The divorce trial of Frank and Jamie McCourt will conclude today with each side's closing argument. Steve Susman will argue for Frank, while Dennis Wasser argues for Jamie. Then, Judge Scott Gordon will have 90 days to issue his ruling on the fate of the Dodgers.
David Boies handled the major witnesses for Jamie's side, but has since returned to New York for another trial. Last week, Susman approached Boies outside court to say how sorry he was about the scheduling conflict. “This is supposed to be Susman versus Boies, not Susman versus Dennis Wasser,” Susman said.
But Susman versus Wasser it is. Though both are at the very top of their profession, they offer striking contrasts. After the jump, a brief sketch of each.
“Unlike my ex-wife's counsel, Wasser was intelligent, aggressive and calm, all in the same instant. Of all the people I encountered, he was the most talented and compelling. Watching him perform, I felt sorry for him that he had squandered such talent in the sewer of Los Angeles family law.” — Alec Baldwin, “A Promise To Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood And Divorce”
“I'm the number one private eye in the world. I made Dennis Wasser's career.” — Anthony Pellicano, as quoted in “Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography,” by Andrew Morton
Dennis Wasser's best work is generally done behind closed doors. At one point, he had reportedly negotiated three of the largest divorce settlements in history. His roster of clients includes Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg. His conciliatory approach appeals to celebrities, who generally want to settle matters with minimal publicity.
But that doesn't mean he isn't also fearsome in court. As Baldwin noted, he has a rare talent for ripping someone's head off without losing his cool.
“He's not at all flamboyant,” said Tom Simpson, the incoming president of the Southern California Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “He's rather soft-spoken, but he knows what he's talking about. He gets good results.”
Wasser also seems to have an ample dark side. He was named a “person of interest” in the Pellicano wiretapping case, though he was never charged with wrongdoing. “A lot of people used Mr. Pellicano,” said Pat Phillips, also a matrimonial lawyer. “Some got burned.”
“When you do deals, you write wills, you aren't winning and losing. You're finishing jobs. But there's no sense of victory, or defeat, that you get in trial work. It's part of the competition. The game. That's it. It's the battle, the confrontation with the other lawyers in court, coming out ahead. I get off on that battle. I love it.” — Steve Susman, quoted in “The Litigators,” by John Jenkins
“Frankly, I think I am three times better than some of these lawyers.” — Susman, explaining why he bills three times as much as other attorneys, ABA Journal, March 1, 1987
If Wasser is at his best hashing out deal points in windowless conference rooms, then Steve Susman is at his best in front of a jury. He's a colorful guy, with all the brashness you'd expect from a Texan. His law firm's retreats used to include rattlesnake roundups, and he smoked Nat Sherman Canary Island cigars for years until his wife made him give it up.
He has leveraged his folksy twang into massive jury awards. Unlike most lawyers, he believes in putting on a show. On cross-examination, he uses body language — open arms, raised eyebrows — to say “You don't really expect us to believe that, do you?” When he thinks he has extracted an admission, he'll give a triumphant “Aha!” Looming behind the podium, he can seem downright predatory.
It would be easy to caricature the guy, but he also happens to have studied at Yale and clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court. He's also the go-to lawyer for the few remaining Democrats in Texas. He gained national prominence when he defended disgraced Speaker Jim Wright. He also fought Tom Delay's mid-decade redistricting and has fought against the construction of coal-fired power plants.
Unlike Wasser, though, Susman doesn't specialize in divorces. Without a jury to play to, he's a bit out of his element. When Jamie was on the stand, he seemed to tone it down a bit, perhaps sensing that Judge Gordon was unmoved by his withering attack on the trial's first witness, Leah Bishop.
But look for a big finish. Despite all that's happened in the last three weeks — from Frank's furious eye-blinking to Silverstein's Boner — Frank still has a strong chance to win. And there's nobody you'd rather have than Susman out there closing the deal.
Full McCourt coverage:
Week 1 Wrap-Up:
Even more McCourt:
L.A. Weekly cover story, Dodger Dog, from August