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Her Day in Court: Divorce court was famous for its old-boy network. Then Rosaire Nottage arrived.

Chicago Tribune Magazine
July 10, 1994
by Bill Brasher

Rosaire Nottage leans in on her opposing counsel – a guy who usually looks like "L.A. Law’s" Arnie Becker – and rips. 'You've got the husband, and his business is in the toilet,'; says. I’ve got the wife; she's an idiot, and she believes in a standard of living that never really existed. Now that you know that I know, let's practice law.';

The law is divorce law, the ultimate marital spat, a messy, uncivil practice long dominated by men, even though half the clients are women. It attempts to fit one of the shabbiest slices of adult behavior into a legal framework. The fitters are divorce lawyers, a group with reputation even lower than lawyers in general.

'Bottom of the heap,'; admits Nottage, who, at 45, is a 17-year divorce- court veteran. 'Other lawyers tell lawyer jokes about us."

Humor at her expense is nothing new to Nottage, however, as one of only a few female players in the nasty, macho big leagues of Chicago’s matrimonial wars. A founding partner, with Eunice Ward, of the 6-year-old firm of Nottage and ward, she has become a notorious – some say infamous – name in the city’s noisy and changing divorce bar. She gives as bad as she gets.

'You must realize that most lawyers are wienies,'; she offers. 'They were the ones up Studying when everybody else was having fun. When the sexual revolution came, they were alone in their room.';

Having established that, Nottage practices law against the wienies with a barbecue fork. Hers is not a story of a kinder and gentler female attorney crusading for the oppressed wife. Nottage is neither a revolutionary nor a dogmatic feminist, yet her presence on the divorce scene inspires her female peers and rattles most everyone else. To some, she personifies an appropriately tough, sorely needed new female presence in the divorce-law scene and one that is changing business as usual. To others, she is simply another gunslinger, albeit one in pantyhose, in an increasingly uncivil, cutthroat arena of hired legal guns.

For starters, Nottage thinks she knows why divorce lawyers are the pits.

'It all has to do with money,'; she says, 'and how men respond to it.'; Because divorce in Illinois today is 'no fault,'; whereby spouses equitably distribute the family assets – child custody is a separate matter – without regard to such things as philandering or mental cruelty, the wrangle centers on money: the house, alimony, the pension fund. Money is the last battleground for mad-as-hell spouses, and conventional divorce-court wisdom holds that whoever gets the most dough wins.

Marquee divorce firms in Chicago such as Rinella and Rinella; Schiller, DuCanto and Fleck; and Kaufman, Litwin & Feinstein, boast of their big-name clients and megamillion-dollar settlements. A client has to show an annual family income of at least $200,000 before brothers Bernard and Richard Rinella will even accept the case.

"The typical male idea of success in divorce law," Nottage says, "is how big is the case, did you win and how much did you get for your client. You know, how big and how long and let’s swing it around some. And that’s stupid and wrong."

And yet, to beat the entrenched matrimonial road warriors at their own game, Nottage swings her own big stick. She is known as a scourge, a stickler, a litigator who pushes every point and puts down her opponents with a tire iron.

"It’s always the wife petitioning for the husband’s money," she declares. "I hear the word ‘his.’ It’s not his. It’s marital property. That same power struggle goes on between the lawyers. If the guys can get away with it, they’ll do it. Absolutely!"

After a go-round, Nottage with a serrated, Long Island-bred delivery, has been known to lean close to her male opponent and murmur, 'Just think, you could be—married—to me.';

Invariably, the strafed shlub responds only with, 'Oy.';

Another Nottage opponent is more descriptive. "She’s a ballbuster,'; he says.

'Rosaire makes outrageous statements about men,'; says attorney Dorene Marcus, a divorce practitioner of 15 years. 'But she's a very good lawyer, one of the best. That’s why you can’t ignore her.

"You have to remember how it was,'; says Sandra Murphy, a Nottage peer. 'When I started in practice in 1976, [a year before Nottage did], men used to come over and ask when my boss was going to show up.';

Call the court to order; let the arguments begin.

For years a woman seeking a divorce had to contend with a men's club. Her husband had probably already made use of the family attorney or his company's law firm, so the wife hunted about. She immediately faced a dilemma. There have always been female divorce attorneys; but they were perceived as sole practitioners without the clout or the resources to compete with the boys. The wife usually ended up with a member of the established divorce bar, a close-knit, predominantly male group of attorneys who plied the trade like jockeys riding different horses. Depending on how aggrieved she was, the wife hoped her boy had a good whip hand.

A smug guy patted her on the shoulder, told her not to worry and steered the case through a male-devised maze of rules and decrees. At each turn in one of the most desolate, distressing events of her life, the wife faced a male countenance, The process was dubbed 'Three Men and a Woman.'; If a settlement was reached, it was submitted for ap- proval by a judge, usually a man.

If no settlement was reached, the case went to divorce court, the Domestic Relations Division of the Cook Comity Circuit Court. For years divorce court had a reputation for being inefficient—a case could slog through the system for years—corrupt and a dumping ground for inept, irascible judges. In the 1980s it narrowly eludded the federal scourge of Operation Greylord after a prime target of investigators committed suicide,

Things in divorce court could also be fraternal and clubby. If the wife came to the courtroom early enough, she might see her attorney enjoying morning coffee and danish with his opposing counsel in the judge's chambers. When proceedings began, the lawyers sought victory instead of accommodation, and the two parties ripped each other to pieces in a long, costly and often humiliating procedure. The final disposition usually left both wife and husband unhappy. Only the attorneys, like veteran jockeys, survived intact. After the judge approved their fees—a cozy arrangement dictated by Illinois law—and guaranteed payment as part of the settlement, the lawyers moved on to other mounts.

Nottage waded into that testosterone-laden slough the moment she filed her first divorce petition in 1977. She was a young associate at Bell, Boyd & Lloyd, a firm she had joined a year earlier after gaining law degree from Loyola University. The daughter of an advertising executive, Nottage was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised on Long Island and in New Jersey. She moved to Chicago in 1971 to take a job writing federal grants and contracts at Chicago State University and went to law school at night,

Her chosen field was anti-trust law, and when Bell, Boyd & Lloyd asked her to do divorce work, something corporate law firms take on as an accommodation to clients, she'; was offended. 'My jaw dropped,'; she said, well aware of the reputation of matrimonial attorneys. 'I thought my career was over.';

Yet she took the plunge, and soon became good at it. The work made rain—income—and it appealed to her admittedly aggressive personality. 'I liked it a lot,'; she said. 'More importantly, as a young attorney and as a woman, I could run the cases and cut the deals. In a big firm, few associates, and even fewer women can do that.';

Nine years later, having become a partner, Nottage had more work than she could handle, and she pressed the firm to expand in the divorce area. When it refused, she looked elsewhere. People thought she was crazy.

"Women don't perceive themselves as running a practice,'; she said. 'I hear women in firms say,

‘Well, Howard treats me well.' It's the same stupid thing I hear from wives in bad marriages. 'Well, power never comes from on high. I don't believe in the trickle-down theory. You have to go out and take it.';

But she did not step out of the chorus line alone. In April 1987 she met over lunch with Eunice Ward, who then was part of a small general practice and who was also doing more and more divorce work. Each woman had lumps from bumping against what they call a corporate law's 'glass ceiling,'; and they immediately sensed a professional chemistry between them.

"Our idea was to work as a team,'; Ward says. 'We could bring big-firm services to our clients.';

DIVORCE FIRMS ARE often one-man—or one-woman — shows,'; Nottage says. The perception with complex cases is that a sole practitioner doesn't have the resources, the bodies, the partners and associates to handle things. We wanted to bring a team approach to negotiation and litigation and step up to bat.';

In December of 1987, with a three-year business plan, an accountant and a line of credit, they birthed Nottage and Ward.

They proclaimed it to the world and the old-boys network with a sexy announcement that featured a stylish studio portrait, by photographer Francois Robert, of Nottage—blond and willowy—standing and Ward—brunette and impish—sitting.

'We were playing on the fact that we were women, but we had to be very careful,'; Ward says. 'We were very concerned when we took that photo that it had to have a certain kind of look. We wanted to have style, but we wanted to be taken seriously. It couldn't be too frivolous or cute. Establishing credibility as a woman is different from establishing credibility as a man.';

'Remember,'; Nottage says, 'we had very few role models.';

The effect was immediate, and business came in. Some colleagues tell them they still have the photo. And true to the spirit and tradition of divorce court, one judge asked them, 'How did you decide who would stand and who would sit?';

One would expect—as Nottage and Ward initially did—that most of their clients would be women, that wives would rush into the office with a simpatico sigh of relief. Not so. They saw an equal number of husbands show up at the door, and they still do today,

'I was a little surprised. In the beginning I had assumed that there would be women flocking to us,'; Nottage says. That caused us to think about why that wasn't happening.';

Two points of need jumped out at them: Female clients had to be assured that Nottage and Ward could cut it professionally, and both men and women had to be offered solutions other than the usual get-all-you-can approach.

"There’s a built-in inferiority in women when it comes to business and law," Nottage says. "We had to prove that we were good lawyers and not just nice ladies who could hug them."

"We dwelled on the fact that maybe women felt they needed a father or a brother to take care of them," Ward says. "There was also an element of looking at us as if we’re from outer space."

"I’ve been asked," Nottage says, scanning her jazzy, top-floor office: "’How did you ever get all this? How did you learn how to do all this?’ Men would never be asked that."

When she reveals that she is married (to Michael Bauer, a consumer electronics sales manager) and has two children, Laura, 10, and Charlie, 8, wives often ask her what her husband thinks of what she does.

"Men, on the other hand," Nottage says, "think I’ll understand the wife, inasmuch as the wife is a mystery to them."

That is where, they believed, they could forge solutions different from the ordinary go-for-broke settlements.

DIVORCE ISN'T A WIN-lose situation,'; Nottage says. 'That's a male thing. Divorce is a realigning of family relationships. Wives—and a lot of husbands, too—see that. Eunice and I saw it. We had to work at it.

'Let me give you an example,'; she goes on. 'A husband and wife divorcing after a 35-year marriage. That's a long time. There's a lot of sentiment there. During the divorce, she gets a boyfriend. The husband's lawyer comes in and wants to cut off maintenance [alimony]. ∗You win,' he's told the guy. You can cut her off. Not pay her a dime.' But it's not right for the husband—I can see that. So I ask his lawyer if we could meet and I could talk directly to his client. The lawyer doesn't have to do that, but he does, and I give him a lot of credit for that. I appeal to the husband. This isn't the way you want to win,' I say. ∗You don’t want to cut off your wife even though the system says you can.' My solution is more dignified, and the husband wants that. I don't think he wants his lawyer to know he wants it that way. The husband is a guy, remember, and he wants to respect himself and his lawyer and not come off as a wimp. But he also wants to do the decent thing.';

Nottage and Ward are not saying that other divorce lawyers, particularly females, are not pursuing innovative solutions but that these new approaches are crucial to their practice.

'We call it ‘feminist, jurisprudence,''; Ward says. 'We're women. Our methods are more interactive. Divorce has got to offer alternatives. You see it more and more today in such things as mediation and alter- native dispute resolution. It’s helped by the fact that there are more women in divorce law and more women judges in divorce court. We think Nottage and Ward has been a big part of that.';

At the same time, however, they must confront the fact that spurned wives are too often screaming in the dark.

'Women want to know: ‘Why? ‘Where did I go wrong?' '; Nottage says. 'They want confrontation. They want me to ask hard questions.'; Really show him! Men see divorce as a business deal. The marriage is over, and they want to settle. And the men are basically right. Divorce is not payback, it’s settling up.';

In settling up, Nottage has a fierce and not altogether flattering reputation. It is something that many believe flies in the face of the notion that as a female attorney, she does things differently. To describe Nottage in the divorce-court trenches, a lawyer who has known her for years says simply: 'Law firms are kennels. You have your chihuahuas, golden retrievers and pit bulls. Rosaire is a pit bull.

MUCH OF HER BITE is sunk into the hides of the boys, the divorce bar's heavy hitters and their swaggering ways of doing things. She delights in tweaking them.

'You have to figure out at what stage the other lawyer is,'; she offers, 'which may be arrested adolescence. I mean, if you put divorce lawyers on that great bell curve in sky, there are a lot of C's.';

At any opportunity, she rails against the wink-and-nod style of negotiation that has long been common to the divorce bar.

'I’m not going to make deals in the hallway,'; she says. 'Attorneys are always saying to me, ‘You know, it's not done this way, Rosaire.’ I say, ‘Yeah, well I want it done this way.’ I’ll fight to death for my client. I’ll get in there and try every hearing and try every case.

"Once, another lawyer, a woman, said, ‘Rosaire, couldn’t you just do this because you want to be nice?’ I said to her: ‘You know, those pretty fingernails and that nice long hair of yours and that nice smile – that works on the guys. There’s a woman on the other side, so don’t ask me if I can’t be the big bad meaning, because, yes, I can, I most certainly can.’"

Her opponents most of whom insisted on anonymity before commenting, say that she can make things impossible.

"She has her own agenda," one attorney said. 'And it is not always her client. She believes it’s herself. She got into a [expletive deleted] contest with me, and as a result I couldn't communicate to try to resolve the issues.';

Her conduct goes beyond the pale of anything that would be considered acceptable,'; another attorney said. "Remarks, hideous letters, antics, obnoxious behavior – all it does is prolong things and cost the client money."

Still another attorney added, 'Someone sees whom you were arguing with, and they say, ‘God, what a ‘bitch'';

To which Nottage replies: 'It’s a tough practice. There's a tremendous amount of psyching out going on. People will look for any weak point to get their way. … If you're stupid enough to stop talking when men interrupt you in front of the bench, they're going to interrupt you. They’ll use their verbal skills in all those kinds of ways – ‘I can’t believe anybody could be such a bitch as you.'

"Look," she goes on, ‘Every divorce case is a bet-the-company case. With every one them, we’re cranked to the max. Am I aggressive? For a woman, I am very aggressive. But for a person …?

Both she and Ward have disdained membership in the Society of Matrimonial Lawyers, the long-standing divorce-lawyer association whose Illinois chapter’s immediate past president was Sandra Murphy. To them, however, it is still the old-boys club.

"You mean the raccoons?" Nottage says with a laugh, wiggling her hand behind her head to imitate Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton flipping the tails of their raccoon hats in "The Honeymooners." "The good old boys. It’s come to where they’ve actually asked us to join them. ‘OK, Rosaire, you’ve proved your point,’ one of them said. And we actually considered it before finally saying, ‘We can’t.’ I mean, these are the same guys who called us dirty-dog names for years."

Attorney Dorene Marcus, who is a member of the society, won’t go that far. "I have such ambivalent feelings about my male colleagues. It’s hard not to be friendly with them. It’s a tough business. What keeps you sane is a collegial relationship."

Simple mention of the "old-boy network" provides an idea of what she is up against.

"The old-boy network is BS; it just doesn’t exist,’" says Arthur M. Berman, a 30-year veteran of divorce court. "There is a group of lawyers who specialize in matrimonial law. They appear in court every day in front of the same judges. They go to association meetings. And nowadays women are a part of it – women attorneys and judges."

Says Sandra Murphy: "There is a network, and it has a negative connotation, but I’m not sure that is correct. I think the client benefits from your relationship with your opponent. It’s valuable to know the other lawyer … it saves a lot of time and money."

Yes another attorney disputes the existence of a network, citing that the business now is more "cutthroat, more dog-eat-dog."

Countered a veteran female divorce attorney, "The old-boy network is bigger and thicker now that ever, and women are a part of it."

Dorene Marcus believes that one reason for Nottage’s rancor is her reaction to gender bias in the profession.

"Women lawyers are not treated unfairly" she says, "but they are definitely treated differently. Their behavior has a different effect. One judge used to refer to me as a shreyer, which is Yiddish for a yeller. He wouldn’t have referred to a man that way."

Nottage agrees. "There is a clear gender bias in the courts," she says, "even though everybody thinks, ‘No, I don’t do that.’ Women are always asked, ‘Why are you arguing?’

"Judges are worse in certain ways. They don’t perceive it as being gender bias. They say, ‘Calm down, Miss Nottage.’ Why am I calming down for? Tell him to calm down! ‘I want you both to.’ ‘Then look at him, and tell him, Judge; don’t look at me so that we can get on with it.’ When men yell, they don’t perceive it as a problem. When a woman yells, they perceive it as being hysterical."

Replies a divorce-court judge: "She’s [Nottage] extremely aggressive. But she wins her share of cases because she’s a good lawyer. I think she’d win as many if she wasn’t as strident."

Some of Nottage’s opponents are even more critical. One was so put off by a Nottage outburst that she wondered "if she has control of her personality."

Such charges raise the knotty issues of civility, a matter even lawyers themselves are increasingly concerned with.

In 1991 a poll of 1,500 lawyers in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana – conducted by the Committee on Civility in Litigation, the Seventh Federal Judicial Circuit under Judge Marvin Aspen – tried to get a handle on such conduct.

"We found two main factors," said Cornelia Honchar Tuite, an attorney who served as reporter for the study. "A decline in society in civility as a whole, and that society is exceptionally litigious. Everybody wants an S.O.B. lawyer. In open-ended responses, most attorneys said they rued the fact that it is the S.O.B. lawyer who gets the notice and the clients."

The fight for clients is fierce. Illinois has 64,000 registered attorneys, of whom 23,000 practice in the four ZIP-code areas around LaSalle Street.

Tuite, however, also recognizes the heat of divorce law, particularly in child custody. "The kids may be the only good things you’ve done in the marriage or in life," she said. "And you are going to fight like hell for them. If you’re the attorney, to keep the business and your reputation, you fight."

"ROSAIRE is tough," says Jordan Peters, a corporate lawyer with Freeborn & Peters, who refers divorce work to Nottage. "In the matrimonial bar, you want a lawyer who can be tough and irascible under the right circumstances. Rosaire perceives it as a style that she thinks is effective in that milieu."

With her firm well into its sixth year, Nottage believes she is very effective.

"You know, I feel like I’ve won some people over," she says with a rare trace of graciousness. "They don’t hate me anymore. They have gotten over the idea that I’m a bitch and I’m hard. They were mad at me for the first few years because we weren’t in the back room having the go-rounds and I wasn’t being a good girl. They used to say, ‘You’re making it difficult, Rosaire.’ Yeah, right. But now I think they’d rather see me than some young female upstart.

"I’ve seen a change, and I think we can take some credit for it," she adds. "We’ve helped show that women lawyers can perform as excellent lawyers. We can bring something else to divorce court. We can operate as good as the guys or better. I know it because judges have sent me clients because they liked the way I operated."

She and Ward believe their team approach still works well. Clients often confer with each one, and then the two attorneys bang heads for ways to pursue the case. That often results in fierce arguments, something both of them say they find normal and unthreatening. 'Eunice is my professional family, Nottage says. 'The partnership is terribly important.';

'We're going against the old boys,'; Ward says, 'the Rinella and Rinellas. These are people who felt they had made the map. We are trying to stake our place on the map.';

'Anytime people think it’s just me with my foot on Bemie Rinella's neck,'; Nottage says, 'they have to 'look down and see that Eunice has a knife in his heart.';

Bernard Rinella responds: They're smart, and they've made a buck pandering to women. They want to appear to be tough. It’s marketing,'; that’s what it is.';

Says Nottage: 'Look, the stakes are high in these cases, and it's not the most attractive arena. There is a toughness, a level of competition and having to mix it up. You have to like to mix it up. There is nothing I like better than kicking ass, going for the jugular. I think you live up to your reputation. You have to.

"This is a boxing match. There is nothing like having that bell rung and landing the knock-out punch. People just aren't used to seeing women boxers.';

DIVORCE IS THE LAST RESORT

In the early-evening stillness of her office, Rosaire Nottage talks quietly about what she knows of men and women, of marriage and divorce:

'I have an imaginary sign above my office door that reads, 'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.' The reality of divorce, especially for women who have not worked for some time, is stark. Standards of living take a dive. A divorce decree is simply the final, usually unhappy, divvying up.

"I often meet well-heeled, 40-ish, North Shore wives who don’t want to hear what I tell them. After the pot is divided, after the house is sold, the banks are happy and the mantel dock is claimed, you will have to live on $30,000 a year, get a job and move into a condo in a less-posh suburb. That’s hard for them to understand. One actually said to me, ‘I am NOT going to live in some hellhole like Schaumburg!'

I went to law school. I didn't marry someone to get somewhere. It didn't seem the thing to do. There was nobody in college I was going to put my money on except me.

'Women trade in sexiness. In the bat of the eye. They don t realize that they can fall prey to the same trap. That’s the level of that bargain.

'A lot of women ask me how I leave my kids in the morning or what does my husband think. There are women to whom I feel like I am the husband. They want me to decide their divorce.

"Even with today's enlightened couples, there is a division of labor, there are roles. There is also a loss of face for men not to be in control of their marriage. The problem is that we define ourselves by money. The job of a homemaker makes no money. She's not worth much. Women's work is not counted in the gross national product.

'Ninety-seven percent of the time, the woman files for divorce, even if the man wants to. Psychologically, men can't do it; they can t put those words down and cast her off. When they face other people, ifs easier to say, 'She dumped me.'

'I get a lot of male clients because of pride. Men can’t bear to bare their souls to other men. It’s cultural, I think. There's less loss of face if they tell it to woman.

"I actually talk a lot of people out of filing for divorce. I had a young guy—lot of money, the Porsche and a new wife with a baby—come to me and say he was having a rough year and that he was thinking about filing. 'Having a rough year? Rough how? Porsche not starting up in the morning?' I asked him. I told him I couldn't believe he was thinking about a divorce. I told him he was an idiot and to grow up. Divorce is the last resort. You have to be utterly convinced that there is nothing else you can do.

"I am still amazed at wives and their [lack of] knowledge of marital assets. By and large, men handle the money. Wives still sign blank tax returns. Wives still get an allowance. Wives are still happy to be taken care of. They may not even have a credit card in their own name. I send people out all the time to get a credit card!

"You want sad? A woman about 34, with an 8- or 9-year-old marriage, a college degree and two kids. Most often, she is amazed at how little money there is. She won't get much.';

—Bill Brashler

Copyright 1994 Chicago Tribune Magazine

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