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The pandemic boosts business for a top New York divorce lawyer

Robert Stephan Cohen was already having a banner year as one of New York’s top divorce lawyers.

He represented Melinda French Gates in her split from Bill Gates, one of the planet’s wealthiest people. He was also retained by the wife of John Paulson, the hedge fund manager who made $20bn betting against the housing market before the 2008 financial crisis.

Then came Labor Day. The American holiday in early September marks the traditional end of summer. Many New Yorkers had anticipated this year’s holiday as a time to end their pandemic-induced isolation — and, apparently, also their marriages. Cohen has taken on three or four billion-dollar break-ups since then.

“I found that Labor Day was a signal to people who were getting out of seclusion in East Hampton or Mexico or wherever their second houses were,” said Cohen. “It was sort of a turning point for a lot of married couples, and I think they decided then to pull the plug.”

Now 82, Cohen has for decades proven singularly skilful at helping wealthy New Yorkers pull that plug. He has represented not one but two ex-wives of Donald Trump — Ivana Trump and Marla Maples — as well as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, shipping heiress Athina Onassis and the actor James Gandolfini, among other boldfaced names.

It is surprising, then, that Cohen never much wanted to be a divorce lawyer. “I backed into this,” he confessed. “If anybody had said I was a divorce lawyer, I would have been very unhappy because I didn’t think that was like a good thing to do.”

It started with a phone call thirty-odd years ago, when Cohen was a litigator with a growing reputation. One of New York City’s most august corporate lawyers had a client, Henry Kravis, who was being sued by his ex-wife over their divorce settlement. His firm, Simpson Thacher, did not want to involve itself in such matters, the lawyer explained. Could Cohen help?

He obliged, and managed to have the suit dismissed. The Wall Street Journal wrote of his exploits. “And my phone started to ring and the cases started to come in,” Cohen said.

While he has been called a “pit bull”, a “Doberman” and “your worst nightmare,” among other descriptors of extreme litigious ferocity, Cohen was easy-going and genial on a recent afternoon when welcoming a visitor to his Manhattan office. At this point in his career, it seems, the lion need only occasionally roar.

“I can do the tough stuff if I need to,” he assured.

Some of that toughness comes from a “lousy” childhood Cohen endured in a one-bedroom apartment on the border of Bensonhurst and Coney Island. His mother was chronically unhappy that her husband drove a taxi. She died at 37. Cohen’s father struggled and his sister, Ellen, was taken in by relatives. He graduated from high school early and then worked his way through Alfred University and Fordham law school, earning his degree in 1962.

“There are so many of us that came from the bowels of Brooklyn, in lower middle class families,” Cohen reflected.

During his army service Cohen spent much of his time at Fort Dix in New Jersey waiting for the pay phone so he could call the office of Roy Cohn, the notorious former chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist investigation committee — and the man who would later take a young Donald Trump under his raptor’s wing.

Cohen did not necessarily agree with his politics, he said, but he revered Cohn’s skills as a litigator. Eventually Cohn granted him an interview, and then a job. “That was really the first door that was opened for me,” Cohen said of his introduction to a gilded world of doorman buildings and chauffeur-driven cars.

The fearsome Cohn also honed a relentlessness bordering on lunatic, berating the young lawyer one evening after he informed him that he could not find a legal solution to a particular client problem.

“He started to scream at me. He said, ‘do you think clients come in here and tell us that we can’t do something? There’s got to be a way to do it,’” Cohen recalled. “He said, ‘do you see it’s dark out? I can tell you it’s daytime and I’ll prove it’s daytime.’”

Cohen became a partner, then left to start his own firm. “He had a host of failings, personal failings,” he said of Cohn, who was later disbarred.

Meanwhile, the divorce landscape was changing. It was becoming easier to obtain a divorce in states that had long required proof of serious fault, usually adultery. (Hence the unseemly divorce lawyer reputation as the snoop hiding in the motel bushes with a Polaroid camera). 

Then in 1980 New York mandated an equitable distribution of marital assets. Business boomed, and it has only grown as the rich have grown richer. Ivana Trump’s reported $14m settlement in 1991, for example, now seems like a rounding error in a Gates estate that includes a $55bn philanthropic foundation or an Onassis split that involved litigation in Belgium, Monaco and Brazil.

“It’s a big business. It requires people around who understand tax, who understand securities, and who understand how to value all of these various assets,” said Cohen. His firm, Cohen Clair Lans Greifer Thorpe & Rottenstriech, has three attorneys who are certified public accountants, as well as a network of outside specialists to help value exotic assets. It is only a matter of time, Cohen predicted, before he hires a cryptocurrency adviser.

For all the financial sophistication, divorce remains a people business — a lesson Cohen imparts to law students at the University of Pennsylvania where he has taught a class, Anatomy of a Divorce, for the last 17 years. “You have to be a quasi-psychologist or psychiatrist or mental health professional,” he said. “Remember, we’re dealing with people at probably the most difficult time of their lives.”

Cohen, who suffered two of his own divorces, has been married to Stephanie Stiefel, a managing director at Neuberger Berman, for 23 years. (He wears a Cartier trinity band with three interlaced strands). If one can avoid divorce, he strongly advises it. He even wrote a book in 2002, Reconcilable Differences, which promises seven keys to preserving a marriage.

“I’ve said this a hundred times: If people continue to be intimate, that’s often an important point for me in saying there may be something there left to save,” he said, adding: “It’s a tough business.”

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