More than 1,000 lawyers call themselves divorce practitioners in Southern California today, and almost all are competitive and accomplished in some way. But none can lay claim to a professional record of accomplishment and leadership to match that of Sorrell Trope. Trope is perhaps the preeminent divorce lawyer of Southern California, certainly that of the Los Angeles divorce bar. He has practiced law 60 years now, and, now in his early 80s, he is quite nearly an institution of the California legal profession. Today he leads a firm of 28 lawyers.
Trope and Trope is among the three largest family law firms in the nation; it is by far the largest in California. That he continues to practice – and practice effectively – is a testament to a disciplined personality and strong spirit. In a profession known to wear down lesser souls, Trope remains a steadfast practitioner, a powerful presence in a courtroom, and – remarkably – still revered by rivals and peers alike. His life story is well documented now – profiles pop up regularly, all recalling Trope’s independent climb to the top of divorce law.
He moved one month after his 13th birthday from upstate New York with his family to Los Angeles. Growing up it was “Saturday afternoons at the movies” (in fact, a steady diet of Edward Arnold lawyer films) that inspired him to pursue the law. “I saw then that lawyers were respected members of society.” In his way, Trope owns an LA pedigree like none other: John Burroughs Junior High School in Los Angeles (Web site motto: “To Win Honorably, To Lose Gracefully, and Cooperate Generously”), Los Angeles High School, USC and USC Law. He excelled through law school, but on passing the bar, he didn’t bother interviewing with the city’s major firms, which at the time never considered hiring a promising young lawyer – who was Jewish. “Times have certainly changed,” he says. In the early 1950s, modern divorce laws were two decades away, and lawyers who handled marital splits were generalists. “That’s how you made a living, doing everything.”
He hung out his first shingle on North La Cienega, and remained there for a few years, taking on any type of case that came his way, including divorce, criminal and personal injury cases “because those were the only noteworthy cases a young lawyer could get.” By the time Kennedy had taken office, Trope was Southern California’s paramount divorce lawyer, representing the likes of Cary Grant and Rod Steiger, among others. Years later Nicole Kidman retained Trope in her split from Tom Cruise.
Trope, like pioneers in any profession, had seen it all coming: He anticipated the explosion and increasing specialization of the field, taught and wrote widely, and made sure one high-quality client led to another. No one’s ever confused Trope with a wallflower of puny ego; rivals tell of even judges withering under Trope’s verbal volleys. In a recent case, opposing counsel requested his client retain a Personal Trainer as part of a settlement, to which Trope responded: “You know what a personal trainer is? Nothing but a counter! One, two, three…” Indeed, Trope remains tough and unwavering, to the benefit of clients, many of whom are now the offspring of clients of another age. Trope, for his part, says he plans to continue practicing 10 more years. In this age of immediacy, of honors instantly conferred, of itches instantly scratched, Sorrell Trope represents a constancy rare in his field today. He’s generally unimpressed by celebrity, and like the best lawyers cares only about the client, the facts and the law. And for all the changes in society, and in the divorce process, “really the only difference today is more zeroes on the financial statements. Human behavior, well, it hasn’t changed much.”
Other members of Ten Leaders mentored at Trope’s firm. His son, who once practiced with Trope, has since gone out on his own. He has three daughters; one teaches at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications, another is the owner of a jewelry boutique in Brentwood, and the third is a commercial photographer. Sorrell Trope and his wife live in Brentwood, not far from the Getty Museum.