I feel like a voyeur. I’ve been reading the decision by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Laura Drager in the divorce case of Ira S. v. Janice S.—and I can’t put it down.
“Ira S.” is Ira Schacter, a partner at Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft, and “Janice S.” is his estranged wife. As you might recall, I wrote about Schacter over two years ago, when he was 51 and splashed all over the tabloids for refusing to pay $12,000 for his teenage daughter’s hearing aid, while shelling out $215,000 on an engagement ring for his then 26-year-old girlfriend. I had fun with those juicy facts at the time, though the whole thing also struck me as rather sad.
After reading the judge’s decree, I feel even sadder. Neither Schacter nor his ex-wife come off well in the judge’s recounting—Justice Drager calls the case “one of the most contentious litigations this court has ever presided over,” noting that at least 76 motions were filed by the parties. (New York Law Journal has an overview.)
But all things considered, I would say that his ex-wife comes off a bit worse. I see it as a cautionary tale of what not to do if you are financially dependent on a big time partner spouse and that marriage falls apart—and you are mad as hell about it. Here are my takes from the decision:
Lesson 1: Don’t kill the golden goose if you want the eggs. That’s the obvious moral of the story. The decree is pretty explicit that the wife would have received more than 17 percent of the $5 million value of her husband’s law practice had she exercised more restraint. It notes that she went out of her way to badmouth her husband to news outlets. “Perhaps most disturbing,” says the decree, is that she filed grievances with the New York State’s discipline committee, jeopardizing her husband’s law license.
The bottom line: The court found that she was partially responsible for her husband’s loss of business and tarnished reputation.
Lesson 2: Don’t call your Big Law hubby lazy because his income dropped during the recession. The decree notes that the wife “argues that the drop in the Husband’s business was caused by his own failure to work as hard as he had in the past.” Considering that Cadwalader’s gross revenue declined 13.7 percent in 2008 and dropped for the next two years, notes NYLJ, and that the husband’s area of expertise—mortgaged back securities—was particularly hard hit, it’s probably not a smart argument.
Lesson 3: Don’t count on getting much credit for your spouse’s success. This might make some women’s advocates hopping mad that a stay-at-home wife isn’t getting her due. But the judge clearly didn’t buy Janice’s argument about being a key contributor to her husband’s career. Says the decree:
The court concludes that the marriage was traditional in that the Husband was the breadwinner and the Wife cared for the home and children. . . He testified that as an associate he worked 60-80 hours per week. He continued to work long hours after he became a partner in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The court finds that he could not have been a successful attorney without putting in long hours at work. At the same time, although the Wife undoubtedly provided some social assistance to the Husband as he worked to become a partner at his firm, the Husband’s own work ethic and intelligence were the reasons why he achieved that success.
Lesson 4: Don’t try to claim you’re a helpless victim if you were once a lawyer. At several points, the decree notes that the wife showed legal and lobbying acumen (she was briefly a personal injury lawyer before becoming a homemaker), particularly in her volunteer work on behalf of the deaf. As a result, the court finds that she could reasonably net $80,000 a year in two years if she pursued that field. Moreover, the court didn’t buy the wife’s claim that publicizing her husband’s alledged abuses (the charges were all thrown out) was not meant to hurt his reputation.
Lesson 5: Don’t quit working—even if you’ve snagged a Big Law partner. In the decree, Janice Schacter comes off as a frustrated lawyer who probably should never have left practice. The decree notes that she habitually threatened lawsuits—against her daughter’s orthodontist, the boarding schools under consideration for her son—and filed complaints against lawyers and judges connected with her divorce. She’s also retained five different firms during this suit. If all that litigious energy had been applied to a third-party client, everyone might have been better off.
As I said, this is a sad, pathetic affair all around. Though Janice Schacter will be far from poor (the decree gives her $15,000 a month in alimony, $3,000 a month in child support, a 2003 Lexus, half ownership of a $4.4 million townhouse and $4.5 million Hamptons beachhouse, etc.), it’s hard to believe that waging this kind of brutal, public war is worth it.
Readers, are divorces involving Big Law partners unusually nasty?