The Early Bird

Sorrell Trope gets the worm (and Nicole Kidman, Cary Grant, etc.)

Published in 2007 Southern California Super Lawyers — February 2007

It’s 8 a.m. Do you know where Sorrell Trope is?
 
If you answered “No,” then you don’t know him. For if he’s not in court, it’s almost a certainty that Sorrell Trope, 79, is in the same place he’s been virtually every workday since Harry Truman was president: behind his desk at Trope and Trope, Los Angeles’ first and foremost family law firm.
 
But today, Trope is agitated about something many lawyers would kill for: a sizable quote on Page Six, the New York Post’s notorious gossip sheet.
 
“I never said it. I never even spoke to them,” he says disgustedly, about a comment attributed to him concerning some post-divorce goings-on between Jon Peters and his ex-wife, Christine, Trope’s client. “I’m going to demand a retraction.”
 
Not that Trope is an illogical choice for such a quote. He’s long been known for his list of show business clients, including Nicolas Cage, Rod Steiger, Melanie Griffith, Emilio Estevez, Cheech Marin, Nastassja Kinski, James Brooks and, perhaps most famously, Nicole Kidman in her tabloid-frenzied divorce from Tom Cruise. So when Hollywood couples like, say, Brad and Jen go bust, Trope is one of the go-to guys journalists use for legal perspective.
 
Only the Page Six reporter didn’t go to him, and Trope is nothing if not protective of his firm’s reputation, which he founded in 1949. That’s one reason that, at an age when most men of his accomplishments and wealth have long since retired, he still plans to be there in 10 years. (Of course other folks might consider having had one triple and one quadruple bypass and a recently implanted pacemaker as a reason for slowing down. But not Trope.) And why he’s never taken a vacation as long as three weeks in his life. And why he’s sitting squarely behind his desk at 8 a.m.
 
“I go away, I have anxiety about the firm,” he says, in a steady voice that still retains hints of the New York his family left when he was 13. “And retire? What else would I do? I feel a lot younger than my age, and when you retire your mind goes stale. There’s no reason for me to slow down.”
 
Trope’s Wilshire Boulevard office is adorned with prints of 19th-century English barristers and judges. Nattily dressed in a pinstripe suit, and looking at least a decade younger than his age, he is widely credited with being the first Los Angeles attorney to have a divorce practice with more than a couple of lawyers, and the first to introduce a shared-practice concept. “I assign other lawyers in the firm—at lower hourly fees—to do discovery. It’s a team approach, which helps our young lawyers to go to the next skill level, saves our client money and allows me to concentrate on the case.”
 
But for an attorney who revolutionized the practice of divorce law and is still the only lawyer ever to be named “Best Divorce Attorney” by Los Angeles magazine (1995), and who was named in 2001 by Forbes magazine as the nation’s second-highest-earning divorce attorney, Trope started out as a man without a mission.
 
“I took in any piece of work I could get,” he says of his first cases, which divided almost equally among criminal, personal injury and divorce. Trope soon found he didn’t have a taste for the former two categories, so divorce work won out.
 
Trope didn’t even have any particular designs on opening his own firm, and only did so when, as a USC Law School graduate, he discovered 1949 Los Angeles to be a difficult place for a young Jewish lawyer to land a position with a firm. Although he started out as a one-man shop operating from a small one-room office, he named the firm Trope and Trope, in anticipation of the day, four years later, when his older brother, Eugene, would join the firm (together they moved into a bigger office). That first year, he barely broke even.
 
Nor did he plan to be a “celebrity” attorney. Still, no one can deny that it has a lovely symmetry, considering that the Saturday double-feature matinees he religiously attended as a boy back in Albany, N.Y., were a primary influence on his decision to study law.
 
“Lots of movies back in the early ’30s portrayed lawyers in courtroom situations. They were always impeccably dressed, treated with the utmost respect, and drove nice cars,” he says.
 
Speaking of which, one day when Trope was in junior high school and waiting for a bus, a limousine stopped on the corner. “Cary Grant was clearly visible in the back,” Trope says, “And I thought, ‘One day I’d love to have a car like that.’”
 
Years later when Grant hired Trope to handle his divorce and began what would become a long-term relationship, the attorney told him that tale. “Grant said it was one of his favorite stories,” he says with a laugh.
 
This is about as much as Trope reveals about his famous clients. All he’ll say about Grant is that “he was a very wonderful man.” Similarly, Steiger was “an intelligent, well-read man,” and Kidman is “a lovely person.” You’ll have to get your dirt from Page Six.
 
No single case put Trope on the celebrity map. He just gradually developed a reputation as a specialist in divorce, and word got around. In order to handle more cases and bill more hours, he hired more attorneys and instituted his shared-practice concept. Around 1989, the firm reached its current size, vacillating between 27 and 30 lawyers. While divorce was less common in 1949 than it is now, and carried more of a stigma, those early cases, he says, were “basically the same that I handle today, except now the bottom line has a lot more zeroes.”
 
Still, there was a brief moment in 1970 when Trope wondered if he’d still be coming into the office at all, no less at 8 a.m. That was the year California passed legislation that “changed everything,” the Family Law Act, which instituted no-fault divorce and created a mandatory equal division of property, the replacement of alimony with gender-neutral spousal support and drastically changed child-custody arrangements.
 
“I recall getting out of classes with other attorneys learning about the changes, and we all had the same feeling that equal property division and no-fault would end our work. There was nothing left to do,” he says.
 
Instead, if anything, divorce—now officially called “dissolution of marriage”—became more complicated. “Since 1970, we use forensic accountants much more than private investigators—to determine how much things are worth, where monies are hidden, what is a real income,” he says.
 
As someone who has practiced more than two decades in both the “fault” and “no fault” eras, Trope finds pluses and minuses in both. While he’s happy to see the end of the “bottom feeding” that took place during the “fault” era, with spouses trying to catch their partners cheating on them, or accusing the other of all sorts of horrible cruelty or neglect, he’s less pleased about the effect the constant shuttling back and forth of children that joint custody has produced. “Children need continuity in their lives,” Trope says. Because child support is tied into a complicated formula of time division, he sees parents who are motivated more by receiving more or paying less money than by the child’s best interest. “In many cases, kids become pawns in a match between the parents,” he says.
 
And, of course, with adultery no longer a consideration in the settlement, it doesn’t mean that spouses don’t still come in “obsessed” with discovering whether their spouse has been unfaithful.
 
Describing his job as “part father, part confessor, part psychiatrist,” Trope says that some clients find it emotionally difficult to come to terms with equal division of property. “They will come in and say, ‘I don’t understand why I worked, built up our assets while she played tennis, and now she gets half of everything.’”
 
Considering that the bulk of his cases involve the rich and/or famous, it’s perhaps surprising that only a small fraction of clients come in with pre-nups. Although he says he’s “delighted” to prepare one on a client’s request, he’s personally opposed to them. “That’s not the way to start a marriage. If you have confidence in your partner, that’s going to create a fracture in your relationship. If you don’t have confidence, then don’t get married.”
 
Which is not to say that Trope gets all gooey-eyed about newlyweds. He jokes that when he passes a wedding, he thinks, “That’s inventory.”
 
More than just the law has changed since those early days. Trope ruefully notes that “the Three C’s—courtesy, cooperation and collegiality—have almost vanished from the face of family law since 1949.”
 
Also vanished, he says, is coming out of law school in a place such as L.A. and hanging up your own shingle. “Back then, young lawyers could compete more because there were general practitioners. Today it’s far more competitive because of specialization.”
 
He describes his own courtroom demeanor as flexible. “You have to approach a case with the personality of the judge and the client in mind. I can be a bulldog or the Great Conciliator.”
 
Judge Richard E. Denner of the Central District of L.A. Superior Court, who retired earlier this year, sustains that notion. “He’s the most intuitive lawyer I’ve ever had in front of me. He knows when to push a judge and when to pull back, and operates differently in front of different judges. If he has an unlikable client, he’s not afraid to bring that up in court, which gets it out in the open, and lessens its effect.”
 
When Lawrence Leone left the firm in 1982 to explore life with the Paulist Fathers, he was widely quoted as saying, “From Sorrell Trope to God is a lateral move.” Now a partner in the firm (he returned after a year because “it’s one thing to be celibate, another to live with celibate men”) Leone says, “Sorrell is the pinnacle of lawyering. The best I’ve ever seen. He’s really the guy who made family law into a respectable practice.”
 
Trope has been around so long that he’s actually handled divorces for three generations of the same family. “I did a divorce, then the kid grew up, married and got divorced, and her kid did the same …” Another client was married four times, twice to husband No.1, and twice to husband No. 2. He’s also received the ultimate tribute, representing a spouse whom he opposed in an earlier proceeding.
 
But Trope is not only married to his divorce work. He’s been married to his wife, Linda, for 41 years, and they have two children (Trope has two other offspring from a prior marriage, as well). Additionally, he takes a 45-minute walk each day, eats “a healthy diet,” plays golf (“I’m lousy”) and only recently stopped skiing. He lists classical and country-western as his two favorite types of music, and very much enjoyed a recent concert that teamed Willie Nelson with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
 
He and Linda support the Harriett Buhai Center and Levitt & Quinn Family Law Center, two organizations that provide free legal services for the poor. In addition, he has donated $1 million to his alma mater, USC Law School, and served as its immediate past chairman of its board of counselors.
 
Ultimately, though, it comes back to the office. As long as he’s able, Trope will continue to take notes in long-hand (“I’m computer illiterate”), continue to litigate as much as possible and continue to show up at 8 a.m.
 
Because, at the end of the day, Trope’s longevity is thanks to being behind his desk at the beginning of the day.

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