Here, Norman Heller and Steven Goldfeder, of the law firm Blank Rome, discuss the critical steps lawyers must take to avoid internecine divorces for their wealthy clients.
It was recently reported that the well-publicized divorce between Susan Decker, the former president of Yahoo, and Michael Dovey, a retired investment banker, was resolved on the eve of trial, after nearly five years of bitter litigation. The case involved battles over custody of the parties’ three children, the division of a marital estate worth in excess of $70 million and included accusations by the spouses of drug use, electronic eavesdropping, marital infidelity and misappropriation of millions of dollars of marital funds. By the time the case was settled, Decker had lost her job as president of Yahoo, Dovey’s reputation in the investment banking field had taken a pounding and several million dollars in legal fees had been spent on both sides.
So how does one avoid the kind of “scorched earth” divorce suffered by the Dovey/Decker family and how can matrimonial practitioners guide their clients through such a tumultuous period in their lives while keeping their integrity and reputations intact.
1. Seeing the forest through the trees. The first few meetings between divorce attorney and client are often consumed with the client expressing his or her rage at their spouse’s conduct, whether it be an extramarital affair or the dissipation of marital assets. One client, a top executive who found his wife had been cheating on him, happily vowed that he would much rather litigate away the entirety of his marital estate and see the sums paid to lawyers, before his wife would see one dime. While the urge to simply do the client’s bidding can be tempting, it is often the matrimonial lawyer’s job to protect the clients from themselves. In doing so, a strategy must be formulated where the client’s goals in their divorce are identified early on. Is it to achieve a meaningful access schedule with their young children? To obtain a support package that enables them to duplicate the marital standard of living? To permit the owner of a closely-held business to continue to operate her company with minimal disruption?