Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt split

The break-up whisperer

Lawyer Laura Wasser charges $1,155 an hour for her services.
Lawyer Laura Wasser charges $1,155 an hour for her services.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Angelina Jolie's divorce lawyer Laura Wasser would talk about herself but not about her clients, who include Johnny Depp and Jennifer Garner

NEW YORK • In her hour of need, Angelina Jolie turned to the hard-charging Los Angeles divorce lawyer known to TMZ readers and viewers as "the disso queen", the word "disso" being short for dissolution of marriage.

"I guess you could say I am unorthodox," said Ms Laura Wasser, who, in addition to movie stars like Jolie and Johnny Depp, counsels an eclectic mix of athletes, musicians and reality-show stars, including a Kardashian or three.

Perhaps the earliest inkling that she had a knack for negotiating on behalf of another was when she was nine years old and marched into her parents' living room, yellow legal pad and pencil in hand, and demanded that they give her younger brother an allowance.

She got her brother money, said her father, Mr Dennis Wasser, himself a well-known divorce lawyer who has counselled celebrity clients. "And she took a percentage of it too," he added.

Like her father before her, Ms Wasser, a weekend surfer with a weekday penchant for sky-high stilettos, has become one of Hollywood's most sought-after advisers.

In recent days, she has been pulling out all the stops on behalf of Jolie, who last Monday filed for divorce from actor Brad Pitt, demanding sole physical custody of their six children.

Ms Wasser's name appears above that of her famous petitioner on the papers filed with Superior Court of California in Los Angeles County. The legal grounds given for the divorce are irreconcilable differences.

Ms Wasser, 48, represented Depp in his messy split from actress Amber Heard. (Heard is giving her settlement to charity.) She has also counselled actress Jennifer Garner, who last year separated from actor Ben Affleck amid rumours that he had grown too close to the nanny.

Those cases follow a number of instances in which Ms Wasser worked on behalf of high-profile women, including singer Gwen Stefani, who split last year from musician Gavin Rossdale, and journalist Maria Shriver, who left actor and former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2011 after he admitted to an affair with a housekeeper with whom, it turned out, he secretly had a son.

For Ms Wasser, the appetite for celebrity gossip has compounded the challenge of managing clients who value personal privacy but, at the same time, seek to influence interested onlookers.

"You won't see her talking about her clients because she will lose those clients," said Mr Jonathan Wolfe, part of the legal team that represented actress Katie Holmes in her divorce from actor Tom Cruise.

Ms Wasser said she seeks to move "quickly and quietly", preferring to settle her cases out of the spotlight.

A long-time student of celebrity culture, she was raised in Los Angeles and graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1986. Others there at the time included comedian Pauly Shore, actor David Schwimmer and Orange Is The New Black creator Jenji Kohan.

"She partied with the hot kids in high school," her father said.

She earned her law degree from Loyola Law School in 1994 and put it to use as a disability-rights lawyer before joining her father's firm, Wasser, Cooperman & Mandles. At the time, she was newly divorced and vowed never to remarry. She has two sons by different fathers.

In 2001, along with famed lawyer Johnnie Cochran Jr, she represented singer Stevie Wonder after his former girlfriend claimed he gave her herpes. The case went to mediation. Two years later, Jolie hired her when she sought a divorce from actor Billy Bob Thornton.

She said she met Jolie through Mr David Weber, a business partner of Jolie's entertainment lawyer, Mr Robert Offer. Mr Weber is also a former beau of Ms Wasser and the father of one of her sons.

"Those guys are family," Ms Wasser said, referring to Mr Weber and Mr Offer. "They don't want to deal with that icky, messy stuff. That's because they are with their clients for life. For me, it's six to 12 months."

Mr Offer is the lawyer who gave the press statement on Tuesday that set off an explosion of social media commentary and online traffic. "This decision was made for the health of the family," he said.

After her initial foray with Jolie at the time of her split from Thornton, Ms Wasser went on to help pop star Britney Spears through the end of her marriage to backup dancer Kevin Federline; Robyn Moore at the time of her divorce from actor Mel Gibson; and Kim Kardashian, who was through with basketball player Kris Humphries.

Along the way, she earned a reputation for hammering out settlements without going to trial. She said that she counsels celebrities to "go on lockdown" when their cases are drawing media attention.

She charges US$850 (S$1,155) an hour for her services and insisted that she eschews the role of therapist or after-hours drinking companion for her famous clients.

"I cost too much," she said. "I don't believe they want to hang out with me. I have my own friends."

She said she had not seen Jolie for years until they reconnected last week.

Jolie is known for carefully crafting a public image. She and Pitt have successfully brokered the sale of personal photographs to publications like People, with the proceeds going to charity. She has also asked that magazines not refer to the couple as "Brangelina". That is why some observers paused when gossip website TMZ, founded by lawyer Harvey Levin, broke the divorce story last Tuesday morning in a report that included Mr Offer's statement.

"What she is trying to do is frame the narrative," lawyer Gloria Allred said of Jolie and her representatives. "When there is a vacuum of information, there is a lot of speculation."

Ms Wasser is friendly with Mr Levin, saying she met him when they spoke at a conference during which she argued that divorce documents should be sealed. He did not agree.

The two have been photographed at numerous events, including at a party for Ms Wasser's 2013 book, It Doesn't Have To Be That Way: How To Divorce Without Destroying Your Family Or Bankrupting Yourself. Mr Levin declined to be interviewed for this article.

Asked if she was feeding the TMZ beast, Ms Wasser said: "I do not talk to the press. Even Harvey. I'll talk about me. I'll talk about my clothes. But I don't talk about my clients."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2016, with the headline 'The break-up whisperer'. Print Edition | Subscribe