New York City is full of highly skilled lawyers brimming with accomplishment, but few have made it to the top of family law in quite the way Walter Bottger has. For starters, Bottger's career path is wonderfully eclectic. He journeyed from white-shoe corporate litigator to high-profile anti-corruption prosecutor to, for a time, a composer of Madison Avenue ad jingles. Only in his late 40s did he become a divorce-law litigator; his background made him a good one immediately. He met his law partner Barry Berkman at an Upper East Side dinner party, one of those age-old sources of good clients. Through it all Bottger has preserved a spirited, professorial manner and a not-stuffy, almost playful intellect, not far removed from the Harvard degree in English Lit he earned in the early 60s. He peppers his speech with apt references to Dickens and Samuel Johnson. As a competitive litigator Bottger today may be viewed as the bad cop of the Berkman Bottger team, since Berkman, a pioneer of collaborative law (see his Ten Leaders profile), promotes and employs alternative methods. But that would oversimplify things: Bottger, as much as his partners, embraces the new spectrum of services, traditional and innovative, that have made the Berkman Bottger firm a unique and full-service force among Manhattan divorce-law boutiques. Bottger rails against the sclerotic inefficiency of the courts, and, while not a zealot, he detests abuses of power and political corruption, which he saw plenty of as a young anti-corruption prosecutor. Bottger has roots in the Syracuse region: His Danish-born great-grandfather was a teen-age volunteer in an upstate New York regiment of the Union Army; his father ("he always wanted me to be a lawyer") was a senior executive partner of Coopers & Lybrand. Bottger himself served in the Marines, but was discharged after injuring his knee - on a dance floor. "Took a while to live that down." At Harvard he considered going to grad school and becoming a teacher, but once he settled in Manhattan he want straight to law school. The old line firm Shearman & Sterling recruited Bottger for its litigation department. There were moments of reward - a fast-track antitrust case between nuclear-industry utilities that allowed only four months of discovery was especially memorable - but overall Bottger grew tired of the grinding, endless processes of corporate litigation, particularly in securities-law disputes. "Cases went on forever. And I just wasn't interested in whether we could get Citibank out of paying some bond interest on a technicality. I found it deadly."
In the 70s he joined a special state commission, appointed by the Attorney General's office and led by Maurice Nadjari, investigating police and political corruption in New York State. Armed with warrants and wiretaps, that Serpico-era commission did its job only too well: "I came to work every Monday and reviewed transcripts of wiretaps - one was more incredible than the next." The number of indictments handed down by the commission "made us pretty unpopular," he says. When the commission began training its sights on Republicans and Democrats alike, it was shut down by the Governor. "Suffice to say we had no friends." Approaching 40, Bottger pulled one of those career moves many in-the-trenches lawyers secretly admire: He started, with a Princeton music teacher friend who was equally restless, a business that developed and sold jingles to major ad agencies. Over five years Bottger cranked out many jingles, including a well known "Dag-Dag-D'Agostino's" spot. "We thought it was so bad we didn't want the residuals," he says. Too bad for Bottger: The Dag jingle still pounds New York City airwaves today. With Madison Avenue moving away from old-time jingles, Bottger returned to a Manhattan corporate law practice where "I made a decent living, but I didn't love it." Then in 1991 as Barry Berkman was taking his first steps in Collaborative Law, Berkman at a social gathering offhandedly asked Bottger if he'd like to take on a contentious custody case. Bottger took it. "First thing I noticed about divorce law was that a lot of bad legal advice was being handed out." Bottger adds, "I ran into a fair amount of crummy lawyering." In that respect Bottger's entry into divorce law helped raise the professional bar, at a time when divorce law was growing more complex. Bottger too had been assisting in the divorce cases of two friends, and he himself had divorced. "I had time to work seven days a week, and I did."
By 1994 the Berkman Bottger firm had been launched. Bottger took quickly to the personal advocacy of divorce law - "Unlike securities law or criminal defense law it's not all driven by legal technicalities - the family law courts are focused on fair outcomes. On a human level that worked for me." Bottger has also built a record in appellate cases, including arguing several matters before the State's highest court. The Berkman Bottger firm has grown steadily; in 2003 it moved to its current Fifth Avenue offices.
Bottger today is married to Margaret Holben Ellis, a professor at NYU's Institute of Fine Arts, head of the conservation at Morgan Library - and one of the world's authorities on the paper of drawings and ancient documents. They enjoy seeing friends, dinners out, and the opera.