Last week, news broke that former Dawson’s Creek actress Katie Holmes filed for divorce from mega-celebrity Tom Cruise after five years of marriage. At the same time, we learned that Holmes had quickly retained top-notch counsel to take on Cruise in what could be an epic custody battle over their 6-year-old daughter, Suri.
Currently on Team Holmes is Allan E. Mayefsky, whose company, Aronson Mayefsky & Sloan, LLP, is considered one of the best matrimonial law firms in New York City. Holmes has also hired New Jersey divorce lawyer Jonathan Wolfe, who specializes in “complex matrimonial matters.”
Team Cruise has Dennis Wasser, the same attorney who handled the superstar’s divorce from actress Nicole Kidman.
Aronson Mayefsky & Sloan has handled plenty of high-powered divorces involving hedge-fund executives as well as Hollywood celebrities. For example, Kay LeRoy contacted the law firm when she filed a lawsuit against her husband, the late Warner LeRoy, who owned New York’s famed Tavern on the Green restaurant, claiming numerous infidelities. So did Peter Cook, the philandering former husband of model and actress Christie Brinkley, who found out he was cheating with an 18-year-old former toy-store clerk.
Recently, the firm represented French billionaire and husband of Salma Hayek, François-Henri Pinault, in his vicious battle with supermodel Linda Evangelista over child-support payments for their 5-year-old son.
Holmes’s strategy in retaining Mayefsky, known for demanding half of the proceeds in divorces, is a sure sign, according to Lisa Bloom, legal analyst and author of the parenting primer, Swagger, that Holmes is ready to play hardball.
“Holmes’s choice of a lawyer who’s known to air grievances to the media signifies what her strategy might be,” said Bloom. “She’s making it clear she’s going to play tough. Cruise is more of a high-profile celebrity than she is, so he has a greater distance to fall if grievances are aired. Everyone has dirty laundry they don’t want aired. She’s saying play fair with me or else … Of course she would choose an experienced and tough lawyer. But the fact that she’d choose someone who’s been known to go to media in the past signals that she might have hired him for that reason.”
High-powered divorce lawyer Stephanie Blum says Holmes may have picked Mayefsky “because she wanted to control the spin.”
Who exactly is 59-year-old Allan E. Mayefsky? He didn’t return calls from The Daily Beast.
A Harvard law graduate, Mayefsky got his start in matrimonial law in 1987 with well-known attorney Norman Sheresky, who made his name as a partner at the matrimonial and entertainment law firm, Colton Weissberg Hartnick Yamin & Sheresky.
“High-profile people walked in and out of the office,” said Robert Z. Dobrish, a Manhattan-based divorce lawyer. “Sheresky was a talented lawyer in his day and became one of the most prominent lawyers in New York.
When [a high-powered client] got involved in divorce they would go to Norman.”
By the mid-90's, Sheresky, Mayefsky, and two other attorneys started their own firm, and with a stable of 16 matrimonial lawyers, became one of the most prestigious matrimonial firms in the city.
The firm took on the case of Shubert Organization chairman Philip J. Smith and his legal battle with wife Tricia Walsh-Smith, the British playwright and author of The Devil’s Hostage, who famously aired the couple’s dirty laundry on YouTube. Walsh-Smith says she was skewered by the firm in court and in the media. She alleges the firm was responsible for leaking details about her pending divorce to famed New York Post columnist Cindy Adams before she knew her husband wanted a divorce. Adams didn’t return a call from The Daily Beast for comment.
“[Katie] needs cutthroat lawyers because Tom is really powerful,” Walsh-Smith said. “The dirtier the better, so I think she made a good choice. They are known for being ruthless, and they normally win. They beat the shit out of me. They make you out to be the biggest piece of trash there is. It took me a long time to get over it.”
She added: “[Katie] has really good, nasty, horrible lawyers and she should do really well. They must be having multiple orgasms knowing they have Katie Holmes. They love the press and publicity. It is big excitement for them.”
Dobrish, however, says Mayefsky is anything but a media hound. “He is not a guy who tries to get his name in the paper. He is a good lawyer who tries to do right by his client. There are plenty of lawyers who could have called press conferences. His law firm is extraordinarily well-respected and that law firm gets high-profile cases.”
Manhattan attorney Raoul Felder agrees. “He’s a very good, mature, balanced and competent lawyer,” he says. “He’s low-key, in my opinion. The Brinkley case was an oddball situation. I don’t think this case will be as public.”
Recently, the spotlight turned away from the firm’s celebrity clients to the firm itself when its founder, Norman Sheresky, filed a $26 million fraud and breach of contract lawsuit against his former partners, claiming that what he called their disloyalty and greed were aimed “at forcing Mr. Sheresky from the law firm he founded and stripping him of the economic security and income to which he was entitled.”
Mayefsky learned the tricks of the matrimonial trade under Sheresky, the 2010 complaint said. “In hiring Messrs. [David] Aronson and Mayefsky, Sheresky was taking people with limited professional contacts and bringing them into his practice with the intention of grooming them to be matrimonial lawyers and potentially his partners.”
In his complaint, Sheresky said they created their own firm but he “made it clear that a principal reason for treating his partners as liberally as he did was that when he retired he expected to be treated fairly and Defendants Aronson and Mayefsky agreed.”
Sheresky alleged that Mayefsky and Aronson didn’t hold up their end of the bargain and didn’t follow through on an agreement to make annual mortgage payments of $100,000 on Sheresky’s co-op and to give him his usual cut of firm profits even though he worked less.
In September 2011, a Manhattan judge threw out four of five of Sheresky’s claims against Mayefsky and Aronson, allowing one claim for breach of fiduciary duty for not paying him an extra bonus in 2009.
One of the big questions now is where the drama will unfold, either in a court room in Los Angeles or New York where Holmes filed. "There’s a prenup, so the only real issue is custody," said Felder. "I expect this case to stay in New York, but this is one of those peculiar cases where both states have legitimate grounds. In those cases, the first person to serve first usually wins. I think she beat him to the punch."
Daniel Clement, a divorce attorney in Manhattan, says that so far Holmes’s moves have been clearly calculated and premeditated. “We won’t really know how dirty a fight it will be until we are in the midst of it. Whether it will be World War III, we don’t know yet.”
Felder predicts the battle will be much ado about nothing. "I don’t think this is going to be bare-knuckled brawl," he said. "I expect it would die with a whimper."