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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with Bernard Clair

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-05-17

Growing up on Long Island and then as he sped through Adelphi University on an athletic scholarship, Bernard Clair was always intrigued by the dynamics of how people came together - whether for social and business purposes or for romance and matrimony.

But he had no idea that one day he'd be sought after to counsel them how to pry their lives apart, thereby making a lucrative livelihood in one of America's fastest growing industries - divorce.

"I love dealing with people, and when a couple splits then it's always traumatic for everybody concerned," Mr. Clair said. "Matrimonial law is very personal; it's not like representing a company. The client has so much invested in the attorney. You're dealing with emotions, not just a division of assets. Representing people in their time of need requires a special set of personal skills such as emotional understanding, not just knowledge of the law."

In the three decades since his graduation from St. John's Law School in Queens, Mr. Clair has represented a stream of celebrities, including the art collector Jocelyn Wildenstein, the designer Carolyn Roehm, and the Republican fundraiser Georgette Mosbacher.

In the process, he has become one of the most renowned divorce lawyers in a country where there are more than 1.2 million divorces each year, where the average divorce costs nearly $50,000, and where $175 billion is spent annually, mostly on litigation in which the main beneficiaries are lawyers.

"For too long divorce lawyers have had an unfair reputation - somewhere below ambulance chasers," Mr. Clair said. "But divorce law has changed significantly, at least in New York State, and this has required the divorce lawyer to be able to assimilate a lot of financial information, to work with forensic accountants, to understand the complexities of mind boggling compensation packages - especially with regard to CEO spouses - and to be able to communicate all this to a judge in a simple, concise way."

The change in the state's divorce law occurred in 1980. It expanded the concept of divorce to acknowledge what Mr. Clair called a "radical idea" - that marriage was not only a conjugal arrangement but also an economic partnership. Before 1980, the only thing that a woman could expect in a divorce was alimony, and half of anything that her husband "deigned to hold in joint names." But now all of the husband's earnings and property gained during the marriage are fair game.

"It's now recognized that the practice of divorce law touches practically every industry," Mr. Clair said. "It's no longer that old image of hiring private detectives with cameras to catch a spouse in a compromising situation. To be an effective - and successful - divorce lawyer, you now need to be a multi-disciplinarian."

While the practice of divorce law has become more complex because of the widening of the canvas to include all earnings, investments and property, among other things, it remains a "frustrating business," Mr. Clair said.

"One of the most exciting things, and one of the most frustrating things, about the practice of divorce law is that so much is built on discretion - the discretion of the judge," he said. "You have to be more creative than ever before."

So how does a successful divorce lawyer measure his success?

"I've been a courtroom rat for 28 years, and the first thing I ask myself is, 'Have I done my best for the client, have I eased the client through the trauma and thicket of divorce?'" Mr. Clair said. "It's not even about the large settlements - it's really about the small murders that the parties go through during the divorce process. It's the feeling of anger, betrayal, and loss of control that they have. People have a deep desire to punish the other spouse, and this is where it's important for the lawyer to be a steady buffer. When people's marriages are disintegrating, they're putting themselves in the hands of a system that they don't understand. That's why trust between the lawyer and the client is so essential. As a lawyer, my efforts are basically the same - whether we're dealing with 8 zeroes, or 1 zero."

Some would argue that Mr. Clair isn't so much a courtroom rat as he's a Rottweiler. His tenacity and toughness are legendary, even in a city that's been known for the brio of its legal eagles. Indeed, he acknowledges his ambition.

"From the very start, I wanted to hang my own shingle," Mr. Clair said. "I felt my ambition would serve me well. There's nothing like the unknown for me - it's an extremely exciting place to be. When I'm thrust into the unknown, all my senses are sharpened."

He could have started off as an unknown in the practice of law, but Mr. Clair received a couple of early breaks. A book that he and his then partner, a law school colleague named Anthony Daniele co-authored, "Love Pact," did well enough to land them on major TV and radio talk shows.

One of those who noticed was Marvin Mitchelson, the California celebrity-divorce lawyer. Mitchelson would refer East Coast cases to the young lawyers. Mr. Clair practiced family law at Clair & Daniele for the next 20 years. In 1998, he was invited to merge his firm with Rosenman & Colin LLP, where Mr. Clair became a partner, heading up its matrimonial group. In February 2002, Rosenman & Colin merged with Chicago-based Katten Muchin Zavis.

Late last fall, he decided to revert to his own shingle, in cooperation with Jad Greifer, a 1995 cum laude Harvard Law School graduate. Their firm is called Clair, Greifer LLP.

"I've always had a wide vision, a strong peripheral vision," Mr. Clair said. "I see things developing well before they happen. That's a blessing because it makes me a good trial lawyer. But it's also a curse because sometimes it's easier for a lawyer to know less rather than more."

The reporter returned to the question of how Mr. Clair assessed his success.

"At the heart of my reputation and success is the fact that I understand, and honor, the loss of control that my clients feel," he said. "I try not to judge. I try to educate my client to be the one who wears the white hat. I try and dissuade clients against pettiness."

And how did he feel about his celebrity status?

"One of the traps that high-profile divorce lawyers fall into is that of the cult of personality," Mr. Clair said. "I have disdain for divorce lawyers who believe they're celebrities because of who they represent. I think that I've been able to tread that very delicate line between being over involved in the lives of my clients and being disengaged."

He paused, and then continued: "The law was never meant to deal with private marital issues. It was meant to be about land, or contracts, or the moving of merchandise - not about bedroom issues. The fact that as a society we're calling on judges to resolve these personal issues suggests that there's a breakdown somewhere. But while it may be an imperfect system, we've no other choice. The system must be flexible enough to reach out to people in need. In the practice of divorce law, there's never a boring day."

Then he got up to leave. There were friends to meet. It was his birthday.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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