The American Nancy Chemtob (56) is a partner at the renowned law firm Chemtob, Moss, Forman & Beyda in New York and is regarded as one of the most important divorce lawyers in the Big Apple. She mainly deals with elite divorces involving assets of $15 million or more. Her clientele therefore includes some well-known names. For example, she represented Diandra Douglas, ex-wife of Michael Douglas, Stephanie Madoff, the daughter-in-law of the late ponzi super fraud Bernie Madoff, and Mary-Kate Olsen, who became world famous together with her twin sister Ashley, first as acting child stars, then as owners of a fashion empire. Olsen divorced banker Pierre Olivier Sarkozy, the half-brother of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in January 2021. Raised in a family of lawyers, Chemtob received her Bachelor of Arts from Syracuse University in New York State and then her PhD in law from the University of Miami. Marriage law attracted her as she represented women who had been convicted of killing their abusers while in law school. In 2002, she founded her firm with Susan Moss, another attorney she had met three years earlier when they were facing each other in a divorce case. Chemtob does not shy away from legally complex and emotional issues. For example, her very first divorce case involved the dissolution of a same-sex marriage. Nancy Chemtob with her son Jack in her office in 1996. Photo: Nancy Chemtob
Chemtob, which charges $960 an hour, is currently busier than ever, she told Insider. Her firm is getting nearly a third more applications due to the pandemic, she estimates. Because wealthy couples are often not used to spending long periods of time together, the lockdown was quite a challenge for them. The friction that has ensued has been a boon to Chemtobs’ business. Chemtob lives in the West Village of Manhattan, New York, with her second husband Michael. “My own divorce helps me with my work,” she says. “When customers say, ‘Wow, that’s expensive,’ I reply, ‘I know, I paid a fortune.’”
Due to the corona pandemic, she has started to perform a lot of work digitally, but her normal routine is slowly returning. This is what a typical workday looks like. Every morning she wakes up not once but twice. “I’m a really bad sleeper, so I wake up around 3 a.m. and start looking at interesting things on my computer, like art auctions or housing site StreetEasy.”
It’s not like a Funda addiction. In divorces it is often about art and real estate, so Chemtob must have the necessary knowledge of this.As an example, she cites a divorce in which a couple owned a $18 million house in Manhattan and an $8 million country house in the Hamptons, the chic getaway for the rich in New York state. Due to the pandemic, the value of both houses rose – and with it the stakes in the negotiations about dividing the loot. In another case, a client contested the prenuptial agreement she had agreed with her husband. It provided that her husband could keep any artwork he contributed in the event of a divorce, including his collection of iconic pop artist Andy Warhol.
Chemtobs’ client insisted that her ex-husband-to-be pay her compensation for the Warhols, because they were funded from the spousal pot. Chemtob managed to pull that concession out, albeit without a re-evaluation of the masterpieces. After browsing the internet, Chemtob goes back to sleep. She wakes up at 7am and starts meditating. “It helps me stay balanced in difficult times,” she says. “People are hysterical, crying or anxious. I have to be a rock in the surf for them.”
Her husband brings coffee to bed and then they take turns on the scale. “We keep track of our weight on a schedule and we’ve come to the point where we’ve decided, we’re fat.” They have started dieting again, Chemtob says.
Her secret to getting through a killer schedule: an old-fashioned paper day planner
Chemtob drives to her office on Madison Avenue and 54th Street where her assistant greets her with coffee and some fresh fruit before going over her daily schedule. Since the early days of her life as a lawyer, she has had a paper daily planner that she keeps up to date with Wite-Out, the same kind of stuff as Tipp-Ex but from a different brand. Nancy Chemtob with her assistant Sarah Marron. Photo: Nancy Chemtob
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One thing Chemtob can’t control: court appointments. An appointment with a judge at 9:30 a.m. can take half an hour or drag on all day, the lawyer explains. These kinds of sessions are now virtual. “We work just as hard, but one of the major drawbacks of the pandemic is that you can’t be there in person,” she says. Her morning may consist of meeting new clients, such as the middle-aged woman she remembers well. “She was a nice, sweet and a bit overweight person. The type that offers to get you coffee,” says Chemtob. The lady estimated that it was impossible for her to successfully fight her husband’s divorce petition. “Because, she said, she was a well-known dominatrix in her community.”She knew she couldn’t win.”
A wealthy Manhattanite also knocked on Chemtobs’s doors in all states. She had just discovered that her husband had spent the past five years splitting his time between their marital home and a secret apartment in Soho that he shared with his boyfriend. Nancy Chemtob in a Zoom session with fashion entrepreneur and former actress Mary-Kate Olsen and her ex-husband Olivier Sarkozy (bottom two, center). Photo: Victoria Bekiempis
Chemtob recalls having doubts early in her career about a man she had hired as a client. During their first meeting, he warned her never to walk into a room if there was plastic on the floor. “Where I grew up means someone is painting the ceiling,” Chemtob says. “But what he meant was that it made it easier to clean up the scene of a murder. He was a shady character. Every time I asked him to pay me, he said, ‘What are you going to do if I don’t pay?’”
She often eats between meetings
Around noon she asks her assistant what the soup of the day is from Italian restaurant Casa Lever and then orders for both of them. During dinner, she often prepares for the afternoon, when a settlement hearing can take place.
“I’m a lion tamer, but in this case it’s the lawyer on the other side that needs to be tamed,” she says. “People like to try me out to see if I get nervous and flinch, but I’m proud of my poker face. I have to keep customers happy. The best we can do for a client is get the case done as quickly as possible for as little money as possible.”
Money remains a point of contention even when couples have eight figures or more in their bank account. “I have a client who gets $150,000 a month in alimony and she calls me all the time saying, ‘I don’t have enough money.’”
Chemtob sympathizes with her. “Even if you have $500 million,” she continues, “the houses, the domestic workers, the art, the cars, the plane — the costs are piling up.”
The lawyer is proud of the times she has managed to prevent an escalation in a divorce. Take this client, a wealthy woman who wanted to divorce her husband and had signed a prenuptial agreement. At first, they argued over the watches, the cars, and the real estate she had bought for him. The marriage contract required him to return everything. “But during the settlement hearing, his soon-to-be ex said, ‘Anything you want, anything you think belongs to you, take it and enjoy it,’” Chemtob said. “They had tears in their eyes.For example, there was a couple who took turns living in the matrimonial apartment every seven days until it was sold. Every time a week came to an end, one tried to cut the other. For example, the man left a copy of ‘The art of war’ on the kitchen table, Chemtob recalls, after which his future ex-wife glued the kitchen cupboards with super glue. In another divorce, Chemtob had to intervene when her client learned that his husband was cheating on him and planned to take his new sweetheart on a business trip to Europe. “His husband went to a very important appointment as soon as he landed,” she says. “My customer took his clothes out of the already packed bags, cut all the crotches out of his trousers and shorts and packed them again. He was that upset.”
Sometimes she has to go to court for an urgent motion
Sometimes emergencies arise that derail Chemtobs’ carefully planned day and force her to file an emergency motion in court. In the United States, a motion is a request to a judge to make a certain decision before the trial begins.
This may be necessary, for example, if a woman, while shopping at luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman, hysterically calls Chemtob because her credit cards are blocked. Or when a mother discovers that her ex-husband-to-be is at the doctor’s to pick up ADHD medication for their child. “Once a client called me and said, ‘I don’t know what to do. A woman I don’t know is sleeping in the next room’”, says Chemtob. Her husband had taken a woman home in the middle of the night. “So we have filed an emergency petition with the judge to ensure exclusive use of the house.”
She was also involved in a controversial custody and divorce case that dragged on for nine months. One of the mothers, a British woman, was planning to take their adopted child abroad. Chemtob filed an emergency motion to prevent that.
At 6pm she’s ready to go home – no matter what
Chemtob is strict about ending her workday. Whatever unexpected meetings and motions have occurred, she leaves the office at 6 p.m.
She adjusted her schedule after a moment with her son when he was in third grade. “He gave me a calendar and asked, ‘When will you be home for dinner?’” she says. It prompted her to be home every night at 7pm to eat dinner with her family. She finished work that still had to be done when the boys were in bed. Her sons are now grown – Jack, Oliver and Spencer are 25, 23 and 20 years old respectively, so Chemtob and her husband often go out for dinner with friends.Nancy Chemtob with her sons at her stepson’s wedding. Photo: Nancy Chemtob
“My life is also the development of my business,” she says. “I have a client who was mohel at a bris (Jewish ritual circumcision) I attended and I was in the elevator with another while on vacation.”
Even when she and her husband are at home, Chemtob picks up work, like the time a client called her after she was attacked by her husband. Chemtob stayed on the phone with her until the police arrived. “They are still married and in the papers all the time,” she laughs. “You never know what happens behind closed doors. That’s the problem with my job: I really care and I have to be there 24/7.”
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