Laura Wasser is a divorce lawyer whose clients have included Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie.
Wasser said being a woman in a male-dominated field helped her get clients and gain their trust.
She's rumored to be the inspiration for Laura Dern's character in "Marriage Story."
Ask one of the most high-profile celebrity-divorce attorneys in Los Angeles about her career choice, and she will shrug and say it's a role she was born to fill.
"I'm Laura Allison Wasser, so my initials are LAW, and both my parents are attorneys," she told Insider. "But when they asked, 'Are you going to be a lawyer?' I said, 'Never.' But I went to clerk for my daddy for the summer because I needed the money, and frankly, I fell in love with it."
Since that fateful stint after college, Wasser, now 54, has been tapped by a who's who of A-list celebrities to handle their uncouplings via her Century City firm, Wasser, Cooperman & Mandles.
She brokered Kelly Clarkson's contentious divorce and worked with Angelina Jolie — for a while, at least — and Johnny Depp in cases against Brad Pitt and Amber Heard, respectively. Wasser also helped Kim Kardashian cut ties with a husband not once, but twice: first with Kris Humphries and then with Ye, formerly known as Kanye West.
Other past clients include Christina Aguilera, Patricia Arquette, Maria Shriver, and Dr. Dre. She said her client base was about 50% male and 50% female, but that she usually represented the financial engine of any uncoupling — it's no wonder TMZ dubbed her "the disso queen" for her deft dissolution of headline-grabbing marriages.
Her hourly rate is $1,000. Many celebrity-adjacent providers will offer discounts to boldface names to land their business — but not Wasser.
"I get it. I understand. But it doesn't really help my brand to have represented a celebrity," she said.
She still lives in LA, where she grew up, with her two sons — from separate former boyfriends, neither of whom she married. She was married once, though.
"Very briefly, when I was 25 and in my second year of law school," she said. "I keep in touch more with his family than I do with him. It lasted about 14 months, and when we split up, we didn't have anything except debt and a pit bull named Raul."
She shared how she got started and what it's like working for unhappy A-listers.
She was the ideal divorce lawyer, even if she didn't know it at first
Wasser was brought up in Beverly Hills, California, where she graduated from the school that served as inspiration for West Beverly Hills High School on "90210." Divorces among her elite peers' parents were commonplace, she said, and her father, Dennis, often handled them. Wasser's own parents split amicably when she was 16; her mother died in 2019.
"You'd go to someone's bar mitzvah and say you're Dennis Wasser's daughter, and they'd say, 'You're at that table,' according to whether my dad had represented the mom or the dad," she said.
She pinballed around the world for high school and college — a stint at a boarding school in Switzerland, a year out working in Australia — before returning home for the clerking gig with her father. She'd majored in rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, and realized quickly that what she'd loved most about those studies was vital in divorce cases, as was her age and gender.
"It's about listening to people's problems and figuring out the narrative to solve them," she said. "And I was 25 when not a lot of younger people were doing this kind of law. It was just older men, so I got into it representing young people who were able to relate to a younger female, not some old guy in a suit.
"I have a tattoo. I'm not going to judge them if they say, 'I was out smoking my bong and the nanny caught me.'"
She added that her temperament was well-suited to episodic legal work rather than ongoing cases.
"I have a bit of ADD, so I deal with clients for six to 18 months, and then it's, 'Bye!'" she said. "I guess that's why I'm doing this. One of my exes is an entertainment lawyer, and they're on a commission, negotiating how many air tickets are included in a contract. It just sounds dreadful. I'm in, out, and move on to meeting new people."
She says the rise of 24/7 celebrity-news cycles forged her fame
It was two almost simultaneous cases that propelled Wasser to the status of A-list lawyer: a palimony case involving her client Stevie Wonder and, more notably, the divorce of Kevin Federline and Britney Spears, which was filed in November 2006. Spears' then-entertainment lawyer connected Wasser with his client before the wedding.
"He said, 'We need someone to go in and speak to her almost like a big sister because she doesn't think she needs a prenup because she's in love,'" she said. "It was, 'You're young. You can relate. Can you talk to her?'"
Naturally, when the marriage unraveled, it was Wasser to whom Spears and her team turned — though the singer later opted to work with a different divorce lawyer, TMZ reported.
These two cases coincided, Wasser said, with the rise of the 24-hour celebrity-news cycle: TMZ's TV incarnation debuted in September 2007 and was an instant hit as the highest-rated new show in syndication within a month. In summer that year, Perez Hilton said his celebrity-trolling site hit almost 9 million views a day.
Family cases like these are in the public domain in California, she added, so they were catnip for traffic-chasing celeb sites — and Wasser's fame grew in the backwash of her clients. Amid this torrent of interest, her policy of never discussing the details of any case helped shore up her reputation with well-known prospective clients.
"For the record, we at the firm have a policy that we will not discuss cases or give quotes — even if the clients ask us to," she said, adding that she wouldn't hesitate to ditch even an A-lister if they tried to embroil her in the media battle around their split.
Wasser also turns down clients who won't listen to her counsel, a new experience for many wealthy celebrities.
"They are used to being told, 'Yes — yes, we will make that happen,'" she said. "That's because they're feeding a lot of mouths: Their agent gets 10%, their manager 15%, their attorneys 5% of what they earn. I bill by the hour, so I am happy to say no if I feel like they're not hearing the reality of their situation."
Straight-talking tough love like that is refreshing in contentious battles, she added.
"We don't do unrealistic expectations. We don't do crazy," she said. "I don't need to make money out of people who are bananas, just get in and out with reasonableness."
Her business has a slightly different rhythm to that of many divorce lawyers, whose peak season is typically January and February, often results of unhappy holiday seasons.
"When we are getting near Oscar season, we may have clients or their reps say, 'Let's hold on to this until after we walk the red carpet,'" she said.
Drugs used to be the worst accusation leveled against a soon-to-be ex-spouse. Now there's a new tactic.
Wasser said celebrities could avoid publicity around their splits, should they so choose. There's a discreet entrance at Los Angeles Superior Court, for example, where they can avoid paparazzi stampedes — a problem, she said, "whenever there's a Kardashian." The COVID-19-era practice of remote hearings has helped, too, since celebrities don't need to appear in person.
Wasser is particularly proud of the splits she's handled that became public only when they concluded. It's easier to be discreet, she said, if the parties are truly amicable or if they have a lifestyle that includes bases beyond California's boundaries.
"As long as you meet residency requirements, you can get divorced there, and a lot of it goes under the radar," she said, citing states like Montana and Wyoming, which have more stringent privacy laws around such splits.
Sometimes a case can be resolved only in court, and it falls to Wasser to prep performers for their time on the stand. Perhaps surprisingly, it isn't actors who stand out in this forum.
"Some of my best clients are athletes because they take direction the best — they say, 'OK, coach,' and do exactly what they're supposed to do," she said. "And the most emotional and all over the place? That's the musicians, especially the male ones, who will always be in tears on the stands. That rock 'n' roll guy who will go off on a 10-minute guitar riff, on the stand, he'll go through an entire box of Kleenex."
Drugs used to be the nuclear option wielded against a well-known figure by a dissatisfied spouse — a threat to reveal pictures or stories involving them could emerge in contentious cases.
"Now if it's legal, like marijuana, and he or she is smoking, and the kids aren't with them, most judicial officers don't really care," she said. "A picture of a rolled joint? It's OK, whatever."
Instead, allegations of abuse have become the most toxic tactic in terms of damaging reputations.
"That's a huge source of extortion," she said. "If you're representing the famous, or the more famous, person, and the other is accusing you of domestic violence, you have to get on top of that in the court of public opinion. They'll try you long before a judicial officer ever does."
Wasser added: "It was right around 2016, the first famous case of that. Now you get a lot of other copycats." Notably, Jolie filed for divorce from Pitt that year, and her claims included abusive behavior on his part.
Wasser's happy to remain out of the spotlight despite her fame
Wasser's A-list clientele has turned her into a minor celebrity herself. She's a spokesperson for Divorce.com, the do-it-yourself split site, as its chief of divorce evolution and has hosted several podcasts, including "All's Fair with Laura Wasser" and "Divorce Sucks! With Laura Wasser," where one guest was the Kardashian momager and matriarch Kris Jenner.
Rumor has it that Wasser also provided the real-life inspiration for Laura Dern's character in the 2019 Netflix movie "Marriage Story," and the watertight "Massey prenup" in "Intolerable Cruelty," the Coen brothers' 2003 rom-com, was apparently based on one drafted by Wasser on clients' behalf, The New Yorker reported.
But she's glad her profile is much lower than those of many of the people she represents.
"I don't socialize with most of my clients. I'm with them going into and leaving court," she said. "I'm not crazy about the celebrity because I grew up here in LA. If I had wanted to be famous, I would have taken a different path."
This story was originally published on Insider on December 1, 2022.
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