In His Own Words
As a lawyer, I like to do things in an old-fashioned way. I perform legal research in a law library, as well as by computer. After conducting a trial, I personally digest the entire trial transcript and write the post-trial brief. I am available to speak with my clients not only during the workday but also at evening and on weekends.
In trying to decide what to say on my recently created website, I looked at other matrimonial lawyers' websites. Their statements were illuminating, largely by reason of the similarity of style and substance. Every statement had the same essential message: the attorney prefers to settle cases, is a skilled negotiator, is fair, handles complex cases, and is a capable trial attorney. While those statements are true of many, it occurred to me that if I were trying to develop a deep understanding of an attorney's skills and personality (which is highly important to a client if there is to be a true partnership with his or her matrimonial lawyer), these statements would not tell me what I might want to know and what I should know.
As a matrimonial lawyer, it is important that I know my clients. That is something I try to do, not only to understand fully a client's positions and perspectives but also to determine whether there exists the right chemistry to start a professional relationship which may last for a considerable period of time and which may test the client's equanimity, as well as his or her psychological and emotional limits. I think it is also important for a prospective client to know his or her matrimonial lawyer.
With this in mind, I decided to write something about myself – in the form of a self-interview – to give the reader some insight into me and into the way I practice matrimonial law. In many areas of the law, a lawyer's personality is not relevant to the quality of his or her performance. Matrimonial law is not one of them. A matrimonial lawyer's sense of fairness, humanity, compassion, empathy, self-confidence, obsessive-compulsiveness and attention to detail, astuteness, and creativity all factor into the quality and success of the representation and the capability of the attorney to give sound guidance to a client and of the client to embrace such guidance.
So, here are facts about myself and my practice which I would want a client to know.
DID YOU PRACTICE MATRIMONIAL LAW AT THE COMMENCEMENT OF YOUR LEGAL CAREER?
No. One month after my graduation from law school on June 9, 1972, I joined Davis Polk & Wardwell as an associate in its trusts and estates department.
DID YOUR EXPERIENCE AT DAVIS POLK & WARDWELL LAY A FOUNDATION FOR YOUR WORK AS A MATRIMONIAL LAWYER AND A LITIGATOR?
First, I worked with, and learned from, some of the most brilliant and talented attorneys in the country. The standards set by the firm were enormously high. In addition, the quest for excellence – in terms of the conceptualization, formalization, and implementation of strategy and the quality of performance, whether written or oral – was relentless. Those standards and that quest have been, and remain, the hallmarks of my practice of law.
Second, I participated in several complex estates litigations, assisting two extraordinarily gifted litigators (S. Hazard Gillespie and Robert B. Fiske, Jr.), each of whom had served as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Observing and working with world-class litigators was both a thrill and a challenge. Most importantly, it illustrated to me the artistry of litigation at its highest and most intense level and the arsenal of special skills which successful litigators must possess.
Third, my emphasis on estates administration, coupled with my completing the graduate program in taxation at N.Y.U. Law School, lead to my developing expertise in the area of valuation of closely-held businesses and private investment partnerships, as well as in the general area of income taxation. This foundation in valuation and taxation became invaluable in my representation of clients in matrimonial cases with complex financial issues.
DURING YOUR ASSOCIATION AT DAVIS POLK & WARDWELL, TO WHAT EXTENT DID YOU PRACTICE MATRIMONIAL LAW?
In 1974, a senior litigation associate asked me to help him in connection with the representation of one of the firm's telephone operators in a matrimonial action. I agreed. Moments later, he abandoned the two-member team! Fortunately, I handled the matter competently. During the ensuing five-year period, I did not represent another matrimonial client. That one representation, however, made me the in-house matrimonial "expert" at Davis Polk & Wardwell, for no other attorney represented a matrimonial client.
WHAT CAUSED YOU TO TRANSITION FROM TRUSTS AND ESTATES TO MATRIMONIAL LAW?
By August 1979, I thought about terminating my association with Davis Polk & Wardwell. My future prospects for admission to partnership were uncertain. Moreover, I sensed that I would not want to concentrate my practice in the area of trusts and estates for the balance of my legal career. I felt that – especially in comparison to my colleagues at other prominent Wall Street firms – I did not have a desire to master the most sophisticated principles of estate planning. While I enjoyed my practice, I did not love it. I did not feel challenged to excel in the area.
I decided to take a vacation and to think: to think about what I loved to do, what interested me, and what special skills and experiences I had that might guide me to the field of law in which I could excel and which I would find to be personally rewarding.
I thought about my background in classical piano competitions and basketball. I loved to compete and, at least as a youth, had performed well under pressure. I never had self-doubt in approaching a challenging passage as a pianist or in taking a potentially game-tying or game-winning shot at the final buzzer. While I did not consider myself to be brilliant from an intellectual viewpoint (certainly relative to the geniuses whom I had met at college, law school, and Davis Polk & Wardwell), I knew that my brain worked in a way that often lead to bursts of clear vision and insights which I could develop into exciting and creative analyses. Collectively, this caused me to conclude that I should be a trial lawyer.
I then considered the area of law in which I should concentrate. For many years, I had a deep interest in observing and thinking about inter-personal relationships. While I was a freshman at Yale, word spread that I had a gift for making insights into male-female relationships and many classmates (all males at Yale at that time) sought my counsel and guidance; in fact, someone affixed a sign to the door to the common room which I shared with my roommates: "William Beslow: Professor of Relationships, Office Hours: Daily, 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m." I participated directly in many of my classmates' courtships – learning much about what works and does not work and what causes the end of relationships between people who had loved each other.
Throughout college, I tutored local Latina and Latino middle-school students in English during the school year, and I directed a travel camp for adolescents during the summer. I enjoyed working and interfacing with children. While trusts and estates had enabled me to work with individual rather than corporate clients, the type of work revolved around tax matters. I wanted to work closely with individuals on personal matters – matters involving inter-personal relationships and children. The "right" field of law for me became clear: matrimonial law. Thus, immediately following the end of my vacation, I decided to leave Davis Polk & Wardwell and to open my own practice, concentrating in the area of matrimonial law.
On January 2, 1980, I opened my practice. I have concentrated my practice in the areas of matrimonial law and family law for the past 34 years.
IN HINDSIGHT, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF YOUR DECISION?
My decision was correct, and I am fortunate that I made it. I still love what I do, and I think matrimonial law is the area best suited to my skills.
Matrimonial law has provided me with the opportunity to pursue my deep personal interest in helping others (both adults and children), to conceptualize, formulate, and implement strategy on interesting and often novel and intellectually stimulating issues, and – when necessary or appropriate – to litigate cases.
Matrimonial litigation is the perfect area for me – given my background, experiences, and the way my mind works. Whereas trusts and estates did not tap into any of that, matrimonial litigation does. For example:
My musical background became the foundation for development of my writing style. From Bach's Two Part Inventions I learned the importance of conciseness and logic, and from Bach's Fugues I learned the importance of blending and weaving multiple themes non-conflictually. From Mozart, I learned that words – like musical notes – should "flow like oil." From Beethoven, I learned that although it is important to respect traditional rules of expression, it is often necessary to break rules and speak in a voice that is bold and daring. From concertos, I learned the importance of chemistry between an attorney and his or her client. In a concerto, the conductor and soloist should be in sync with each other with respect to rhythm, tone, conception, and execution. Similarly, in litigation – whether written or oral – the attorney and client should also be in sync with each other, although the "voice" should always be the client's. Understanding one's client and basing a presentation upon that understanding are crucial elements to a successful representation.
My years of playing poker (mostly during high school) trained me well for the art of negotiation and for the equally crucial art of recognition and management of risk.
Even though I was not an accomplished chess player, playing chess made me extremely sensitive to the importance of recognition of the possible consequences of one's tactical decisions, anticipation of another's actions and re-actions, and development of a clear vision, as early as possible, of the "endgame."
My interests in sports subsume cycling, weight-training, sculling, and running. They share several components: repetitive motion and the opportunity to challenge myself, to work through pain, and to set goals and strive to achieve them. Litigation has the same components. Performed properly, litigation is a time-consuming, intellectually and physically demanding, and often grueling experience. 18 to 20 hour work days are not uncommon, and matrimonial trials sometimes last for several weeks. A high threshold for tolerance of pain, the ability to push oneself, and great stamina are essential. Indeed, during extended trials, I commit myself to a program of exercise and a careful blend of protein and carbohydrates to maintain constant, high levels of energy and alertness.
My long-time love of New York City Ballet became the foundation for development of my style of direct examination of witnesses, particularly my clients. The Balanchine style of partnering which requires dancers to trust each other through the slightest of fingertip touches and through allowance for greater freedom of artistic expression seemed a perfect model for trials. Over the years, I learned to trust the capability of my client and me to conduct our "partnership" at trial through careful and thoughtful – but not excessive – preparation. In order to promote spontaneity and, thus, my client's persuasiveness and credibility, I refrain from using a pre-programmed witness sheet (or script). Invariably, my direct examinations build-in some flexibility on both the client's part and my part.
Finally, my years on the basketball court proved invaluable. Performing under pressure and making split-second decisions apply not only on a basketball court but also in a courtroom during trial. A skilled litigator, just like a skilled basketball player, performs well under pressure and makes the correct split-second decisions. Moreover, just as a basketball game starts with a game plan that should be subject to change as the game progresses, a trial starts with a game plan that should be subject to change as the trial progresses. A skilled litigator, just like a skilled basketball coach, must recognize the need for change as soon as possible and must conceptualize and execute the appropriate change, often with no hesitation. Good peripheral vision is critical on a basketball court; it is also critical in a courtroom. Even when I focus my eyes on a witness I am examining, I use my peripheral vision to gauge the reaction of the judge and opposing counsel, which I often take into account as I continue my examination.
ARE YOU GIVING AWAY ANY "SECRETS" ABOUT YOUR PRACTICE THAT MIGHT BENEFIT YOUR ADVERSARIES?
No. Everyone has a style that works best for him or her. My style works best for me. It may not work for anyone else. Moreover, there is no such thing as the "best" style. There are many skilled matrimonial litigators who do things vastly differently than I do them.
My style has evolved over a period of 34 years, and it is the consequence of many thousands of hours of legal work on many different cases. As in the case of Tiger Woods's several adventures in changing his golf swing, a change in legal style would take substantial time to effectuate. I could not easily adopt another's style, and I think that it would be difficult for someone to adopt mine. I would not, however, want to change my style because it has worked successfully for my clients.
DO MOST CASES END IN TRIAL?
No. Most cases settle, either with no litigation or after an early stage of litigation. Fewer than 10% of my cases end in trial.
THEN, WHY ARE TRIAL SKILLS AND EXPERIENCE IMPORTANT?
While negotiation is also an art, the capability to litigate and to try cases skillfully is an essential complement to an attorney's ability to resolve a matter favorably through negotiation. Although trials should always be a last resort, a negotiation is most successful when the client has no fear of trial – and, perhaps, more importantly – when the client's spouse or partner understands that the client has no fear of trial. A good understanding of how the particular case would be tried, if necessary, and some preparation for trial is the foundation for having no fear of that trial possibility.
Of course, there is another part of the answer – for some cases do proceed to trial. If a client is on trial, the objective is to prevail in a highly competitive setting. While a lawyer's superior skill and greater trial experience do not guarantee a successful result, they do help considerably.
WHAT IS A "LAWYER TO THE STARS?"
There is no such person. I have represented a substantial number of clients who can fairly be labeled "celebrities." However, those individuals represent less than 5% of the clients I have represented. Moreover, with only one exception, every case in which I have represented a "celebrity" has resulted in a settlement, collegially and fairly. Those cases, therefore, have not involved a considerable amount of my time over the last 34 years.
Phrases like "celebrity lawyer" or "lawyer to the stars" are the creation of the media. That my practice has been the subject of some media attention is flattering, but the articles and features do not give a complete picture of my practice. If any matrimonial lawyer focused his or her practice on "celebrity" clients, he or she would need a second career!
WHAT TYPES OF CLIENTS DO YOU HAVE?
My clients cover a broad spectrum. Many of my clients or their spouses are in the areas of business, investment banking, asset management, and the law. (For example, I have represented the chairman of the board of a Fortune 500 company, the chief executive officer of a publicly-owned, national chain of restaurants, the president of a major investment bank, owners/managers of hedge funds, managing directors of investment banks, and partners in major law firms.) Some are in films and other arts. Some bear primary responsibility for rearing children and supporting their spouses' or partners' professional careers.
My clients tend to hear about me through "word of mouth." My sensitivity to women's perspectives and issues has resulted in my developing a reputation for representing mostly women. However, my sensitivity to inter-personal dynamics also helps me in my representation of men – many of whom (particularly those who are enormously successful in their careers) often need guidance in understanding what went wrong in the relationship and what steps can be taken to try to repair the relationship or, if those steps fail, to settle their matters fairly and without resultant bitterness or resentment.
WHY DO YOU PRACTICE WITH ONLY ONE COLLEAGUE?
In my experience, working closely with a client is critical to representing the client properly. Unlike many areas of the law, the course of a matrimonial matter is shaped by numerous decisions made by the client after its commencement. It is crucial that an attorney advise a client regarding virtually all of those decisions. That cannot be done if the attorney is not in ongoing, direct contact with his or her client. Moreover, in order for a client to feel comfortable sharing all relevant information – including embarrassing information – it is essential that he or she have faith and trust in his or her attorney and experience the attorney as being non-judgmental and able to keep confidences. A client's providing complete, accurate information to a matrimonial lawyer during an initial interview is as important as a patient providing complete, accurate information to a physician during the initial clinical examination. Providing such information is critical to formulation of the best analysis by the attorney or the correct diagnosis by the physician. In my experience, a client is most comfortable disclosing all aspects of such information to one person.
Often, matrimonial matters become more complicated as they progress, and significant developments occur periodically. By maintaining a "hands-on" relationship with each client, I am always aware of developments. As the case builds in complexity, I am, therefore, knowledgeable about all facts. If the case proceeds to trial, I am not required to spend time learning and mastering the facts in the weeks or months prior to trial. Rather, during that period I spend my time formulating strategy and planning the manner in which I will use the facts at trial to shape my presentation of the case and to rebut my adversary's.
Finally, I enjoy drafting documents and I enjoy interfacing directly with clients. These two rewarding aspects of my practice would be diminished if I were to expand my infrastructure.
IS YOUR PRACTICE LIMITED TO NEW YORK STATE?
No, although the majority of my clients reside in the State of New York.
I have represented matrimonial clients in many jurisdictions outside New York, including California, Idaho, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Florida, Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and the United Kingdom. In order to represent matrimonial clients in litigated cases, including trials, outside New York, I have been admitted pro hac vice to the Bars of California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Kentucky. My representation of a matrimonial client in a jurisdiction outside New York, however, typically requires a special situation.