Welcome to E!'s Tales From the Top, our series on women who are leaders in their fields and masters of their craft. Spanning industries and experiences, these powerhouse women answer all the questions you've ever had about how they got to where they are today—and what they overcame to get there. Read along as they bring their resumés to life.
If there was ever someone predestined for a life in the law, it's Laura Wasser.
After all, the legal profession has been a supporting character in the celebrity divorce attorney's life since the moment she was conceived. "My dad and mom in the late '60s were waiting for his bar results and they found out that he had passed the California Bar and so, as an act of celebration, they had sex," she said in an exclusive interview with E! News. "They decided to name me Laura Allison Wasser, so my initials are LAW. I almost never had a choice as to whether or not I was going to be an attorney, although I did fight it for many, many years."
More than five decades later, she's long since accepted her fate, now fighting for her clients, some of which you've definitely heard of. Kim Kardashian, Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears—they're some of the many stars she's represented in high-profile divorces. But, while law was in her DNA, Wasser was not immediately interested in adding Esq. to her name.
As a college student at New York University, her resume included: certified aerobics instructor, club promoter and retail for a New York City magic-sex toy-costume shop. "Either I'd work the door of the club and then I'd go into the club and party in the club or I would just go to the club and then I wouldn't come home until like literally 6 in the morning, which is when I would open up the aerobics studio, teach my two classes, go home and sleep until 4, when I had my classes in school, and then I would start the process all over again by going out in New York City," she described. "It was amazing. I got straight A's."
While her interests involved travel and fashion, the law ultimately won her over. After transferring and studying Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, she decided to go to Loyola Law School. "I still didn't think I was going to be a family law attorney," she noted. But, after getting married during her second year at Loyola, her personal life took another turn, pushing a then-25-year-old Wasser in the direction of her father's firm. "After I took my own bar exam, I was getting divorced and I needed the money, so I asked daddy if I could work for him for a little while and he said yes, begrudgingly," she said, referring to prominent family law attorney Dennis Wasser. "And I never left."
However, older men used the fact that she was the daughter of the boss as an excuse to not take the budding legal star seriously. "They assumed that I only had a job because I was Dennis' daughter. And I used to actually be kind of hot," she said with a laugh, "so I would come in and I was just a cute, little girl that was this other colleague's daughter and they really underestimated me. And rather than getting frustrated or fighting it, I used it to my advantage."
Recalling one standout exchange, Wasser described a fellow lawyer telling her that, while she might have been prettier and better dressed, he had been in the profession longer and she needed to consider that he was going to win. "When we were sitting at a counsel table and the judge was reading his decision—which was in my client's favor—I leaned over to the guy and I said, 'God, how does it feel now? I'm prettier, I dress better and I just won.'"
While the sexism hasn't completely dissipated—the accomplished attorney still gets called "sweetie" and "honey" on occasion to this day—according to Wasser, you don't have to mimic the stereotypical behavior of men in order to succeed.
"We don't have to employ the same tactics or mannerisms that men do to get attention," she said. "Another woman attorney older than me once said to me, 'You know, if you speak quietly, they will lean in to hear what you're saying.' And I really always remember that. We don't have to yell or slam on the table. I probably use way too many profanities—it's just who I am—but I see a lot of women do it and I see they're not comfortable with it, but they're doing it because they kind of want to be one of the guys. If you talk quietly, they will lean in and it's okay to do that. It's okay to be a woman. It's okay to dress like a woman. It's okay to wear your hair like a woman. And we still, in this day and age, are lucky enough that we're able to succeed and prevail and that's okay."
Still, there are times when you need to raise your voice to be heard loud and clear. "I was very frustrated as a young attorney, and again, part of it did have to do with the fact that I was working for my father's firm," she explained. "And the tides really turned when I was making more rain at the firm than anybody else! I basically said, 'I'm going to take my book of business and I'm going to go set up shop somewhere else if you don't pay me and include me and give me equity and everything else…'"
"It's not the most lovely way of coming to what you need to come to," she acknowledged. "It would be nice if we just were on the partner track and everybody appreciated what we did and then they handed it to us, but a lot of times, we really do have to fight for it. A lot of times you have to make a choice: Am I actually willing to walk out the door and put up my own shingle? I knew and they did, too, that I was valuable enough to them staying there that they did what needed to be done."
Now on the other side of things as a managing partner, Wasser has some tokens of wisdom for those on a mission for a salary bump. "I think it's very, very important that we know our value as a worker," she said. "I think it's important that you work hard, but at the same time I think it's important that you know and that your employer knows that you are dedicated and that you are loyal—assuming that you are—and that you are working really hard."
But don't use a new apartment or other expense as your reasoning for a raise. "I don't think your boss wants to know why personally you need extra money," she advised. "What they want to know is: What did you do for me that is going to make me want to make you happy so you will stay working for me? So you need to say, 'These are the things I did, these are the hours I worked, this is the new business that I brought in'—that's the kind of stuff we want to know, because we're not always paying maybe as much attention as either we should or you think we are. You tell us. Make your best case for us as to why we don't want to lose you. And if we don't increase your salary, you're f--king going somewhere else!"
Perhaps the question you're still asking this far into Wasser's story is: After working in a field that can be both demanding and, in her words, "soul-crushing," why has she stayed in a career she initially resisted? "Family law is fascinating," she said. "It is a fascinating study in human nature and how we as humans love and hate and process, and that you learn so much about so many people."
"What I've learned from doing this for so many years, both at a very, very low socioeconomic level, like the work that I do for nonprofits...and then the work that I do with very, very high-level socioeconomic wealth at our firm—people are all really scared and sad and angry when they're going through a divorce," she noted. "There is also, I found, a great deal of hope for the future and their next chapters and so, that is why I've continued doing it for all these years. I think one of the reasons I'm good at it is because I really do love it. I love the problem-solving. I love being the spirit guide to people who are going through a difficult time, but know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel."
After all she's seen in and out of court, Wasser, a mom of two, is working to bring a bit more hope to the divorce process itself, too. "I'd say the majority of family law cases should be and can be mediated by the parties," she pointed out, "and that's why we started It's Over Easy, which is an online mediation platform."
While there are certainly complex cases that can't be handled by the future exes alone, it's part of Wasser's overall vision for the future of divorce. "I would love to see the way we, as a culture, approach divorce change a little bit and not be so dire and not be so taboo and not be so emotionally and financially taxing."
In the meantime, the All's Fair podcast host manages her own pressure with early morning runs, quality time with family and friends, and, well...
"I probably drink too much," she said, laughing.
But, if there's any single thing to take away from the tale of Laura Allison Wasser, it's this: "The secret to your success is doing something you love. And it may not always be the first thing that you do, but you have to love it or you have to know that you will eventually love it when you begin to excel at it," she said. "The first couple of years of any job are going to be a slog. You're going to get the s--t work and you're going to have to pull all-nighters and whatever, but if you can see a light at the end of the tunnel, if you see the older people than you and how much they love it and what they get to do with the fruits of their labor, like buying the great shoes or bag or clothes or whatever and going on the great vacations—if that works for you, then stay at it. Because if you love what you do...then you will be successful at it."
"I don't know what success means," she continued, "whether it means making a lot of money or it means sleeping well at night or it means feeling like you really are helping the world, that's your own personal thing whatever success is. But the secret to it is loving what you do."