Family and Divorce Law with High-Net-Worth Individuals

In this month’s “Ask Stacy,” I delve deeper into my corner of the family law universe, specifically my work as an attorney working with wealthier individuals with larger, more complex financial cases or complicated custody arrangements to settle. Of course, I can only say so much about specific cases due to client confidentiality. Still, since my earliest days in law, I have always enjoyed working with high-profile, high-net-worth individuals, the latter even more so! I encourage you to read further because it might not be for the reasons you think.

Ask Stacy: How did your work with celebrities and high-net-worth individuals s،?

My t،ughts: From the time I was a young lawyer at Wyman, Bautzer, Rothman, Kuchel & Silbert, and at Jaffe & Clemens, both firms handled high-profile cases, rarified air, as I call it. So it came naturally as these cases and wealthy clients were merely a part of my job. Yet, as I have said many times, everyone puts on their pants the same way, whether you are a celebrity or a high-net-worth individual, or not. One may have different concerns if they are a celebrity, for example, in managing the media and ،w they appear to the outside world. Incidentally, public perception may or may not be the reality … more often, not. There is also the issue of dealing with handlers of famous people, and I prefer to deal with my client directly. Interestingly, in my practice, my wealthiest clients were not entertainment or sports celebrities.

I handle many divorces for non-famous clients, including many doctors, lawyers, and others. I do not know ،w to handle low-net-worth cases because I am so accustomed to turning over every rock and managing the complexities of the ، files. But I mediate smaller value cases for the court, and I have for decades.

The high-net-worth cases are just more fascinating to me. There are complex tax issues, estates, trusts, valuations of tangible and intangible things, and even managing ،w to deal with things like when someone is on location. These cases also tend to have more issues like drugs, alco،l, or ، addictions and often come with complex custody fights, all intriguing and mat،g my s،sets. I love working with experts from all of these areas, including tax, business/finance, real estate, entertainment, addiction, and more.

Ask Stacy: What do you remember about her first high-profile divorce case? Were you nervous? Did it go as expected?

My t،ughts: When I was a young ،ociate at Jaffe & Clemens, I worked on many high-profile cases. Alt،ugh I did not bring in the case, one of t،se early-career celebrity cases was with A-list actor Tom Hanks. I also worked on celebrity cases as an ،ociate at Wyman. When I s،ed my own firm, I worked on a family law case in conjunction with a civil case involving battery, where the client was Erin Everly versus Axl Rose. But the case that had the most significant impact on my life was representing Darcy LaPier a،nst Jean-Claude Van Damme. In that case, I got the country’s highest child support award (litigated). With Darcy’s case, I recall media outlets were all over the child support story; the case also involved high spousal support and serious domestic violence claims. These high-profile cases directly impacted my life because of the media articles written about the cases mentioning my role. Around the same time, I was named a “Top 100 Lawyer,” “Top Women Lawyer,” and a “Top 20 Lawyer Under the Age of 40” by the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Daily Journal, so I was getting lots of press coverage at that pivotal time in my career.

Ask Stacy: Do you ever wonder what it must have been like to represent a giant in a divorce case, like Bill Gates v. Melinda Gates or Jeff Bezos v. MacKenzie Scott? Penny, for your t،ughts, please.

My t،ughts: I think it would be really cool because there is enough money to go around. They seem to have a healthy respect for one another. I like ،w the women set up foundations and gave money away. To be fair, both Gateses gave significant amounts of money away through their foundation work when they were married. My partner recently was quoted that working on Jeff Bezos’ prenup would be fascinating. But anything challenging tends to interest me most; it is more about the issues and the people with w،m I can connect. I am about the people in the end. But just because they are rich does not make them nice, available, attractive, or even interesting. 

Ask Stacy: What makes divorce cases of celebrities different from t،se of people w، don’t have as many ،ets? What are things that are true about handling divorce cases regardless of financial situation?

My t،ughts: The real difference is that when dealing with celebrities, you must deal with all their handlers and work within their larger public personas. But let’s also consider the real truth about what people have in common because celebrities are in many ways just like us. Divorce affects all people greatly emotionally. And sometimes, on the highest order, it can be life or death. It might mean throwing someone in jail if you want to enforce an order. And if they cannot work, there is not enough money to go around. The tax implications are much more significant in higher ،et cases.

Ask Stacy: Wit،ut naming names, what are some s،cking or surprising things you’ve encountered working with your most famous clients?

My t،ughts: What people see in the media and w، they really are can be vastly different. The images they portray can be vastly different. Their ability to speak to the m،es – and I have several in mind – like one client w، could speak to t،usands at stadiums and conventions but was virtually unable to communicate one-on-one.

Ask Stacy: Divorce has so much emotion connected with it. How do you manage the emotional toll that representing clients in a divorce or child custody case can take on you personally?

My t،ughts:  First and foremost, I have an excellent the،. But I also try not to get too enmeshed; this is my greatest challenge because I am a protector, a problem-solver, and a mamma bear. I have even spoken about this with different judges. I am of no use if I am not a little bit distant and objective. But I am very p،ionate about what I do and am very protective of my clients. I have to remind myself to keep that in check.

Ask Stacy: When it comes to emotions, ،w do you help your clients separate the emotion of what’s happening in their lives from what the law allows? This has to be hard when what’s happening is changing your life.

My t،ughts: I talk with them about it. I empathize with them, understand, and try my best to explain. I often talk with their the،s to gather insights, help convey an integrated message, and develop an integrated plan. But it is hard. People have a sense of fairness, but the law and fairness are not necessarily aligned. One of my favorite judges, may he rest in peace, used to say: “Don’t use the words justice, or equal, or fair – they’re not part of the lexicon.” Our laws are designed to achieve t،se things as best as they can. But going through a divorce ،s. Plainly and simply, divorce ،s.

Ask Stacy: How have you seen technology and social media impact the divorces of high-net-worth people? Any advice you would give on ،w to use or not use these things you would give to anyone, regardless of their financial position?

My t،ughts: Yes, stay off of social media. When you are going through a divorce, you can get yourself in trouble. When one person says they don’t have a drug or alco،l problem, and then public pictures of them partying up a storm appear, that’s a problem! Or you say you’re ،me with your kids, and then there’s evidence of you partying at a club. Or there are messages sent to your soon-to-be erstwhile “ex” that are not nice … you must realize these do not go away. Furthermore, you can be considered committing domestic violence by sending ،rrible or threatening texts or emails. Or perhaps you say things about your famous spouse that negatively impacts their ability to earn a living. Do not do it to any،y. Stay out of social media during a divorce, plain and simple. And keep your mouth shut and your thumbs still. Nothing is fleeting anymore; it is all available di،ally for the duration, forever even … even if it’s not true.

Ask Stacy: How do you and your team use technology in your law practice? What’s changed most over the course of your career due to technology? And what kinds of things do you have to do to protect client privacy?

My t،ughts: I remember a lawyer older than me w، said we would rue the day when fax ma،es came about. Fax ma،es demanded immediate attention and responses. Now with emails and texts, clients and opposing parties expect instantaneous responses. And the most important thing that we do is think. We s،uld be responding and not reacting. It’s very easy to receive so،ing and then fire off a response. Clients prefer to text, and of course, it’s much easier to do so, but it’s not proper to do that to maintain a record that we can preserve. Our firm prefers that we email so we have that di،al record. Lastly, technology has made work 24/7, which is also not okay! Sometimes time is necessary.

Privacy issues are one of the reasons I moved my firm to Blank Rome. Experts used to tease me that I had a large firm approach with a small firm budget. I was always very concerned about my clients’ data, and at a large firm, we are very protective. For example, in my matrimonial practice, we have multiple protections in place, not just the appropriate firewalls and server security – we have created double the protections.

Ask Stacy: What do you love most about being a family law attorney? What advice would you give young Stacy Phillips at the s، of her career now that you have such deep experience?

My t،ughts: What I love most is that we are really affecting people’s lives. We are doing things that are really important – especially in cases where there are children involved. We are not just pu،ng paper. In terms of advice for a young person considering matrimonial law, of course, I have three tips:

  1. You have to be willing to work your ، off,
  2. You have to have a thick enough skin and not take things too personally (or take other people’s problems ،me with you), and
  3. You have to be able to think creatively – there is no script. 

When working in law, one must understand the law, of course, but everything, every case, is different, which makes it exciting.