Divorce, Washington-Style

Breaking up a marriage has always been hard to do. Now it's more complicated than ever, so finding the right attorney is important. Here are Washington's 50 top divorce lawyers.

When John Thomson’s house burned down four years ago, the Washington Post reported the next morning that “no injuries were reported.” That was true. But there was a lot of hurt. In the aftermath of the house fire on DC’s Colorado Avenue, the longtime Georgetown University basketball coach turned philosophical about his life and the rebuilding process he and Gwen, his wife of 32 years, would have to go through.

Thompson had met Gwen while he was a student at Archbishop Carroll High School and she was at Sacred Heart; they had married and raised three children. Like most marriages, it had had its rough patches; separation was something each had considered at different times. Now, in the wake of the fire, John Thompson decided that he could rebuild the house but not the marriage.

Only after this did Gwen learn that John had bought a million-dollar condominium in Rosslyn and, later, on the advice of his business agent, hired Washington’s best-known divorce lawyer, Marna Tucker.

Gwen was hurt by John’s move to Virginia, but she did not yet realize its significance. In Virginia a judge can determine that marital property stops accumulating at the point of separation. In the District, as in Maryland, it accumulates until the divorce is final.

As it happened, John Thompson was considering other options in life. One was a $15-million offer to become coach and general manager of an NBA team. Filing for divorce in Virginia meant there was a good chance the money from an NBA deal would be all his. If he stayed in the District or moved to Maryland, Gwen could be entitled to half of everything from any deal he made until the divorce was finalized, a process that might take years.

Even safely ensconced in Virginia, Thompson was anxious to avoid a lengthy divorce proceeding. That was another benefit of the Virginia court system. It is known for being the most efficient in the nation.

Now that the fire had prompted Thompson to cut the marital knot, he wanted it over. There was no talk of counseling or reconciliation. Gwen had moved in with her mother in DC, and the children were grown and gone. What remained was the considerable estate Thompson had built. He wrote Gwen proposing a settlement figure. The amount struck her as unfair. >

“He was trying to negotiate a deal with me and telling me, ‘This is what I can do, and you have to take this,’ ” says Gwen. The pressure was heavy, not only from John but also indirectly from her children, who were urging a quick settlement so everyone could get on with their lives. Gwen was in shock but not paralyzed. A friend recommended that she contact Deborah Luxenberg, a motherly divorce lawyer who practices out of a townhouse at 19th and N streets in downtown DC.

Deborah Luxenberg was not as well known as Marna Tucker. Tucker, a magnet for publicity, represents millionaire clients and is featured often in articles about divorce. Luxenberg used to work out of Mount Pleasant; many of her cases have involved offbeat avenues of family law like litigating the rights of lesbian grandparents. But few attorneys are as savvy as Luxenberg in the DC court system.

When Thompson discovered that his wife had retained her own combative counsel, he was surprised. He had expected her to get a lawyer, but he’d hoped for one who would be impressed by Tucker’s powerhouse persona.

Luxenberg wasted no time in alerting Gwen Thompson to the options available to her. Luxenberg told her about “celebrity goodwill,” the legal concept that her husband’s fame had value beyond that of a financial portfolio. She also knew that Thompson had reasons for wanting to keep the divorce proceeding out of the papers: He was a high-profile coach at a university that values its good name.

Luxenberg’s instincts were correct. Thompson already had been embarrassed by a public flap over his business dealings with a Las Vegas slot-machine owner. Georgetown president Leo O’Donovan had always stood by him, but the coach wasn’t eager to test the limits of the priest’s loyalty.

When Thompson and Tucker realized in September 1997 that Gwen had hired Luxenberg, they went to the courthouse in Arlington to file the divorce papers before Luxenberg could do so in DC, where the case could get buried for years. To bolster their claim for Virginia jurisdiction, Tucker had Gwen Thompson followed and served with a subpoena when she ventured across the river into Virginia.

Luxenberg considered challenging the jurisdiction but ultimately decided that a Virginia venue had some advantages for her client. She reminded Gwen that Thompson would be revered in a DC court; maybe an Arlington judge and jury would be less worshipful.

Luxenberg had been outflanked in the beginning, but now, with the parties irreconcilably at odds, she focused on assets. Thompson’s multimillion estate was not simple. In addition to his salary at Georgetown, Thompson had $3.6 million worth of stock and options in Nike Corporation, stock that fluctuated in value from day to day. The house was also a complicated matter. Georgetown University had purchased it for $350,000 in 1980 and given it to Thompson two years later. Although the house had been valued at nearly $600,000, it was sold after the fire for $325,000, and John had not offered to share any of the profits with Gwen.

Luxenberg is not known as a bomber–an attorney who will do anything and destroy anybody to win–but she was not naive. Information is power in a divorce. Luxenberg began putting together a portrait of Thompson’s personal life–a portrait, it turned out, that he might find embarrassing.

If the Thompsons were going to court in Virginia, Luxenberg was going to make sure that all of John Thompson’s life was laid out before the judge. Luxenberg zeroed in on two of Thompson’s key relationships–one with superagent David Falk, the other with Georgetown academic adviser Mary Fenlon. Luxenberg found that Thompson and Fenlon had extensive joint real-estate investments in Las Vegas.

While Luxenberg tightened the screws by subpoenaing financial records and witnesses, the Thompson children continued urging their mother to settle amicably and end what seemed a march toward family disaster in court.

Gwen Thompson was torn between the advice she got from Luxenberg and the pressure to settle from her children. Later she would come to believe that her biggest mistake was giving in to well-intended but wrong-headed advice from family members.

Like many people in the midst of divorce, she felt constantly pressured. “No matter what happens,” she says, “when you are going through something like that, there is never enough time to pause and reflect.”

By 1999, three years after the fire, 15 months after the divorce filing, and many court dates later, a settlement still had not been reached. Luxenberg’s biggest club was the threat to drag the case and all of Thompson’s dirty laundry into a public hearing. Now the pressure wasn’t getting only to Gwen–it was starting to affect Thompson’s coaching. In the middle of the 1998-99 season, he abruptly announced that he was quitting. He told the Post that the “details” of his pending divorce were “bogging him down.”

Marna Tucker did one of the things she is best at: She put the most favorable spin possible on Thompson’s resignation, saying that the painful dispute was “quite amicable.” It wasn’t, of course, but Tucker explains that everything is relative. “My definition of an amicable divorce is one where you aren’t throwing things,” she says.

In her workmanlike fashion, Deborah Luxenberg was making Thompson’s life miserable enough that he finally told Tucker he wanted to wrap it up. Gwen Thompson, too, was ready to call it a case.

In June the two sides reached an agreement for dividing up the property. The settlement, along with the potentially embarrassing information Luxenberg had amassed, was sealed. Word is that Gwen Thompson’s 21 months of pain and aggravation netted her spousal support ten times greater than what Tucker and Thompson had originally proposed, and a property distribution estimated by some divorce experts at well over $1.5 million. Neither side’s attorneys would comment on the details, but on his radio show Thompson recently joked that he had been “hosed” in the settlement.

The Thomson case involved a famous basketball coach, but in many ways it typified the Washington divorce. There was the well-off husband waking up one day and wanting a change. There was the conflict over the differences between DC and Virginia law. There was the hunt for hidden assets and incriminating witnesses. Then there was the sticky division of assets, complicated by the presence of stock options. What are they likely to be worth? Are they marital property? Options can be granted by a company as either a reward for past service or a not-yet-vested reward for what a company hopes is future loyalty. How a court interprets the intent of options can have an impact on who gets them. And finally, it involved a frequent aspect of Washington divorces, public-relations land mines that require monitoring by the lawyers involved.

At no time in the past 50 years has Washington had so many people who have gotten so rich so fast. And nothing seems to change people as quickly as sudden wealth. The wife of one America Online executive awoke one morning to learn that her husband had bought a plane, had bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, and was keeping a mistress on another Caribbean island. Such stories used to be rare, but now they are common talk among members of the Washington divorce bar. For people making so much money, the cost of getting a divorce–often $50,000 to $100,000 in legal fees–is not prohibitive.

The irony, says one divorce lawyer, is that stock options are used by technology companies to keep employees from jumping to another job; employees are not likely to leave a company until their options have vested. This provides stability in the workplace. But when the value of a worker’s stock jumps to dizzying heights, the reaction at home sometimes is to find a new spouse.

Says Virginia lawyer Jim Korman, “Money does funny things to people. It magnifies things. It affects people’s judgment, much like it did to Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. One of the things we’ve seen it do is make a big jerk a much bigger jerk.”

The technology revolution has undermined marriages in other ways, too. E-mail and online chat rooms have provided mechanisms for infidelity in which participants do not worry about phone calls or love notes on paper. Some divorce lawyers have taken to routinely getting subpoenas for a spouse’s hard drive.

When The Washingtonian first published its list of the area’s 50 top divorce lawyers five years ago, the high-tech craze had not yet hit full force. As the stakes in divorces have increased, so has the importance of finding a top lawyer. So we recently asked Washington divorce practitioners whom they would recommend to handle the divorce of a close friend or relative. When the results were in, we interviewed more than 100 candidates and finally settled on the top 50. As before, they represent a range of practice styles, from the nice to the not-so-nice, from those who specialize in executive types to those who represent young spouses simply trying to win custody of a child. There are lots of good divorce lawyers not on this list–and one’s presence on it is no guarantee that he or she will be the right lawyer for you. But somewhere on the list is a divorce lawyer who’s right for any situation.

1. Sanford K. Ain (Sherman, Meehan, Curtin & Ain; 202-530-3300. Fee: $385 an hour. Licensed to practice in DC, Maryland, and Virginia). Sandy Ain, 52, is one of the best divorce lawyers in America and maybe one of the best lawyers, period. His firm is famous for its low-key, nonconfrontational approach to domestic-relations law. Ain exemplifies that ethic. He is very discreet and gentlemanly in negotiation but capable of overwhelming the opposition with his intellect, knowledge of the law, and determination to get the best possible result for his client. Ain represented Herbert Haft in his highly publicized divorce from wife Gloria. One of his best-known clients is author Tom Clancy, for whom Ain helped negotiate a relatively quiet out-of-court settlement of the $191-million estate. Ain and his wife, Miriam, have been married for 20 years.

2. Glenn C. Lewis (Lewis Law Firm; 202-408-0655. $390/hour. DC, VA, MD). Few lawyers have a neutral opinion about Glenn Lewis, 50, the top trial attorney in the Northern Virginia bar. The media-savvy Lewis–he hosts his own cable-TV program–has had a steady stream of high-profile clients bang on his door, among them gab-show host John McLaughlin, former Redskin John Riggins, and AOL cofounder James Kimsey. Lewis is a master at developing strategy, taking depositions, and conducting cross-examinations, and clients appreciate his confident manner. Some of his fellow attorneys claim he charges too much and seeks publicity–an allegation Lewis vehemently denies. “I work my butt off to keep cases out of the press,” he says. As for his hourly rate, Lewis says simply, “I am worth it.” And even his critics admit that he would be among the first two people they would call. Lewis and his wife of 15 years, Kimberly, live in Vienna.

3. Peter Sherman (Sherman, Meehan, Curtin & Ain; 202-530-3300. $385/hour. DC). This Indiana native is the gentle giant of the divorce bar, a throwback to the days when lawyers didn’t brag about their clients, try their cases in the press, or grandstand. The mentor in some respects of Sandy Ain, Sherman, 60, sets an ethical standard that few divorce lawyers can match. There are many firms in Washington that will spy on and intimidate spouses, but if you want a lawyer like that, Sherman is not your man; some potential clients find him distant. His representation of conservative writer Arianna Huffington in her divorce from former Congressman Michael Huffington was one of Sherman’s classic “dignified” divorces. Divorced once himself, he has been married for 12 years to one of his law partners, Claudia Pott.

4. Rita Bank (Feldesman, Tucker, Leifer, Fidell & Bank; 202-466-8960. $375/hour. DC, MD). Few divorce lawyers have as much balance and perspective as Rita Bank. She has seen life from both sides of the economic divide. A onetime poverty worker in West Virginia, Bank, 53, is now adept at carving up the riches of her well-heeled clients. She represented Gloria Haft in her divorce from her billionaire husband, Herbert. More recently Bank represented aggrieved wife Victoria Westin after her husband, ABC president David Westin, gave her the heave-ho for Sherrie Rollins , wife of media consultant Ed Rollins. The result was a windfall for Victoria. Bank’s firm is one of the strongest in town, and the junior lawyers she works with inspire confidence, too. Bank has been married to corporate lawyer Richard Bank for 30 years.

5. Richard J. Colten (Surovell, Jackson, Colten & Dugan; 703-591-1300. $350/hour. VA). A guy with street smarts who has been through a messy divorce himself, Colten, 56, knows the game. He is an excellent trial lawyer and a fierce negotiator who can relate to the pacifists in his profession but mix it up with the bombers if need be. Clients cite his empathy and good courtside manner. The lawyer for several top AOL executives, he is strong on issues involving stock options. Colten has been married for 16 years to his knowledgeable and helpful assistant, Sue Johns.

6. James L. Rider (Margolius, Mallios, Davis, Rider & Tomar; 202-296-1000. $335/hour. DC, VA). Five years ago, while he was bicycling in Rock Creek Park, Jim Rider was stabbed in the chest with an ice pick and left for dead–so don’t expect him to be that concerned about who gets the toaster. But when his accused assailant went on trial last year, Rider preferred to allow the suspect to go free rather than lie about his inability to identify the man. He practices law with the same integrity. A former military attorney, Rider, 58, is one of the country’s foremost experts on mediation, and no attorney in Washington has a better grasp of custody issues. Rider, who won’t offer or promise anything he can’t deliver, is confident but not blustery. He and his wife, Eleanor, have been together for 22 years.

7. Betty Thompson (Betty A. Thompson Ltd.; 703-522-8100. $375/hour. VA). A living legend of Virginia divorce law, 75-year-old Betty Thompson reacts as angrily to suggestions that she might be slowing down as she does to proposals that might diminish the assets of her clients, among whom have been actor Robert Duvall. Thompson, who lives just a few minutes from her Rosslyn office, works six–sometimes seven–days a week and still beams with enthusiasm. She terrorizes opposing lawyers, but she does it through tenacity and extraordinary knowledge of the local court rules that often guide decisions in Virginia, where unwritten legal precedents can be more significant than what’s in the books. The diminutive divorce attorney has never married. Some 30 years ago, her fiancé fell down a set of concrete steps and died. “Marriage has to add a dimension that enlarges you and makes your life more fulfilled,” she says. “I never found that person again.”

8. Marna Tucker (Feldesman, Tucker, Leifer, Fidell & Bank; 202-466-8960. $385/hour. DC). The firm Marna Tucker has built stands alongside Peter Sherman’s as one of the twin pillars of divorce law in the region. She has confidently surrounded herself with stars, and her skills as a client-getter are without peer. In addition to Georgetown coach John Thompson, she has represented such notables as former California Congressman Michael Huffington and Gloria Haft. The Huffington matter, she says, “was one of the quickest, nicest divorces that I have ever worked on.” Some colleagues complain of the publicity she generates–in some cases out of jealousy, no doubt. Critics also complain that she sometimes stakes out unreasonable positions and refuses to back off; others note that her persistence, a trait that has spread to the attorneys who work for her, usually inures to the benefit of the client. Tucker says, “There are always two different views of what is reasonable.” For 27 years Tucker, 59, has been married to Lawrence Baskir, a federal judge.

9. Jonathan Dana (Feldesman, Tucker, Leifer, Fidell & Bank; 202-466-8960. $250/hour. DC, MD). Dana, 44, is one of the young stars of the divorce bar. Colleagues say he is especially adept in the clogged and frustrating DC courts, where he once worked as a clerk to Judge Rufus King III. Says a client, “Jon is extremely kind, competent, and caring. He actually bills honest hours, does not run up the bill, and finds the right strategy for the problem.” Dana is starting to find his share of big-name cases. He represented Suzanne Neel in her divorce settlement after 29 years of marriage to Gore confidant and lobbyist Roy Neel, who married his girlfriend, Regina Clad. Although the Mount Pleasant resident is still considered young for a divorce attorney, he has been married for 14 years and has practiced in the field since his early thirties.

10. Patrick Dragga (Dragga, Callahan, Hannon & Hessler; 301-340-9090. $290/hour. MD, DC). Bright, articulate, and known for his sense of humor, this Cleveland native graduated from Catholic University’s excellent law school. Once a banking and real-estate lawyer, Dragga, 49, has represented AOL employees in complicated stock-options cases. He is also adept at representing abused children, cases that judges often send his way. He is said to have a knack for helping clients get through difficult times with a smile. He has been married for 22 years to attorney Sherry Kinikin.

11. Glenn Cooper (Paley, Rothman, Goldstein, Rosenberg & Cooper; 301-656-7603. $280/hour. MD, DC). Cooper, 51, is one of the real pros of the Maryland divorce bar, a man you want to go into court with. He’s not a hand-holder, and he is more interested in big-money cases–splitting up property–than he is in splitting up kids and custody. Cooper is different from many divorce specialists in that part of his practice is also devoted to business and commercial law. He has been involved in landmark cases, including one that decided the standard for defining “cohabitation.” The Potomac resident has been married to Jackie Cooper for 29 years.

12. James Cottrell (Gannon, Cottrell & Ward; 703-836-2770. $350/hour. VA). A graduate of Virginia Military Institute who was born in the coal country of southwestern Virginia, Cottrell is one of the very best of the hard-nosed tough guys who practice in Northern Virginia. Most of his clients have already been to at least one lawyer by the time they hire Cottrell and are often at wits’ end. Cottrell, 47, tells them right up front that all the case can be about is money–he will not be party to exacting retribution from a spouse. Clients who follow that simple dictum usually come out ahead. His no-nonsense approach has been attractive to such high-profile clients as the late Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke. Cottrell has been happily married to Penelope Cottrell since 1977.

13. James Korman (Bean, Kinney & Korman; 703-525-4000. $325/hour. VA, DC). Korman, 56, is rare in that his practice is broader than divorce law; his knowledge of banking law is especially helpful in advising divorce clients on issues involving creditors. Colleagues describe Korman as a straight shooter who always does his homework and doesn’t get personal. He is adept at complicated cases and has considerable expertise in stock-option controversies. He and his wife, Barbara, recently celebrated their 32nd anniversary.

14. Deborah LuxenbErg (Luxenberg, Johnson & Dickens; 202-265-3340. $250/hour. DC, MD). Debby Luxenberg works out of a historic townhouse on 19th Street south of Dupont Circle, where clients often are greeted in the reception area by a friendly pooch; the ambience is casual and comforting. Luxenberg, 50, knows the drill at DC Superior Court as well as anyone. Comfortable with celebrity clients like Gwen Thompson, former wife of the Georgetown University basketball coach, Luxenberg has an active practice among gay and lesbian couples, whose splits can be extremely complicated because of the uncertain legal status of their unions. She was the lawyer of record in a landmark case in which a lesbian nonbiological parent won temporary visitation rights to a child of her ex-partner’s. Luxenberg practices law with her husband of 14 years, Stephen Johnson.

15. Cynthia Callahan (Dragga, Callahan, Hannon & Hessler; 301-340-9090. $270/hour. MD, DC). Callahan, 44, has represented two of the biggest clients in Washington–New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing and heavyweight boxer Riddick Bowe. Known for her knack for handling tough tax issues, Callahan also has a sensitive side–she likes to remind clients that when children are involved, you can’t divorce yourself from a spouse’s life, so it’s best to figure out a way to get along. That was an element of the advice she gave Ewing, whose wife and children live in New Jersey while he maintains a house in Potomac. Callahan has been married for 20 years to Maryland attorney John Marshall.

16. Carol SChrier-Polak (Bean, Kinney & Korman; 703-525-4000. $250/ hour. VA, DC). A graduate of Brandeis University with a degree in social work from the State University of New York at Buffalo, Schrier-Polak shines in difficult situations involving children and families. You can count on her to put the best interests of the child first. Schrier-Polak, 54, has an instinctive feel for how things should end up and works backward to make sure a couple gets there. “You’ve got to keep the focus on the goal,” she says. She admits to not having all the answers but knows how to find them. Last year with her husband of 17 years, engineer Rudy Polak, she visited the Oracle at Delphi in Greece.

17. Joseph Condo (Condo & Masterman; 703-442-0888. $375/hour. VA). Condo, 51, has been the lawyer for such high-profile Washington types as Peggy Noonan and Sam Huff. President-elect of the Virginia State Bar, he is liked and admired by his peers, who describe him as sensitive, bright, an excellent advocate, and a lawyer who does not unnecessarily run up a bill. Condo enjoys his work; his easygoing demeanor is seen by some uptight clients as a little too relaxed. But clients who have put themselves in his hands have found that it made the worst experience of their lives a little less horrible. Condo describes his 30-year marriage to Chris Condo, his college sweetheart, as “extraordinarily happy.”

18. Beth Bittel (Law Offices of Beth A. Bittel; 703-591-1320. $225/hour. VA). One of the up-and-comers in Virginia, this 38-year-old University of Richmond law graduate is fast gaining the respect of her more experienced peers. Athletic and single, Bittel is described by her colleagues as hard-working and conscientious. Because she practices on her own, Bittel is careful about how many cases she takes so she can give full attention to each. Still, they can get complicated. One client’s husband allegedly hired someone to kill the client’s boyfriend. That looked good for the client’s case until it was also alleged that her boyfriend’s jilted girlfriend was stalking her. After the divorce settlement, the troupe marched off to the criminal-courts building. “I don’t know what happened after that,” says the Fairfax County resident.

19. Betty MOORE Sandler (Nichols, Bergere, Zauzig & Sandler; 703-690-7800. $275/hour. VA, KY). Betty Sandler operates out of Lake Ridge in Prince William County, and her practice is influenced by government institutions, particularly the Marine base and FBI center at Quantico. Although she has developed expertise in military-pension issues, Sandler’s practice runs the gamut of domestic-relationship pitfalls from property to custody. Before going into divorce law, Sandler, now 52, worked on Capitol Hill for the Clerk of the House and then as a lobbyist. Her husband of 18 years, Charles Sandler, is a lobbyist with the American Petroleum Institute.

20. Hal Witt (Witt & Nolan; 202-296-3333. $380/hour. DC, MD). If your spouse walks into a deposition with Hal Witt, you know you’re in trouble. Thorough, brutal, and expensive, Witt, 63, is one of the most feared divorce lawyers in Washington. His intellect is overpowering; he has a classical European education and reads French fluently. He gets few recommendations from fellow attorneys, who dread having to deal with him. But clients worship him. In nasty divorces where parties want blood, most of his clients come away satisfied. “Some people mellow as they get older,” Witt says. “As for me, I have no idea.” He has been married for 38 years.

21. Cheryl Hepfer (Cheryl Lynn Hepfer Law Firm; 301-762-5500. $350/hour. DC, MD, PA). Several years ago, Cheryl Hepfer was retained by a male client whose number-one goal was the return of a very expensive diamond ring that had to be valued for the divorce proceeding. Finally, the wife made it available. Hepfer didn’t stop there: She took the ring to a gemologist. The judge ultimately decided that the wife had switched the diamond with a synthetic. That type of thoroughness is typical of Hepfer, 53, who began practicing divorce law 28 years ago and learned her craft growing up in Mc-Keesport, Pennsylvania, at the knee of her lawyer father, Robert Palkovitz. Hepfer is a licensed pilot who has been married for 32 years to Kenneth Hepfer, a physicist at the Naval Surface Warfare Center.

22. Bryan Renehan (Brodsky, Greenblatt & Renehan; 301-869-1700. $285/ hour. MD, DC). When a Redskins executive left his wife and son several years ago, he signed an agreement giving her 60 percent of everything he made. This year he went to court in Montgomery County claiming that the settlement was too onerous. His wife obtained the services of Bryan Renehan, who in his typically thorough manner convinced the court not to make any changes. Renehan, 53, receives accolades from clients and colleagues alike for being one of the most organized and professional divorce lawyers in Washington. His tech savvy is legendary; he uses computers to present complicated cases in ways that judges and jurors can understand. Once divorced, Renehan has been married for two years to lawyer Alexa Renehan, who practices separately.

23. Linda Ravdin (Ravdin & Wofford; 202-429-5551. $290/hour. DC, MD, VA). Ravdin is literally writing the book on prenuptial agreements; it’s due out next year. Ravdin receives an average of three calls a week from couples wanting to keep their inherited wealth or preexisting stock options out of the hands of their spouses. Working mainly with professional couples, she is also adept at solving complicated pension problems. Once divorced herself, Ravdin, 50, has been married for 14 years to Don Shapero, a physicist with the National Academy of Sciences.

24. Joseph Paradiso (Paradiso, Dack, Taub & Oler; 301-986-7900. $250/hour. MD, DC). Paradiso, 49, has two qualities that clients like–he’s relatively inexpensive, and he doesn’t waste time. His philosophy is to resolve cases in the most cost-efficient manner and still achieve a reasonable objective. Paradiso regularly rejects cases he thinks are outside the realm of reason, such as that of the father who traveled 250 days a year and wanted to file for sole custody. Paradiso is the longtime attorney for Linda Langway, ex-wife of former Capital Rod Langway, with whom she continues to have child-support disputes. Joe and Brenda Paradiso, a social worker, have been married ten years.

25. Ronald Ogens (Deckelbaum Ogens Reiser Shedlock & Raftery; 301-961-9200. $300/hour. DC, MD). Ron Ogens drives many of his colleagues crazy, not because he’s venal–he’s just picky. Ogens’s style is halfway between bomb thrower and softy. There is no argument, however, that Ogens, 57, is a sophisticated practitioner with a good understanding of the estate and tax issues that come up in a divorce. Most of his clients have sizable property or real-estate holdings. “I am careful about what I put into an agreement,” he says. “When I make an agreement for a client, I expect it to last.” His own marriage to Honey Ogens has lasted for 30 years.

26. Armin U. Kuder (Kuder, Smollar K & Friedman; 202-331-7522. $300/hour. DC, MD). His nickname used to be “Barra-Kuder,” which says a lot about his style. Rick Kuder, a 64-year-old Harvard law graduate, is a feared negotiator, and his posturing is buttressed by his absolute confidence in his ability to win in court. He is one lawyer who is discreet about his clients. “There’s not much I can do about my reputation,” says Kuder. “The fact is I try to manage my cases in the least destructive way possible.” Once divorced, Kuder has been married for 12 years to Adrienne Allison, a policy expert at Johns Hopkins University.

27. Robert Liotta (Liotta, Dranitzke & Engel; 202-797-7700. $250/hour. MD, DC). A popular and well-known figure in Northwest DC, Liotta’s easygoing manner is a throwback to the days when doctors made house calls. Colleagues and some clients complain that he is overextended, which can result in an occasional missed phone call. “I try not to be,” says Liotta, 58, “but my life is fairly full.” Don’t mistake an absent-minded-professor reputation for a lack of caring for his clients. No one tries harder for them. Liotta’s wife of nearly 17 years, Barbara Josephs Liotta, is a sculptor.

28. Walter W. Johnson Jr. (301-587-2090. $250/hour. MD). A gentlemanly divorce lawyer of 68 whom older divorcing couples find especially helpful, Johnson is no longer interested in cases involving custody–he figures that most of those battles will last longer than he will remain in practice. But he is a craftsman at drawing up prenuptial agreements for couples embarking on second marriages. Hire Johnson and you’ll spend a lot of time working with his delightful assistant, Jane, to whom he has been married for 34 years.

29. RicHARD J. Byrd (Byrd, Mische; 703-273-0500. $300/hour. DC, VA). A native Washingtonian who studied engineering at George Washington University, Byrd made a midlife correction to become one of the best-known family-law specialists in Virginia. He has a high-tech bent that endears him to clients in the Reston-Dulles technology corridor. In fact, along with Nancy, his wife of 42 years, Byrd, 62, owns a company that publishes divorce-related software. It won’t sign the papers for you, but it will provide projections for such matters as spousal support and custody.

30. Faith Dornbrand (Sherman, Meehan, Curtin & Ain; 202-530-3300. $270/hour. DC, MD). In a downtown firm known for its civility, Dornbrand is the intimidator. If a case gets too nasty, she gets brought into it. Some of her colleagues find the Yale University and Boalt Hall law grad impossible but reluctantly admit that she can grind most opponents into mush. Clients find her insistent on pursuing her own strategy, not theirs, for winning cases. Some call her the Darth Vader of the Washington divorce bar. Replies the divorced Dornbrand, 47: “I tend to think of myself as Princess Leia with a lightstick.”

31. MartIN Gannon (Gannon, Cottrell & Ward; 703-836-2770. $350/hour. VA). Not every lawyer can nobly attempt to rise above the fray, urge his client to be gracious, and offer to split everything–face it, there are people who want blood. If you have to take that route, few lawyers go about getting it more decently than Marty Gannon, 67. The lawyer at various times for Washington play-callers Joe Theismann and Sonny Jurgensen, Gannon’s advice to clients has been consistent for four decades: “Dump the chump.” It’s not a motto he has used in his personal life–the Alexandria resident and his wife, Liz, just celebrated their 40th anniversary. His secret: “Don’t be afraid to sacrifice in a marriage. It comes back threefold.”

32. Linda Haspel (Haspel & Meiselman; 301-424-8840. $235/hour. MD, PA, CA). A sign in Linda Haspel’s office reads IT IS BETTER TO BE THE STOMPER THAN THE STOMPEE. She tries to negotiate first, but this 51-year-old with a brown belt in karate isn’t afraid to get tough if it means a better arrangement for her client. The New Jersey native has proven tenacious in complex cases, including a custody dispute in which she succeeded in getting a Pakistani decree recognized in the Maryland court system. Haspel knows something about keeping a marriage together: She has been happily married to scientist Martin Haspel since she was 18.

33. Jeffrey Greenblatt (Brodsky, Greenblatt & Renehan; 301-869-1700. $280/hour. DC, MD). A difficult lawyer for difficult clients, Greenblatt is not an opponent whom lawyers want to see in court. He takes nothing on faith, accepts nothing on a handshake. He cannot be counted on to make a bad situation better, but he has won legions of admirers for making sure his clients get their due. “I used to insist that things be put in writing,” he says. “Now I have learned more. I insist that things be written in blood.” Whether Greenblatt, 52, is for you or against you, his presence is going to drive up the bill–he doesn’t settle cases easily. The Bronx native is so obstreperous that he could only be married to another attorney, Debra Greenblatt.

34. Mary Pence (Feldesman, Tucker, Leifer, Fidell & Bank; 202-466-8960. $275/hour. MD, DC). A woman who had thought she had the perfect marriage walked into Mary Pence’s office and said her husband had left her. She had no idea why. She was so distraught that she had lost 20 pounds. Pence looked across the desk, smiled, and said, “We’re going to turn this into something positive for you.” Before long, with Pence’s help, the woman was in a degree-granting nursing program with enough money from her ex to live comfortably for a long time. “I think there are good divorces and bad divorces,” says Pence, 54, who has been married to computer-services executive Dan Pence for 32 years. “It takes real skill to turn the experience of being rejected into something that a person can build on for the future.”

35. Cindy LYNN Wofford (Ravdin & Wofford; 202-429-5551. $255/hour. MD, DC, TX). A native Texan with a master’s degree in taxation from Southern Methodist University, Wofford moved to Washington with her husband in 1987. When the childless couple decided to get divorced, they did it with no lawyers and no acrimony, signing the papers over a cordial breakfast. Life is usually not that simple for Wofford’s clients, many of them World Bank and Foreign Service types eager to take advantage of her expertise in estate planning.

36. Sara M. Donohue (Donohue & Van Scoy; 301-610-0110. $200/hour. DC, MD). This blond dynamo is a good choice for custody negotiations–she is often called in by the court or by other lawyers to give a fair opinion as guardian ad litem in custody battles. The Rockville resident helps her clients keep things in perspective–despite her Irish background, she’s good at cooling down an overheated situation and considering the well-being of the children. Donohue, 38, has been married more than a year to attorney James P. Sullivan.

37. John Maginnis III (Maginnis law Office; 202-659-4420. $300/hour. DC, MD, VA). Maginnis, 52, practices quietly outside the inner club of Washington divorce lawyers–his name doesn’t come up often in conversation. But his discretion has made him a favorite of politicians, including Missouri Senator Kit Bond, Wyoming Senator Malcolm Wallop, and South Carolina Congressman Butler Derrick. A resident of DC’s Forrest Hills, Maginnis and his wife, Joan Bernott, have been married for 27 years.

38. Edward V. O’Connor Jr. (Byrd, Mische; 703-273-0500. $250/hour. VA, DC). A very personable and competent divorce lawyer, O’Connor has a sophisticated understanding of financial issues and is good with cases involving children. He is one of the really good guys of the Virginia bar; few lawyers give away more of their time to help indigent clients than he does. O’Connor, 47, has been married for eight years to his wife, Kathy.

39. Eleanor Nace (Lichtman, Trister, Singer & Ross; 202-328-1666. $230/hour. DC, MD). “Susie” Nace–she has kept the childhood nickname her father gave her–is one of the best-known and most successful mediators in Washington. She recommends, however, that before a couple comes to her for mediation, the parties first consult with individual attorneys to make sure her services are appropriate. And Nace doesn’t automatically try to convince couples to stay together. “I believe it is possible to have a divorce without ruining the children,” she says. “I have found that men who choose to parent a child after a divorce or separation often have a better relationship with a child than they do in a marriage where the woman is the caretaker.” It’s a situation Nace, 53, knows something about. Five years after her wedding 22 years ago, she and her husband broke up. Together they worked out a civil arrangement to share custody of their child, who plans to attend Middlebury College.

40. Dorothy Isaacs (Surovell, Jackson, Colten & Dugan; 703-591-1300. $250/hour. VA). A third-generation native of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, Isaacs had never seen snow when she left home to attend college in Vermont. Now, as a top divorce lawyer, the five-foot dynamo makes what lawyers call rain. An expert in custody fights, Isaacs was called on by a Fort Belvoir couple to win custody of a child taken from them by Virginia’s Child Protective Services. After a two-year struggle, during which evidence was revealed that state officials had acted precipitously in removing the child, parental custody was restored. Isaacs, 51, has been married for 28 years to Mark Isaacs. “The more you sit in your office and hear other people’s horror stories,” she observes, “the better your own marriage looks.”

41. Robin B. Taub (Paradiso, Dack, Taub & Oler; 301-986-7900. $225/hour. MD, DC). “Nobody wins if you go to court,” says Taub, 41, a Duke Law School grad who emphasizes negotiation and mediation. By being patient with the other side, Taub settles almost all of her cases, so she may not be first choice for a nasty situation. The Bethesda native was a transactional lawyer and litigator before specializing in matrimonial work. Once divorced herself, Taub is known for being empathetic with her clients.

42. Karen Davis (Law Office of Karen Davis; 703-921-5540. $250/hour. VA). Davis has been trying cases in Northern Virginia for 18 years and has built a practice that’s both effective and aggressive. A mentor was Ilona Freedman, widely recognized as a pit bull of the Virginia bar. Davis’s colleagues say she has taken most of the good she learned from Freedman and filtered out most of the bad. In a recent case, Davis represented an ex-wife who had signed a separation agreement dividing up stock shares without realizing that the shares had split. When she complained to the husband, he said it was too late. Davis convinced a judge to redistribute the shares–and to have the husband pay her legal fees for not being forthcoming about the stock split. The roller-coaster life of the divorce lawyer is something Davis, 44, can handle. Her husband of 17 years, Randall Davis, is a lobbyist for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

43. Lauren Shea (Sherman, Meehan, Curtin & Ain; 202-530-3300. $230/hour. DC, VA, NY). Shea, 41, practiced family law in Manhattan before moving to Washington with her husband, lawyer Robert Tigner. She has been a quick study, learning the craft from top divorce lawyer Sandy Ain. The Arlington resident has become a master herself in the arcane and sometimes unwritten rules of the Virginia courts. Says one colleague, “No one beats Lauren Shea’s thoughtfulness, civility, and competence in the sometimes wild practice of the Virginia domestic-relations bar.”

44. Claudia Pott (Sherman, Meehan, Curtin & Ain; 202-530-3300. $265/hour. DC, MD). “I don’t believe that anyone can obtain more levelheaded and sensitive advice than someone working with Dia Pott,” says a colleague. Pott describes herself as having “a firm hand, a level head, and a warm heart.” Once divorced, Pott, 50, is now married to her firm’s founder, Peter Sherman; she shares his commitment to discretion and the need to try to avoid raucous court fights. With a background in social work, Pott’s reputation has been as an expert in abuse matters, but her practice has developed into sophisticated financial areas. With the support of a big firm, little is beyond the Ann Arbor native’s grasp.

45. Keira Schwartz (Lewis Law Firm; 202-408-0655. $225/hour. DC, VA, MD, FL). At 30, Keira Schwartz is the youngest lawyer on this list. Her fellow attorneys have nothing but admiration for her: “What an immense talent,” says one. Clients have been wowed as well. Claudia Offutt, the estranged wife of Virginia builder Tony Offutt, was so delighted after obtaining a $10-million court-ordered settlement last summer that she asked Schwartz to be a bridesmaid in her next wedding. Because of her youth and slight stature, says a colleague, the big guns sometimes take her lightly–but only for a moment. “I may be small,” says the five-foot-two Schwartz, “but no dog is going to take the bone off my plate.” She is single.

46. Kathleen Dumais (Paley, Rothman, Goldstein, Rosenberg & Cooper; 301-656-7603. $200/hour. MD, DC). The oldest of eight children, Dumais, 41, gained her skills as a mediator and organizer early. Clients and colleagues often comment on how calm she remains under pressure. Dumais handles every type of divorce case, settling a little more than half of them. She emphasizes doing the best thing for the family, even if that means talking a spouse out of trying to nail the other party. She is single.

47. Sandra G. Wilkof (Law Offices of Sandra G. Wilkof; 301-654-0303. $200/hour. DC, MD). Sandee Wilkof, a sole practitioner based in Bethesda, has expanded from an expert on custody issues into one of the best divorce and family lawyers in the area. She is increasingly sought out to represent other lawyers in cases where the value of a law-firm partnership is at issue. Wilkof, 49, has been married for 26 years to Richard Wilkof, an attorney at the National Education Association.

48. Daniel G. Dannenbaum (Lewis Law Firm; 202-408-0655. $250/hour. VA, DC). Glenn Lewis had enough faith in this 37-year-old Harvard graduate to hand him the divorce case of Virginia Congressman Jim Moran. Dannenbaum has guided the politically sensitive matter in a solid and professional manner and is managing the negotiations with Mary Moran’s lawyer, Stephen Armstrong. Dannenbaum and his wife, Paige, both had brief previous marriages. “It’s one of the things that makes a tremendous difference in my practice,” he says. “I’ve been through it.”

49. Stephen Moss (Moss, Strickler & Sachitano; 301-657-8805. $275/hour. MD, DC). Hiring Steve Moss, 59, is not going to win you any popularity prizes with your opponent, which is why a lot of people go to him. With six lawyers working with him on cases, he has one of the largest exclusively family-law practices in Maryland. If you need someone who can get the dirt, Moss is the man. He has gone to court in several cases to get into opposing clients’ computer hard drives to retrieve e-mail pointing to spouses’ inappropriate relationships. Moss’s own 33-year marriage ended in divorce; he is scheduled to try again in April. Speaking like a true bomber, Moss says, “Divorce is a reaffirmation of marriage because, after all, it indicates that somebody wants to try it again and get it right.”

50. David Bulitt (Joseph Greenwald & Laake; 301-220-2200. $200/hour. MD). A sensitive listener, this father of four girls specializes in representing women in custody battles–80 percent of his divorce clients are female. Though he is empathetic with his clients, he’s a feisty litigator. “I’m the fighter in the family,” he says. But the Olney resident also finds it helpful to confer with his wife of 13 years, Julie, a social worker, about the best situation for the family. Bulitt, 39, often serves as guardian ad litem in custody cases and does a lot of work in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. n

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