Laura Wasser’s office, perched high over Los Angeles, has a gold hand grenade for a coffee-table centerpiece. Clients sit in one of two green leather chairs facing her desk, a box of tissues nearby. On the wall hangs a framed canvas print with two words: The End.
Apposite, because clients come here to end their marriages, but for Wasser each request is really a beginning, a springboard into a process in which she must protect the psyches, secrets, reputations and fortunes of famous people in the lottery known as divorce while the media turn the whole thing into a carnival.
Wasser, 47, a partner at the law firm Wasser, Cooperman & Mandles, has proved so skilled at the game that she is known as Hollywood’s “disso queen”, for dissolution of marriage. Her clients are a roll-call of entertainment royalty: Johnny Depp, Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears, Ashton Kutcher, Heidi Klum, Stevie Wonder.
Those divorce cases were celebrity squalls compared to the storm in whose eye Wasser now finds herself, as the official splicer of Brangelina, representing Angelina Jolie in her divorce from Brad Pitt. An ostensibly private affair that is already playing out in a vortex of Google-powered rumor, every detail, real or imagined, devoured in a blink.
“For high-profile cases, Laura tries to keep clients out of the media spotlight. Which I agree is the better way to go, especially when there are children involved,” said Stacy Phillips, another high-profile divorce lawyer who works in the same office tower as Wasser in Century City, bordering Beverly Hills.
Maintaining control, not to mention dignity, is a challenge when camera crews, craving any tidbit, stampede the lawyers. “The pressure, oh yes, it can be annoying. I literally got knocked down in court by the media. Twice,” Phillips said.
Wasser will handle the pressure, she predicted. “Laura’s a very fine lawyer. Clients liker her. Colleagues like her. She’s earned her stripes.” It helps that she is stylish and by all accounts funny, blunt and undazzled by star wattage.
Wasser has a particular view about marriage: don’t. Briefly married while a law student, she has been divorced more than two decades and remains unmarried, preferring long-term live-in boyfriends to husbands.
“I don’t know that human beings were meant to mate for life or be monogamous,” she told Interview magazine. “But, for me, the aspect of marriage that is troubling is that it’s a contract that is governed by the state, and I don’t want the state to have control over my personal affairs.”
She has two children by different partners (who came after the divorce) and has verbal – not written – agreements with them over custody.
Intimate involvement in some of Hollywood’s most fraught divorce cases has left Wasser unsentimental about nuptials. “A lot of Hollywood is fantasy and when that idea of walking down the aisle in a beautiful dress or suit is so lovely, and you’ve got unlimited funds, why wouldn’t you want to do it time and time again?” she told the Telegraph in 2013.
“They think: ‘So, the first one didn’t work out and the second one didn’t work out, but this one really is the one!’ I’m being glib, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that people love to get married.”
Divorce, she said, is the great equalizer. Rich or poor, everybody has the same concerns, sadness and resentments when a marriage ends. “Whether it’s, ‘Who is going to walk the red carpet with me at the Oscars?’ or ‘Who is going to go to the office Christmas party with me and Xerox their face next to mine?’, the fears are the same. They all have the same look on their faces when they first come in.”
Even so, the stakes are higher with Jolie. There are six children, biological and adopted.
There is wealth thanks to films such as Maleficent, Tomb Raider, Salt and Mr & Mrs Smith.
If the actor were divorcing Ned from accounting there would still be public fascination, but after a 12-year romance and two years of marriage, she is divorcing the star of Troy, Fight Club and Legends of the Fall. Sex symbols both, their pairing a unity of impossible glamour, a sheen not seen since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, now sundered.
Within minutes of Jolie, 41, initiating divorce proceedings on Tuesday, citing irreconcilable differences, the internet foamed. There were gifs of Pitt’s ex, Jennifer Aniston, smirking. Then allegations vigorously denied that Pitt, 52, had an affair with co-star Marion Cotillard.
Then claims he boozed and smoked too much weed for Jolie’s comfort.
And that he was being investigated for child abuse following an in-flight tantrum, a claim since discredited.
Wasser must negotiate all this knowing that the celebrity news site TMZ seemingly has informants all over LA in police departments, prosecutors’ offices, courthouses, hospitals, domestic staff a web constantly thrumming with gossip, misinformation and genuine facts.
“Most of the high-profile, high-asset cases are resolved quietly through alternative dispute resolution, ADR,” said Gloria Allred, a prominent attorney who represents many of Bill Cosby’s alleged victims. “Jolie has agreed to joint legal custody but she’s asking for sole visitation for him. We don’t know if he’s going to dispute that. We don’t know if there’ll be a custody battle.”
If Wasser follows her usual pattern, there will be no battle, at least not in court.
She may charge a $25,000 retainer and $850 per hour but she is, after all, the author of It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way: How to Divorce Without Destroying Your Family or Bankrupting Yourself.
She was, quite literally, named after the law: Laura Allison Wasser. An idea of her father, Dennis, who founded Wasser, Cooperman & Mandles in 1976.
She impressed teachers at Loyola law school, said Sande Buhai, one of the professors. “Laura was exceptionally mature and diligent, one of the best students we ever had. She has great communication skills and wonderful empathy. I remember she was working on a case that seemed pretty hopeless and she refused to give up and managed to get a good settlement for our client who had been discriminated against because he was disabled.”
She moved to her father’s firm in 1995 and worked on low-profile cases until 2001 when she helped Johnnie Cochran, of OJ Simpson fame, represent Stevie Wonder in a $30m palimony suit filed by an ex-girlfriend. It opened doors to other celebrity clients: Spears (who filed to divorce Kevin Federline), Melanie Griffith (Antonio Banderas), Denise Richards (Charlie Sheen), Maria Shriver (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Jolie (Billy Bob Thornton, in 2003).
“There’s a mythology of Laura Wasser in Hollywood,” Brian Grazer, the co-founder of Imagine Entertainment, who hired her for his own divorce, told Bloomberg News. “She has a reputation for being tough. You can call Laura and say, ‘I’m so angry, blah blah blah blah,’ but Laura does not operate in that space. She will be calm and logical, and she’ll tell you to think about what you’re saying.”
Sound advice. If people followed it there might be a lot fewer divorces. But people do not follow it, least of all in Hollywood. For the disso queen, despite the wall hanging, there is no end.