When the lawyers of the Washington sniper case were peeled away, one piece of that terrifying crime spree turned out to be something quite common—emotions rubbed raw by a bitter custody battle.
Convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad had come to the Washington area because his ex-wife, Mildred Muhammad, had gained sole custody of his three children and moved with them to Clinton, Maryland.
One of the theories for the motive behind the random killings, according to a Virginia lawyer familiar with the case, is that Muhammad planned to include Mildred among the sniper victims, making it appear that she was the victim of a deranged sniper instead of an angry ex-husband.
That the emotional trauma associated with domestic troubles can run so deep may surprise some people. But it was not news to the area's family lawyers. Of all the branches of legal practice, family law is the most emotional point of contact between attorneys and clients. And while the sniper case may be an extraordinary example, the issues confronted in divorce can be matters of life and death.
In one of the first cases I covered as a newspaper reporter, a woman had won custody of her five-year-old son. The father couldn't accept the decision. In the interest of the mother's safety, the judge ordered visitations to be held at a McDonald's. The father drove in, shot the mother dead, and took off with his son for Arizona. A year later he was stopped and arrested for a busted taillight on his pickup. He went to prison.
It's ironic that the most sensitive legal specialty gets less respect than other fields of law. Corporate lawyers sometimes dismiss it as a practice area for people who can't quite make the grades to get recruited by a top law firm—that is, until the corporate lawyer needs a divorce lawyer.
In movies, television, and literature, divorce lawyers are often depicted as unethical, à la Arnie Becker, the rascal attorney from L.A. Law. Never mind that choosing a divorce lawyer—the person who can save your fortune, keep you in contact with your children, and help ease a painful process—is one of the most important decisions in a person's life.
Hardly a week goes by that I don't get a call from a distressed partner in a marriage wanting advice on how to get out of it. That's what this list is for. On it are 52 of the area's most reputable, talented, and trustworthy divorce lawyers. They vary in location and in emphasis.
In the mini profiles, I have tried to give an idea of each lawyer's strengths and weaknesses. Some are better to hire if kids are number one. Others are better if the primary interest is dividing assets. Some have expertise in international relationships.
Hiring a divorce lawyer is hard because not everything is as it seems. Take hourly rates. It is easy to be scared away from an attorney whose fee is $500 an hour. Another lawyer might list his fee at $300 an hour. But if the $500-an-hour lawyer does his work in half the time of the $300-an-hour lawyer, who's cheaper?
In addition to the hourly rate, potential clients usually are asked to pay a retainer, often about ten times the listed hourly rate.
There are attorneys who run up bills. But excessive costs usually are caused by clients who want their lawyers to wage war against a cheating spouse. The easiest thing in the world is for a lawyer to say "sure." And the meter starts running. He can start taking depositions of family members and demanding financial documents and fiduciary records dating back 20 years. He can assign a private detective to get pictures.
Says one divorce lawyer, "Clients are often initially thrilled by their lawyer's sending out hundreds of pages of discovery requests and an avalanche of subpoenas that seek an initial knockout of their spouse. This can add tens of thousands to the bill, and there are plenty of attorneys happy to go along."
If all this will make a divorcing person feel happy and complete, fine. But it mainly ensures that a good part of the family's assets is delivered to the attorney. For that reason, some of the city's "bombers" aren't on this list.
How was the list put together? I began by contacting divorce lawyers I have known for years and whose integrity seems unimpeachable. Such a lawyer is Peter Sherman, whose old law firm reorganized last year and who now is mostly teaching. Sherman and former Georgetown University Law Center classmate Marna Tucker fostered the concept in Washington of the civil, even amicable, divorce. They passed their philosophies on to their partners and protégés, Sandy Ain and Rita Bank.
Last year, in a development as surprising as if Macy's had merged with Bloomingdale's, Ain and Bank became partners in their own firm. In a perfect world, the Justice Department would have investigated the merger for antitrust ramifications. Ain and Bank have been adversaries in some of the biggest divorce cases in Washington. Now if you hire one, you don't have to worry about seeing the other across the table.
From the initial interviews I began to construct a list of lawyers to whom these savvy lawyers would go if they had a family breakup. I took geography into consideration, making sure there was a good number of lawyers from DC, Maryland, and Virginia. It goes without saying that you want an attorney familiar with the law—and the courthouse—in the jurisdiction where you live. Some of the attorneys on this list, like Virginia legend Betty Thompson, have written many of the laws that Virginia circuit judges rule by. Some attorneys—I try to note where this is the case—serve as substitute judges or mediators in contested cases.
There are lawyers on this list who have not gotten along with clients. Some clients go through four or five lawyers and never find one who can get them the satisfaction they want. The sad truth is that the emotional damage of a spousal breakup sometimes prevents clients from seeing clearly what their best interests are. I have talked to every lawyer on this list at one time or another and conversed with clients of most of them.
Divorce lawyers will tell you that next to the death of a child, a divorce is the worst thing that can happen in a family. Revenge and spite may provide short-term gratification, but in the long run the cost will far exceed the benefits. "Short-term gratification isn't even what it's cracked up to be," says attorney Jeffrey Greenblatt. "The court system isn't designed to allow a client to beat up on somebody so that they wind up with nothing." Sometimes you have to put the past behind you and move on.
A divorcing spouse should stay focused on the important things: First come the children, if any. Next are money and property. Good attorneys concentrate on extending the financial well-being of both parties.
The idea behind this list is that divorce does not have to be the ultimate nightmare. But you need a guide who will be straightforward and honest, who will not pick your pockets, who will not let you be your own worst enemy. Here are 52 of the best. In some profiles a significant associate or protege is mentioned in bold letters.
1. SANFORD K. AIN (Ain & Bank; 202-530-3300. Fee: $550 an hour. Licensed to practice in DC, Maryland, and Virginia). Sandy Ain, 56, has been at the top of the Washington divorce bar for the past decade. He recently formed his own firm, with longtime rival Rita Bank, and solidified his reputation as the go-to guy for the wealthy but maritally challenged. In the past year he has represented Washington billionaire Steven Rales in his divorce from Christine, his wife of about 20 years. Other clients have included former Maryland first lady Frances Glendening and business magnate Herbert Haft. Ain is confident, trustworthy, and ethical. If your case doesn't call for his hourly rate, he will refer it to one of his partners, such as Mark Carlin, but he will continue to supervise.
2. MARNA TUCKER (Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell; 202-466-8960. $475/hour. DC). Marna Tucker is the grande dame of Washington divorce. One of her most famous clients was former Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson--she doesn't, as some people think, represent only women. Despite a fearsome reputation, she is friendly, professional, and accessible. She feels that her ability to put clients at ease is her greatest strength. She strives to keep up with the times. Every case, she says, "is like a novel with new characters and subplots--and I get to help write it as I read it."
3. JAMES L. RIDER (Margolius, Mallios & Rider; 202-296-1000. $450/hour. DC, VA). A former military attorney, Rider, 61, is one of the country's foremost experts on mediation, and no local attorney has a better grasp of custody issues. Rider is confident but not blustery--he won't offer or promise anything he can't deliver. On his roster of past clients are corporate executives, politicians, and high-ranking government officials. Almost all come away feeling that discretion and good judgment are at the heart of Rider's efforts.