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Raoul Felder Scores KO in Givens-Tyson Bout : New York Divorce Lawyer Specializes in Knockdown, Drag-Out Cases

November 24, 1988|HOWARD KURTZ | The Washington Post

NEW YORK — Raoul Lionel Felder, who charges $450 an hour to guide wealthy celebrities through nasty divorces, considers himself something of an expert on the female psyche.

"A woman is like a Stradivarius violin," he says. "The humidity has to be right to play it. Otherwise, they'll throw in the towel."

The bearded, soft-spoken lawyer is a virtuoso when it comes to plucking this instrument, the grief-stricken wife (he does a few riffs on famous husbands as well).

As his roster of rich clients has grown--Robin Givens, Lisa Gastineau, Nancy Capasso, Brian De Palma, Mrs. Frank Gifford, Mrs. Joseph Heller, Mrs. Carl Sagan, Mrs. Martin Scorsese, Mrs. Alan Jay Lerner, to name-drop just a few--Raoul Felder has all but eclipsed Marvin Mitchelson as the world's most prominent and well-publicized matrimonial lawyer.

Triple Knockout

Felder, 54, scored a rare triple knockout last month when he took on Givens' 15-round divorce from heavyweight champ Mike Tyson. One, Givens recruited him after unceremoniously dumping Mitchelson. Two, it was the first case for his newly formed "tri-coastal" practice, a controversial alliance with lawyers in California, Florida and New Jersey. Finally, it brought Felder a new flood of headlines, and he announced a settlement in a matter of days.

That, of course, was only the beginning. Felder, who has never seen the actress in person, kept trading verbal blows with Tyson's California lawyer, and last week he filed a $125-million libel suit against Tyson on Givens' behalf. With each passing day, Felder seemed to move closer to the center of the story. And that, Felder's detractors say, is typical of this sharp-tongued lawyer whose profile is so high he employs his own public relations man.

"He is the absolute best at a lot of things," says Robert Dobrish, a Manhattan lawyer who handles big-time divorces. "I don't think one of those is lawyering. . . . Most of the lawyers who are good in this field relish the idea of going up against Felder."

"Raoul's a showman," says Peter Bronstein, another top-drawer divorce lawyer. "I don't want the kind of publicity that Raoul gets. Raoul is willing to say just about anything (in public) about his clients, and I'm not."

Cautious Treatment

But Felder's adversaries treat him gingerly, perhaps with good reason. Norman Sheresky, a prominent New York lawyer, was recently quoted in a Miami newspaper as saying that Felder "pretends to be a trial lawyer when he is not. He has no familiarity with how to try a case." Felder promptly hit Sheresky with a $7-million libel suit.

Felder may be a tad defensive about his reputation in the closed, catty world of matrimonial lawyers, but for the most part he is comfortable with his persona, his nine-lawyer practice and his courtroom skills.

"I am a crackerjack trial lawyer," he declares. "If there's no beef in the hamburger, they ain't gonna buy the hamburger."

He particularly relishes opposing the blue-chip Manhattan firms, many of which have started matrimonial departments as the field has become increasingly lucrative.

"They're not equipped for it," Felder says. "It's like a rhinoceros making love. . . . They're overpaid and they over-bill."

A Lover of Money

Felder makes no pretense about his own love of money. He owns 350 suits. He keeps a gray Rolls-Royce uptown and a red Porsche downtown. He has one apartment on Fifth Avenue and another atop the Museum of Modern Art, along with a home in the Hamptons that he rarely visits.

Still, he likes to say that he turns down four out of five people who want his services.

"I always tell them, 'What do you need us for?' There's no magic here. . . . Trial skills for the most part are not necessary. You don't have to be Justice Cardozo in this field. You're better off with a family lawyer from a neighborhood somewhere who's going to sit with you and kvetch with you and schlep around and listen to you cry for 15 minutes."

At Felder's rates, that cry would cost $112.50.

He arrives at his 30th-floor Madison Avenue office each day about 6 a.m. This day, he's lounging around in a white cardigan with a big blue "R" on it. The spacious room is populated by a large china lion, a battalion of World War I model planes, display cases full of odd knickknacks and, neatly lined up near Felder's desk, a dozen pairs of different-colored slippers. He once kept a piranha here, but it is gone.

Felder, who owns three guns and once posed for photographers in a safari jacket and hat, seems to cultivate an image of eccentricity.

While other lawyers in a recent New York Times article said it would be unethical to sleep with their clients, Felder said it wouldn't be such a bad idea because the lawyer could then promote the client's cause more fervently.

Teller of Tales

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