about her current client, Corina Villaraigosa, the soon to be ex-wife of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. She’s used to this kind of circus, having spent more than 20 years representing a host of high-profile names, including Darryl Strawberry, Erin Everly (ex-wife of Axl Rose) and Darcy La Pier (ex-wife of Jean Claude Van Damme). When reporters call, Phillips understands the importance of staying tight-lipped.

Helping a client through the pain of a break-up is always a delicate task. “But there’s an added pressure when you represent someone in the public spotlight,” Phillips explains. “I’ve had many occasions when I had to call my client to warn them, ‘National Enquirer is about to publish photos of your spouse romping in the surf with so-and-so.’”

But the media is an unavoidable part of her territory. “I’m inefficient on smaller cases,” she says. “I was trained on larger cases and I like the complexity.”

In family law, that complexity comes in many forms—legal, financial, psychological and emotional. When Phillips represented LaPier in her 1996 divorce from Van Damme, things were complex. The Hollywood couple’s marriage was notoriously rocky, and the emotional fallout during the divorce was fierce. There were allegations of drug addiction and abuse from both sides, and substantial financial assets to negotiate. Still, Phillips won her client $112,000 a month for spousal and child support, one of the largest litigated child support orders ever awarded at the time.

While she typically stays quiet about her own cases, Phillips often speaks to the media about celebrities who are not her clients. She has appeared on Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition, Celebrity Justice and Access Hollywood to shed light on all manner of Hollywood relationship concerns, from the Anna Nicole Smith paternity suit to the Nicole Kidman-Keith Urban prenuptial agreement. Phillips says that she doesn’t have “a crystal ball” to predict the outcome of celebrity marital dramas, but she enjoys using her expertise to unravel the legal complexities that shape those dramas.

While Phillips is not an entertainment lawyer, she has “the business” in her blood. Her grandfather, Louis Phillips, started the renowned Manhattan firm Phillips Nizer in 1926. He simultaneously worked his way up the ranks at Paramount Motion Pictures, eventually becoming its vice president and general counsel. Her father, Gerald F. Phillips, was for more than three decades a partner at the Phillips Nizer firm (at the time Phillips, Nizer, Benjamin, Krim and Ballon) while also serving as chief legal counsel and vice president at United Artists.

Both father and son are regarded as pioneers in the field of entertainment law, and although Louis Phillips passed away when Stacy was a child, she says, “I grew up with him because of his legacy.” She also grew up surrounded, quite literally, by her father’s work. “He would write his briefs on legal-sized yellow pads,” she says, “and leave them all over the house—on the bed, in the kitchen, on the sofa. I can still hear my mother saying, ‘can’t you clean this up and work at a desk? We’re having people over.’”

The omnipresent legal pads were a mark of Gerald Phillips’ extensive writing and rewriting process, a practice he passed on to his daughter. “He’d have me rewrite my term papers over and over again,” she explains. “Now whenever I have multiple drafts, I tell my secretaries it’s my dad’s fault.”

Gerald Phillips used games and play to further his young daughter’s education. He taught her math skills when the two would play blackjack and sharpened her spelling skills on crossword puzzles. He even taught her bridge for practice in analyzing problems.

Still, there’s no clear path from crosswords to a courtroom. In spite of her family history, the young Phillips had no intention of becoming a lawyer. “I fought being an attorney for a long time,” she says. But as she bumped up against the limited employment options available to women at that time, she decided that law was “by far the most intellectually stimulating choice.”

Her introduction to legal work was less than inspiring. During spring break of her first year in high school, she was hired to track movie theater receipts by a firm that dealt with theft in the motion picture industry. “I was bored to tears,” she recalls. “I spent my days learning how to handicap horses and planning how to get to the front of the bagel line during breaks. The experience taught me that I needed to get an advanced degree. Otherwise I would be bored for the rest of my life.”

Later, she began working at her father’s firm during summers. She recalls the problems of being the boss’ daughter. “Everyone would stop talking when I entered the room,” she says, “and it didn’t help that they were adults and I was a teenager.” Occasionally, however, youth had its benefits. “I remember,” she says, “one of the firm’s partners telling me I had to keep coming to a deposition because I was distracting the deponent’s lawyer.” She rolls her eyes. “Trust me,” she says, “I was nothing to look at.”

Phillips got her B.A. in history and religion at Dartmouth College, and went on to earn her J.D. from Columbia University School of Law in 1983. At Columbia, Phillips got her first real exposure to family law and it wasn’t long before she was hooked.

In family law, Phillips discovered strengths she didn’t know she had. She found she had a knack for providing support—both legal and emotional—to people in the midst of domestic crisis. She also realized she liked working with clients who had a “heartbeat” rather than “impersonal companies with litigation budgets.”

After law school, she moved to California to clerk for Judge Edward Rafeedie of the United States District Court. At the end of the clerkship, she took a job in California over New York on two counts: “California provided me with the opportunity to establish myself independently of my father and grandfather. And, of course, the weather is very compelling.”

While establishing herself independently was important for Phillips, she has a continued commitment to practicing law in the tradition of her father and grandfather. Both attorneys are celebrated for their exceptionally strong sense of ethics. In fact, Stacy and her parents set up the Phillips Family Fund at Dartmouth College Ethics Institute to honor the family’s tradition of high ethical standards.

In 1984, she took a job as an associate at the Los Angeles firm Wyman, Bautzer, Rothman, Kuchel and Silbert. In 1986, she joined Jaffe & Clemens before striking out on her own in 1990. “I like cleaning up my clients’ messes, not my bosses’,” she says.

Her move to her own firm came at an opportune moment. Gerald Phillips decided to move to California so he and his wife could be closer to their children. (Stacy’s brother, Louis M. Phillips, works in Hollywood as a film executive.) With Stacy on her own, Gerald Phillips stepped in to help out. Stacy recalls the arrangement fondly. Her father had a spot at the conference table in her office where they would work on cases together.

That collaboration provided Stacy insight into the changing world of law. “I’d always say to him, ‘OK, now we have to write a confirming letter to the client,’” she says. “He’d look at me and say ‘I never had to do that.’” When her father was starting out, Stacy explains, “your word was your bond.” She shakes her head adding, “Now you get a fax before you even finish hanging up the phone, and the fax doesn’t even say what it was you already agreed to.”

Those changes, she says, have caused unfortunate repercussions in the practice of law. “People don’t follow through on what they say they’re going to do,” she says. “We’ve learned to practice more defensively to protect ourselves. It’s not as collegiate, it’s not as cooperative, it’s a lot more expensive, it’s a lot more divisive, and it can draw a dividing line between you and your client.”

While the Phillipses share a belief in “litigating hard but with respect,” both father and daughter strive to resolve matters as amicably as possible before they reach the courtroom. Gerald now works exclusively as a mediator and arbitrator. Stacy, too, prefers mediation, saying she was “practicing mediation before it was even in vogue.”

Gerald continues to work at Stacy’s firm (now Phillips, Lerner, Lauzon & Jamra) but he no longer shares an office with his daughter. “It reached a point where I said, ‘Dad, office down the hall,’” Stacy says. Gerald points out that she’s technically his landlady. But she still calls him ‘Dad’ at the office and apparently the name has caught on. “People at the firm call me ‘Law Dad,’” the 81-year-old Gerald says, smiling.

That kind of office congeniality provides a sharp contrast to the intense interpersonal strife that runs through Phillips’ work. Not only does she see her share of the typical divorce-related misery, she has also handled a number of domestic abuse cases involving unusually cruel atrocities. “I’ve had people who’ve been locked in a closet and hogtied, shot with hypodermic needles, and stomped on.”

After Phillips represented Erin Everly (whose father is Don of the Everly Brothers) in a suit against former husband Axl Rose, she decided California domestic violence law needed to be revised. Everly filed physical abuse charges against her ex, which were later settled out of court.

At the time of Everly’s lawsuit, the statute of limitations for victims of domestic violence to sue their abusers in civil court was one year. “Most people are just trying to get their lives together after an abusive relationship ends and wouldn’t even think about bringing a lawsuit within the first year,” Phillips explains. “Also, you have to consider the studies that show the greatest likelihood of being killed by an abusive partner is after the relationship ends.”

In 1994, just months before she finished Everly’s case, Phillips assisted in drafting a bill to extend the statute of limitations for claims of domestic violence, allowing victims a more realistic time frame in which to sue their abusers in civil court. Just as the bill began to float around the legislature, O.J. Simpson was going to trial. “That got the bill the attention it deserved,” she says. Soon afterwards, it was enacted into California law.

As difficult as divorce may be, sometimes the post-divorce lifestyle adjustment is even more difficult. As a mother of two living on the Westside, Phillips feels well equipped to understand the kind of transitions faced by her clientele. “I live in a very similar world to that of my clients,” she says. “I can look through their checkbooks and many of the names are ones you’d see in my book as well. Our kids often go to the same pediatricians, schools and camps.” 

Consequently, Phillips never underestimates the difficulties of downsizing a household budget. “I had a client come to me after her first lawyer told her she would have to sell her car, her house, and shop at Target instead of Nieman Marcus as if it wasn’t that big of a deal. For a person accustomed to a certain lifestyle, that’s a huge change.” In the LaPier case, Phillips had to factor in the hidden costs of fame. “After Darcy was married to Van Damme, she rode on the Planet Hollywood jet for free. In her award, I estimated a compensatory amount for either flying first class or [on] the Concorde,” Phillips says.

Because the marriage meltdowns she handles often involve big bucks, she’s accustomed to financial complexities usually reserved for business attorneys. A few years back, she represented the wife of a man who operated a $12 billion hedge fund. His business portfolio spanned an organizational chart 45 pages long and his assets included offshore accounts and multiple trusts and insurance policies. Determining what constitutes community property from such a tangle of assets presented an elaborate puzzle.

Over the years, Phillips has learned a lot about modern marriage mores—the hopes, the challenges and the costs of access to a private jet. In 2005, she synthesized her experiences with the release of a book titled Divorce: It’s All About Control—How to Win the Emotional, Psychological and Legal Wars. While she believes there are definite ways to reduce the destructiveness of a divorce, she says “for the most part, it’s just not fun.

“It’s much too easy to get married,” she says, “and much too difficult to get divorced.”

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