Washington divorce law is dominated by two firms with headquarters in downtown DC: Ain & Bank and Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell. Both have about a dozen lawyers and represent divorcing parties anywhere in the metro area.
But dozens of smaller firms are nipping at their heels. Most represent clients in either Maryland or Virginia because the laws and rules of practice are different in each jurisdiction. We have noted where lawyers practice: If a state is not mentioned, the practitioner is headquartered in the District. Check whether a DC-based lawyer practices in Maryland or Virginia—most lawyers based in the District will practice in either Maryland or Virginia but often not both.
Rates for divorce lawyers range from $275 an hour to $800 for the top guns. A well-handled divorce is likely to cost each party at least $10,000, and depending on the size and complexity of marital assets and on child-custody issues, it’s not unusual for the figure to reach $50,000. A trial requiring a full complement of private detectives, computer experts, and psychological, psychiatric, and custody witnesses can cost each side well over $100,000.
Some divorce lawyers include a clause in the payment agreement allowing them to ask for a voluntary gratuity in the event of a very good result. When the case is over, the lawyer may remind you of this, but you are under no obligation to tip; the law does not allow contingency fees in divorce practice. Read your fee agreement closely.
An attorney’s personality and background provide clues as to how your case might proceed. When discussing the fee arrangement, remember that the hourly rate is only part of the story. The other part is how many hours your attorney will spend—a number that can surprise you at the end.
Divorce law rarely attracts the best and brightest from America’s law schools. Many top schools ignore the specialty. It remains dominated by veterans.
Any licensed lawyer can represent you in a divorce. But the rules and culture of the divorce bar can be peculiar. Many lawyers who do not practice regularly in the field are wary of getting involved. So be careful about using someone who doesn’t practice regularly in the field. Many big law firms used to keep a divorce specialist on hand for the benefit of corporate clients, but now they almost always refer clients to a divorce specialist—usually one of the ones listed here.
Here are the top 25 divorce lawyers ranked in order. The best of the rest are in alphabetical order.
1. Sanford K. “Sandy” Ain of Ain & Bank (202-530-3300). Washington’s top gun still handles the biggest cases for the richest clients. He maintains a stable of a dozen partners and associates to help him handle his large clientele. His expertise is unquestioned.
2. Marna Tucker of Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell (202-466-8960) makes it easy for clients to pour out their hearts. Always on top of changes in the law, she also has an approachable personality and a reputation for ethical conduct that puts clients at ease.
3. Rita Bank of Ain & Bank (202-530-3335). Smart as a whip, Bank often adds estate and investment advice to her marital savvy. Once a longtime partner of Marna Tucker’s, now a partner of Sandy Ain’s, she ranks as their equal.
4. James Ray Cottrell of Cottrell Fletcher Schinstock Bartol & Cottrell; Alexandria (703-836-2770). A firebrand with 31 years’ experience, this is the guy you want at your side in Virginia courts. Often the first pick in contentious cases, he’s not the type to settle, so have your wallet open.
5. Cheryl New of Sandground New & Lowinger; Bethesda (301-907-7000). The lead partner in one of Washington’s most illustrious firms has moved from McLean to Bethesda but can work in either state. She’s smart and funny and won’t waste your time.
6. Patrick Dragga of Dragga, Callahan, Hannon, Hessler & Wills; Rockville (301-340-9090). He’s good-humored, savvy about money, compassionate when it comes to the kids. For Marylanders, no one is going to make a situation better. He has special expertise in evaluating what is best for disabled children.
7. Richard J. Colten of Colten Cummins Watson & Vincent; Fairfax (703-277-9700). This tough, experienced yachtsman can mix it up with anyone but practices almost exclusively in Northern Virginia. He’s good for clients who want to play tough but by the rules.
8. Jonathan Dana of Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell (202-466-8960). A former clerk in the DC court system, Dana knows his way around District divorce law better than almost anyone.
9. Ronald Ogens of Deckelbaum Ogens & Raftery; Bethesda (301-961-9200). Colleagues find him annoying, and some of his mostly Maryland clients worry that his attention to detail runs up the bill. But he wins cases, and his agreements are meticulously written.
10. Cynthia Callahan of Dragga, Callahan, Hannon, Hessler & Wills; Rockville (301-340-9090). Basketballer Patrick Ewing and boxer Riddick Bowe are just two big-name clients who have put their trust in this family-law expert. She has been rumored to be in line for a judgeship but is still available for hire.
11. Glenn Cooper of Paley Rothman; Bethesda (301-951-9322). The former chair of the ethics committee of the Maryland bar is unusual—and comforting—in this field. He practices in other commercial specialties and is the right pick for complicated business divisions.
12. Paul Smollar of Kuder Smollar & Friedman (202-331-7522). This Northwestern University law grad brings a touch of the Ivy League to a practice that centers on Virginia and DC. A big believer in mediation and nonconfrontational “collaborative law” practice, he has a solid team behind him in his downtown DC office.
13. Heather Hostetter of Strickler, Sachitano & Hatfield; Bethesda (301-657-8805). This onetime Maryland public defender has made a seamless transition to the world of divorce. She offers a fresh look at things and practices mainly in Montgomery County.
14. Walter W. Johnson Jr., Silver Spring (301-587-2090). Universally respected for his class and experience, he’s now in his midseventies; opponents say he has lost none of his savvy.
15. James Korman of Bean, Kinney & Korman; Arlington (703-525-4000). A pillar of the Northern Virginia bar, he is expert in the business-related aspects of divorce, including pension plans, stock options, and asset division.
16. Linda Ravdin of Pasternak & Fidis; Bethesda (301-656-8850). This experienced pro is the one to call in Maryland or DC if you’re interested in breaking—or forcing a spouse to live up to—a prenup.
17. Bryan Renehan of Brodsky, Greenblatt, Renehan & Pearlstein; Gaithersburg (301-869-1700). If you think your cheating spouse has been leaving text or computer messages around, this lawyer can find them. Not for the faint of heart—you might not want to know what he will discover.
18. Betty Thompson, Arlington (703-522-8100). This legendary octogenarian, never married herself, has trained many of the best female lawyers in Northern Virginia—and she hasn’t slowed down, though clients should feel free to speak loudly.
19. Betty Moore Sandler of Nichols, Zauzig Sandler; Woodbridge (703-492-4200). This basketball-crazy University of Kentucky grad gets excellent reviews from colleagues and clients—our top choice for Prince William County and points south.
20. Joseph Condo of Condo Roop Kelly & Byrnes; McLean (703-442-0888). This Virginia legend has been chosen by such clients as former Redskin Sam Huff and Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. His informal approach is sometimes mistaken for a lack of serious purpose. Don’t be deceived—he knows how it’s done.