North Jersey attorney Vikki Ziegler helps couples divorce on new Bravo show
UNTYING THE KNOT 10 p.m. Wednesday, Bravo Vikki Ziegler's Bravo show hasn't even debuted yet, but the North Jersey divorce attorney and mediator has already had strangers accosting her with a certain line they've heard in promos. "I'm in the supermarket, and I hear: Are you the girl that says, 'You should zip your mouth, shake her hand and say we have a deal'?" says Ziegler, who grew up in Wayne, has a home in Little Falls, a law practice in Livingston and a Bravo reality series, "Untying the Knot," which debuts Wednesday night. "And I was in Atlantic City recently, and the dealer said, 'You look like the girl that said this line,' and she quoted it … I'm getting people repeating these lines. It's insane to me." That line could soon become her reality-TV catchphrase. Ziegler, 41 — who's slim and stylish, forceful and funny — is already a familiar TV presence, a sought-after legal expert who has appeared on dozens of network and cable shows. On her new Bravo show, she'll be doing what she does in real life — working with divorcing couples to divvy up their assets in a court-free setting that's as free of antagonism as possible. In other words, divorce mediation. She had personal reasons for specializing in this area of the law. "My parents got divorced when I was 12, and that's the reason that I got into this profession to begin. It was definitely by design," Ziegler says. "I saw the struggles my parents went through in a tough divorce — having only one child, having a custody dispute. ... So, when I got into my practice and I saw that I was litigating for years and years and years, I thought, sculpting a deal that both parties could live with was more beneficial for the client. And then I really started to love helping people sculpt deals. And that's where I started to turn my practice to mediation. I'm still litigating, but I'm always trying to look for a silver lining in that dark cloud." In each of the six episodes of "Untying the Knot" that Bravo has ordered, Ziegler will work with one couple. "We traveled all over the country to find couples that were actually getting divorced, so it was real life," says Ziegler, noting that the couples who appear on the show are from New Jersey, New York, California, Florida and Illinois. "Every case is different certainly, and there's certainly some shocks. And I think sometimes people aren't ready to get divorced, and you'll see that through some of the episodes." The first episode focuses on Jacques Theraube and Mira Tzur, who lived in North Jersey when they were together. (He is the founder of Fashion Strategies, an apparel sourcing and production services company in Englewood Cliffs.) The couple, married for six years, have amicably divided up almost all of their assets, but cannot agree on who should get: a Paris apartment, her enormous engagement ring and a Buddha statue that they purchased on a trip to Thailand. And so Ziegler calls in brothers Mark and Michael Millea, fine art appraisal experts who own Boonton-based Millea Bros. Ltd., which handled the prestigious 2009 Doris Duke Estate auction. "Once I've figured out what assets need to be divided I'll bring
in to take a look at them … and then they meet with me, to give me the rundown of what their values are," she says.
Ziegler then meets with the couple to relay the valuations, along with her recommendations about how things should be divided. "Mediation is obviously a process that they have to agree on," she says. "I'm not an arbitrator, I'm not a judge. I'm just giving recommendations, and they can take it or leave it. The suspense in every episode is, 'Are you gonna take it? Are you not? Do you still want to get divorced? Do you not?' " (Typically, mediated agreements are then vetted by a couple's respective attorneys.)
Ziegler, "happily married" for almost two years, has practiced what she preaches.
"It's my second marriage, so I've learned the ropes, what to do, what not to do," she says.
The daughter of South African parents, Ziegler was born in New York City and moved with her family to Wayne as a second-grader.
A graduate of the University of Rhode Island, where she studied political science, sociology and Spanish, and Quinnipiac College School of Law in Hamden, Conn. (in 1998), Ziegler was a law clerk for now retired Judge Michael K. Diamond — formerly the presiding judge in the Family Division of the Superior Court in Passaic County — whom she calls "a great mentor."
In Ziegler's experience, money — and not having discussed finances enough before marriage — is the most common factor in divorces. The author of "The Premarital Planner: A Complete Legal Guide to a Perfect Marriage," Ziegler, an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School, thinks all marrying couples should have a prenuptial agreement. At her Livingston law firm, Ziegler and Zemsky LLC, she typically draws up five prenups a month.
"What I tell young lawyers-to-be and couples is that you need to get emotionally and financially naked," says Ziegler, who has a Manhattan apartment as well as the Little Falls house. "You have to be 100 percent honest about every skeleton in the closet. And that's really the credit score, how do you save, how do you look at money, who wants to pay the bills, who wants to stay at home, what are your roles and expectations and talk about what you're coming into the marriage with."
In the case of divorcing couples, Ziegler tries to make them understand that by choosing mediation, "they're going to be saving a lot of money and a lot of emotional acrimony, quite frankly, because a divorce can go on for years."
While she had not heard the term "conscious uncoupling" before Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin used it in March in announcing their intention to divorce, Ziegler agrees with the concept. "It's divorcing with dignity — that I've certainly been saying forever," Ziegler says. "It's fantastic, and I think they should be role models 'cause they have children. … That concept has been embraced for probably a decade or more in New Jersey. People are mediating, trying to resolve their differences out of the courtroom."
Still, not everyone is emotionally ready to move on, she says. Mediation won't work if one or both parties is in a place of wanting to get revenge or inflict pain.
"Sometimes it takes time to get to the end of the road, so to speak, where both people are ready to settle," Ziegler says.
By VIRGINIA ROHAN
Email: VIRGINIA ROHAN
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