Top Divorce Lawyers
Twenty-five regarded as tops in their field.
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Few lawyers are disparaged by peers and popular culture more than the divorce lawyer. Consider Arnie Becker, the sleazy attorney played by Corbin Bernsen on L.A. Law, the NBC drama that ran in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Or Miles, the irascible lawyer played by George Clooney in the 2003 Coen brothers comedy, Intolerable Cruelty.
Divorce lawyers often are regarded as the D-listers of the profession, making hourly rates that average $350 to $400, compared with nearly $1,000 an hour commanded by top corporate attorneys. Yet, the divorce lawyer is the most significant legal specialist real people—as opposed to corporations—are likely to encounter.
According to the Maryland Vital Statistics Administration, there are about 62 divorces for every 130 marriages in the state each business day. A third involve children—the nitroglycerin of divorce. Montgomery County alone has six full-time family court judges who dissolve a marriage or two a day on average.
“We say there are three things that are certain,” says Walter W. Johnson Jr., a Silver Spring divorce lawyer in practice for 50 years. “Death, taxes—and that couples are going to fight.”
More than 400 lawyers are registered with the Bar Association of Montgomery County’s Family Law Section, but only about 100 exclusively handle divorce and related matters. Based on interviews with nearly 50 full-time divorce lawyers, we’ve narrowed the field to the top 25 who practice predominantly in the county.
Who to see when the stakes are high
Paley Rothman, Bethesda
Glenn Cooper, 61, earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Maryland and has been practicing law at the same firm for 36 years. Many consider him a first-rate performer in the courtroom, but “he can be a bit of a peacock,” a rival notes. An opponent once brought scissors to court and told Cooper that if he didn’t stop strutting around she was going to clip his ponytail.
Cooper generally accepts only high-end divorce cases with complicated business and financial tentacles. Many of his clients are millionaires with far-flung assets. He has written extensively about how to value such things as law firm partnerships or a business’ goodwill. Cooper’s younger partner, Howard Soypher, 39, often works with him and is considered an up-and-comer.
Dornbrand Law, LLC, Bethesda
Few Montgomery County attorneys boast stronger academic credentials than Silver Spring native Faith Dornbrand, a 57-year-old graduate of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., with a law degree from the highly rated Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley. Daughter of an aerospace engineer, she began in health care law at tony Hogan & Hartson in downtown Washington, D.C. Dornbrand later joined Sherman, Meehan, Curtin & Ain, then one of Washington’s two most prominent family law groups, leaving in 2006.
Because of her downtown experience and law school pedigree, she has represented a number of law partners or their spouses. She is considered an expert in placing a monetary value on professional partnerships. Opposing attorneys cite her as one of their best-prepared, most versatile and fiercest courtroom foes. “Super smart,” one former partner says. Dornbrand says she has mellowed over the years, and now works harder to settle cases out of court. “Litigation is a mire of unpredictability and expense, the toxic effluvium of warring parties,” she says.
Dragga, Hannon, Hessler & Wills, Rockville
A graduate of Xavier University in Cincinnati and Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law, Patrick Dragga, 60, is said to combine the jovial mien of actor Wilford Brimley with the courtroom savvy of Perry Mason. He started his legal career representing banks, but switched to family law at age 29 to spend more time in court.
In 2002, Dragga was hired by Mike Tyson to void a $10-million settlement with the boxer’s ex-wife, Monica Turner. Tyson claimed her brother, now Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, had tricked him into signing the agreement. When Tyson was asked during the negotiations what advice Dragga had given him, the fighter replied, “Who’s Pat Dragga?” The lawyer’s peers have never let him forget that. Of course, Tyson would like to forget the whole thing: He ended up paying Turner close to $10 million, which helped buy her home on the edge of Congressional Country Club.
Clients and colleagues say Dragga’s strength is in defusing high-pressure situations and keeping negotiations moving. His highly regarded firm keeps eight family lawyers busy. Partner Jeffrey Hannon, 61, has good courtroom presence, and Vincent Wills, 51, is an appellate expert for those who lose in the first round but want to keep fighting. Three of Dragga’s former partners have been chosen as circuit court judges.
Ain & Bank, Washington, D.C.
The son of a Silver Spring dentist, Darryl Feldman, 40, studied accounting at Tulane University in New Orleans before getting a law degree from the University of Baltimore School of Law in 1994. He now lives at Fallsgrove near Darnestown. Although Feldman’s main office is in Washington, he spends most of his client time in Rockville.
Feldman is a protégé and partner of Washington super-lawyer Sanford Ain, and has been with him for nearly a decade. The firm advertises itself as a place where well-heeled clients can settle their differences in a civil setting. “If somebody wants to hire me to solely inflict pain,” Feldman says, “that’s not really what we are all about.”
Feldman says his accounting background means, “I can oversee the expert witnesses on business evaluation issues and complex stock options. I can work with them from the get-go, rather than having to be taught by them.”
Brodsky, Greenblatt, Renehan & Pearlstein, Gaithersburg
With 37 years of experience, Jeffrey Greenblatt, 63, is perhaps the most feared divorce attorney in Montgomery County. Colleagues complain that this “bomber” crosses the line in investigating and alleging misconduct by a spouse. Hiring Greenblatt often means all-out war.
“If it’s true that I am the most controversial divorce lawyer in Montgomery County,” says Greenblatt, who graduated from American University Washington College of Law in 1973, “perhaps it’s because I will do everything in my power to advocate for and protect my clients, and I won’t let anyone take advantage of them. I don’t soft-pedal my approach simply because it’s a ‘family law’ matter.”
As for those who complain about him? “Whiners,” he says.
The Law Offices of Cheryl Lynn Hepfer, Rockville
The daughter of a McKeesport, Pa., attorney, Cheryl Hepfer, 63, is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and earned her law degree at American University in 1972. Stricken with polio at 6, Hepfer was treated and cured by a young Dr. Jonas Salk, and she says research from her case helped the scientist perfect his vaccine.
She decided to practice family law after winning an acquittal for a female Army sharpshooter accused of shooting at her cheating boyfriend. Hepfer’s firm employs five women, including herself, but she says its clients are evenly split between male and female. Her philosophy: “Empower our clients, settle cases early on if possible, find creative resolutions (win/win), prepare well for trial if we must and negotiate from strength.”
New & Lowinger, Bethesda
Even before graduating from American University Washington College of Law, Cheryl New, 48, was clerking for the legendary Mark Sandground. Often featured in national magazines because of the portrait of a large rat above his desk, Sandground took an instant liking to New and let her try cases under his supervision before she had even been admitted to practice. After 25 years with Sandground, New opened her own firm in downtown Bethesda last October to be near her home. Her partner, Jeff Lowinger, holds a tax degree from Georgetown University and is considered a top numbers cruncher. They frequently team up on cases.
New eschews the image of her rat-loving mentor. “I don’t need to bury the other person,” she says. “I’m not touchy-feely, but I look at myself as a surgeon who can diagnose your case and know what needs to be done.”
Offit Kurman, Bethesda
A 1967 graduate of American University Washington College of Law, Ronald Ogens, 65, cut his teeth on business and commercial litigation in Washington before deciding to make Maryland family law his specialty 30 years ago. Ogens advertises himself as a “divorce planner,” dispensing advice on how clients can segregate brokerage accounts, inheritances or third party gifts from marital property. Peers regard him as a master at crafting agreements that rarely can be breached.
His fastidiousness is legendary. Ogens not only will pick apart the substance of a rival’s motion, but its grammar, as well. One lawyer who used to work with him says Ogens has an uncanny ability to size up the players in a divorce and get the real story.
Paradiso, Taub, Sinay & Owel, Bethesda
A divorce lawyer since 1978, New Jersey native Joseph Paradiso established his firm in Bethesda in 1994 and is considered among the top lawyers able to fight a case through the court system. He is a graduate of American University and earned his law degree at George Mason University.
Clients say Paradiso, 60, is considerate of a client’s financial concerns. He has a special $300-an-hour rate, below his regular $400 an hour, for initial interviews. Paradiso isn’t flashy, but colleagues and clients say he is trustworthy.