Melinda Gates’ divorce lawyer told us how he handles bitter splits between billionaire clients

robert stephan cohen
Cohen sat down with Insider for an interview from his midtown Manhattan office on May 25, 2021.

  • Robert Stephan Cohen has made a name for himself representing celebrities and billionaires.
  • Now the lawyer is representing Melinda Gates, whose split from Bill Gates will likely be one of history’s largest divorce settlements.
  • Cohen told Insider about the complexities of celebrity divorces and how America’s elite divide their astronomical wealth.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When a celebrity or a billionaire sits down for the first time with Manhattan’s most infamous divorce attorney, the conversation gets deep. Quickly.

Robert Stephan Cohen always asks the potential new client about sex – namely, whether they’re still having it – as well as how they made their money and why their marriage is failing. He’s brutally honest about his thoughts, and it’s not unusual for the conversation to end with Cohen talking the person out of a divorce entirely.

“I find that if people are still able to be happily married and be intimate, I think there’s something to save,” Cohen said.

Over his 58-year career, Cohen has been called a “killer,” a “Doberman,” and “your worst nightmare.” He has represented a parade of celebrities, multi-millionaires, and billionaires – from the actors Uma Thurman and James Gandolfini, to both of Donald Trump’s ex-wives, to former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Yet in person, Cohen is warm and thoughtful. In a recent interview with Insider from his offices on the 32nd floor of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper, the 82-year-old attorney frequently cracked jokes and asked questions of his own.

It’s a high-stakes moment for Cohen: He’s representing Melinda Gates in her split from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Their divorce settlement could very well become the largest in history.

bill and melinda gates
Bill and Melinda Gates said in court filings they “no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.”

Bill Gates is currently the fourth-richest person in the world and worth an estimated $126 billion, according to Forbes. It’s unclear whether the couple has a prenuptial agreement – Cohen declined to comment on the Gates’ divorce specifically – but the divorce petition asked that their assets be divided in accordance with a separation contract, the details of which remain a mystery.

A frenzy of rumors and gossip, including reports that Bill Gates had affairs with other Microsoft employees and ties to the accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, followed the billionaire power couple’s announcement in court filings last month that their 27-year marriage was “irretrievably broken.”

Cohen spoke with Insider broadly about the complexities of a billionaire’s divorce, and how America’s elite divide their astronomical wealth when their marriages crumble.

“The wealth that exists in the United States is staggering. Even to me,” Cohen said. “Remember: For the person who doesn’t have the money, it’s likely to be the largest business deal that they’ll ever do in their life.”

Code names and 2 a.m. phone calls

Cohen said each of his cases involving a high-net-worth client starts off the same way: with an initial meeting.

Many of the issues at stake for a billionaire or movie star are the same ones facing the average American couple – infidelity, conflict, and money troubles. Cohen said he’ll spend about 90 minutes in each intake meeting delving into “the psychology of how to deal with the divorce.”

Cohen has to ask his wealthy clients whether there are children involved, whether custody disputes will arise, how the client made their money, when they started to make their money, and why their marriage broke down.

“Divorce lawyers are like doctors in a weird way,” the comedian Chris Rock told Insider. Cohen represented Rock in 2016, during his highly-publicized divorce from his wife of 19 years.

“They need to have a good bedside manner. And Bob has a very good, soothing manner. Gets you through, lets you see the big picture,” Rock said. “He explains the realities of the situation.”

chris rock
Chris Rock told Insider that Cohen helped him through a “very tough time in my life.”

When a client decides to retain him, Cohen said that’s when he and his team dig in for the long haul. They start pulling in financial statements and reviewing the details of their client’s assets. He’s cultivated a bevy of experts in securities, real estate, and banking to help with his biggest cases over the years. His firm, Cohen Clair Lans Greifer Thorpe & Rottenstreich LLP, has three lawyers on staff who are also certified public accountants and often help his team with complex tax or securities laws.

“In the olden days, we dealt with spreadsheets and accountants and it took months sometimes to put together a financial statement for a wealthy client,” he said. Today, it can be as simple as making a single phone call or having an elite client “press a button” and deliver him a relatively accurate financial statement.

With celebrities like Rock, Cohen has to strategize around the client’s privacy protections.

“We have more code names for our clients in this firm than probably a lot of other firms who do these things, because we have to generally hide and keep secret the fact that we’re representing somebody before it becomes public,” he said.

Cohen said as soon as he receives a call from a celebrity, he comes up with a code word – a previous client was “watermelon” – to be used only by him and the other lawyers working on the case. The rest of his firm, and even his wife, usually won’t know what the code word stands for.

The attorney-client relationship is also remarkably close, Cohen said, no matter how famous the client is, or how many managers or assistants try to intervene. All clients get his personal cellphone number, with the caveat that they use it responsibly.

Cohen said a celebrity client once phoned him in the middle of the night, exclaiming, “Bob, I need to talk to you.”

When Cohen noted that it was 2 a.m., she responded, “Well, it’s only 11 o’clock in LA.”

‘He’s not a shark’

Celebrity divorce attorneys are a small and exclusive bunch. Many of Cohen’s toughest adversaries are also his friends – and despite frequently facing off with him in the courtroom, they sing his praises outside of it.

To succeed in divorce cases where millions of dollars are at stake, attorneys like Cohen have to know so much more than alimony laws, according to David Saxe, a retired New York Supreme Court justice.

“To be a good lawyer in that context, you have to know a lot more than what the divorce law says,” Saxe told Insider. “You have to understand corporate law, you have to understand estate law, you have to understand tax law, partnership law, commercial law.”

“You have to be a thoroughly well-rounded business lawyer to represent those clients properly in a divorce, and that’s what Bob Cohen does,” he continued. “That’s his specialty.”

Saxe, who as a justice frequently oversaw divorces where Cohen represented one of the parties, said Cohen was “a gentleman to his adversaries” despite his formidable reputation. He never had to admonish Cohen in court, nor did he ever catch Cohen trying to take advantage of another lawyer.

“They used to call matrimonial lawyers ‘sharks,'” Saxe said. “He’s not a shark. He always kept on the high road, and I think that won him the plaudits of the other judges … as well as his colleagues.”

Rock said Cohen was a calm, bracing presence during a miserable period in his life. The comedian has since been candid over his faults and infidelities during his marriage, and his famously bitter divorce involved rumored disputes over child custody.

“I had some issues,” Rock acknowledged. “It’s like, when you’re a guy, some people don’t even think you want to see your kids. He was very understanding about all of that.”

Rock said one piece of wisdom from Cohen helped him through the worst of a two-year legal battle: The harshest disagreements make up only a tiny percentage of what’s at stake in a divorce.

“Put it this way. People get divorced. People fight. Things take sometimes years. At the end of the day, you’re only talking 4%, one way or the other,” Rock said. “[Cohen] said that to me. I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ And that put it in perspective.”

“No one – not in America, anyway – gets killed in a divorce. You know what I mean?” Rock continued. “There’s no lawyer that ever got somebody so much more than they were supposed to get, or so much less. It just doesn’t exist in this country.”

From Coney Island to midtown Manhattan

Cohen was raised in Coney Island, Brooklyn, the son of a taxi driver father and a homemaker mother.

Initially keen on dentistry at Alfred University in western New York, Cohen took a course on constitutional law in his junior year, became hooked, and decided to become a lawyer instead.

Cohen learned about ambition and wealth relatively early in his career, under the wing of Roy Cohn, the notoriously ruthless prosecutor and right-hand man of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

“I will say that my politics were quite different than his,” Cohen said. “But he was regarded as a brilliant lawyer. Other issues surround him, but he was nevertheless a brilliant lawyer.”

Beyond his legal prowess, Cohn taught Cohen about the finer things in life, taking him on rides in private airplanes and showing him office suites on Park Avenue.

“I got to see things that I never saw, and I got a taste for it,” Cohen said. “Ambition is very much part of not only a successful lawyer, but being successful at anything you want to do. You’ve got to want to achieve the highest level that you can.”

lipstick building
Cohen’s sprawling matrimonial law firm is housed in the Lipstick Building in midtown Manhattan.

Though Cohen started out as a corporate lawyer, his name became inextricably linked with divorce law when he represented the billionaire private equity giant Henry Kravis in a post-matrimonial case in the 1990s.

“It was not a divorce case, but it sort of smelled a little like a divorce case,” Cohen said. “My name was in the newspaper attached to this lawsuit that I had won; we got the case dismissed and everybody started calling me. They thought I was some matrimonial lawyer.”

He took on a few matrimonial cases, then “got good and kept getting better,” he said. Eventually, word-of-mouth recommendations among the Hollywood and Wall Street elite led him to develop a lucrative matrimonial boutique firm and a renowned teaching career. His “Anatomy of a Divorce” class at the University of Pennsylvania Law School has been popular among students for years, according to Eleanor Barrett, the school’s associate dean.

The types of divorces that Cohen specializes in are known as “business divorces,” Saxe said. They involve absurdly wealthy clients – often hedge fund managers, corporate moguls, or real estate developers – who come with sprawling assets in all manner of hiding places.

Whether a divorce lawyer is representing the moneyed or less-moneyed spouse, they have to be savvy enough to understand how to approach that level of wealth, Saxe said.

“The divorce comes right in the middle of this financial empire, and Bob would have to navigate that,” he said.

As for representing Melinda Gates? Saxe said he thinks Cohen is well-suited to getting the best deal possible for the woman who could become the second-richest in the world.

“Those people could probably retain any lawyer in the world,” Saxe said. “They want somebody who is highly professional, that is discreet … and who will listen carefully and give good advice. And he can do all of those things.”

Fewer Americans are getting divorced – and fewer are getting married

The twilight years of Cohen’s career have arrived as both marriage and divorce rates plummet in the United States.

Census data shows divorce rates have steeply decreased in the last decade. At the same time, experts say younger generations are marrying later in life (or, increasingly, not at all), and waiting until after they reach major milestones like graduating, establishing their careers, or buying homes.

Cohen said he was aware of the trends, but isn’t losing sleep over it.

“I’m not worrying about it, nor does anybody in my firm,” he said. “Look, marriage is an institution and it’s never going to go away. There’s a constitutional right in our country to be married. There are Supreme Court of the United States cases dealing with the right to marriage. I have a bunch of kids; all of them are married.”

robert stephan cohen

Cohen said his team handles roughly 50 prenups per year, as well as a number of postnuptial agreements. He also confirmed that the so-called gray divorce trend the Gates’ divorce has highlighted is one he sees in his practice, so there’s plenty of business for him.

Cohen’s clients, much like himself, are working longer and living longer. In some cases, they’re divorcing later.

“When you were 60 in the olden days, you stopped working, you were retired, you were on a pension. Maybe if you were lucky, you got a small place in a warm climate,” he said. “It’s way different now – at 60, you’re vital, you’re working, and your career is ahead of you, not behind you.”

Even when a divorce case he’s working on turns nasty, Cohen said he sleeps very well at night.

“There’s the bad part, the destruction of a marriage. But the other side of this is we start people out and we give them a new life,” he said. “It sort of makes what I do a lot nicer sometimes – when I smile and think about the gift that we give to people.”

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