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Frank McCourt adds to his team -- of lawyers

Houston-based Stephen Susman, considered one of the best in the country, will be on Frank McCourt's side for the case that will determine ownership of the Dodgers.

June 26, 2010|By Bill Shaikin

Frank McCourt has added a star trial lawyer to his legal team, ensuring that a nationally prominent attorney will lead each side in the battle for ownership of the Dodgers.

Stephen Susman, a Houston-based attorney ranked by several legal publications as one of the premier trial lawyers in the country, is the latest addition to the all-star teams representing McCourt and his estranged wife, Jamie, in divorce proceedings.

"It's like having your best athletes take the field," said Loyola Law School professor and legal commentator Laurie Levenson. "You'll see the best fight possible."

In January, the Business Insider website listed Susman and David Boies, who would argue against him at trial on behalf of Jamie McCourt, as two of the 11 American attorneys "you definitely don't want to see across the aisle."

Neither Susman nor Boies, the New York-based attorney perhaps best known for beating Microsoft in an antitrust suit and representing Al Gore in the aftermath of the 2000 election, practices family law.

"This isn't just another family law case," Levenson said. "In its own way, it's the family law case of the century."

Lynn Soodik, a Santa Monica lawyer who represented Meg Ryan in her divorce, said attorneys outside the family law field "almost never" work on a divorce. Each of the McCourts has retained one of the most renowned family law attorneys in Los Angeles — Sorrell Trope on behalf of Frank, Dennis Wasser on behalf of Jamie.

"Neither of these attorneys would ever say, 'I need to hire someone else,' " Soodik said. "It's definitely client-driven."

The core of the McCourt case revolves around the validity of an agreement that specifies the Dodgers belong solely to Frank McCourt, rather than to the couple jointly. The Dodgers represent more than half of what would be the couple's net worth, according to court documents.

The win-at-all-costs approach on both sides is reflected in attorney fees. In March, The Times reported that total fees for the case could approach $19 million, which would make the divorce one of the costliest in California history. That figure was based on court filings that did not yet reflect the involvement of Boies or Susman, who charges $1,100 an hour, according to a 2008 story in the American Bar Assn. Journal. The story noted that Susman does not bill all of his clients by the hour.

Marc Seltzer, a partner in Susman's Los Angeles office, has worked with Trope in representing Frank McCourt.

"It was always understood that, if the case got close to trial, I would be the lead counsel," Susman said. "It was time for me to get involved."

The trial is set to start Aug. 30. Susman said "everyone" hopes a settlement can be reached.

"I would not think they're going to settle," Soodik said. "When you hire someone of that caliber, it's because you're going to trial."

Susman said he has teamed with Boies on occasion, including a current case in which the two are representing commercial fishermen harmed by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Susman said he could recall facing Boies in two trials, with each lawyer winning one.

"This is the tiebreaker," Susman said.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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