In the bitter days after her lawyer husband walked out on four years of marriage, Theresa Stitt remembered what to do: hire Betty Thompson.
"David said he thought Betty Thompson was the best divorce lawyer in Northern Virginia," recalls Stitt, who paid Thompson $1,300 to handle the uncontested split. "It was a very expensive divorce but I was concerned about keeping the house, which I did." Another concern: "If I hadn't gotten Betty, David might have hired her."
So many people want to hire Betty Ann Thompson, there is nearly a two-month wait just to get an appointment. A model-slim woman whose blonde bubble hairdo and coral pink lipstick make her a cross between Doris Day and a Palm Beach matron, Thompson wins praise even from her competitors.
"The great thing about Betty is that she thinks like a man but she looks like a lady," says veteran Washington divorce attorney Mark Sandground, who also practices in Virginia. "She's a lawyer's lawyer, the queen of divorce court and she's got the judges eating out of her hand."
He efforts make her a charter member of a tiny and exclusive legal fraternity. She is one of an estimated 10 Washington area "superlawyers" who earn six-figure incomes (friends say she grosses at least $300,000 a year) practicing family law, one of the most emotionaly messy and least pretigious areas of legal work.
For her part, Thompson, 57, and single, strongly disapproves of the moral climate she sends clients, seeking her counsel. "Marriages today are not for keeps -- everything's throwaway," she says. "If you don't like your spouse, you get another.
Still while some 3,000 area lawyers handled divorces, few specialize in such cases. The field traditionally has been regarded by lawyers who earn their living charging exorbiant fees and feeding on their client's marital miseries.
"Luckily, I think that image is changing," says Donald C. Schiller, a promient Chicago attorney and chairman of the American Bar Association committee on divorce law.
"For one thing divorce is no longer just Mom and Dad dividing up the house and kids. In the last five years, divorce law has really become much more complicated. Lawyers have got to know a lot about tax law, which used to concern only rich people. Divoce laywers also have to be better trial lawyers because people are asserting their rights and going to court more often."
Americans are also divorcing more often, according to figures compiled by the Department of Health and Human Services. Last year alone an estimated 2.4 million people were divorced and if current trends continue, one out of two marriages is expected to fail.
That trend is particularly evident in this area, divorce specialists say. "Washington has its own built-in pressures: there's power-mania, ego-mania and media-mania," says Divorce lawyer Glenn Lewis, who practices in the District and Virignia. "Many people here practically live out of Union Station or National Airport.
"There are also a lot of situations where a couple has been married 20 years they move to Washington and suddenly the guy is surrouned by cute little groupies and discovers that he has a secretary who wiggles. Getting a divorce, which used to be a scar, has become a status symbol."
All of which means more money for lawyers like Thomspon, one of the area's busiest and more expensive in the divorce field. Close friends say Thompson handles an extraordinary volume of cases: about 500 last year. From a penthouse suite of offices in Arlington's Rosalyn section, Thompson's directs an all-female staff of seven, including two associate lawyers, all of whom call her "Miss Thompson."
"I'm a 'bomber,'" says lawyer Sandground, discussing Thompson's success. "I'll do anything to win for a client. I figure if (my opponents) get up off the ground after I finish with them I haven't done my job. Betty's not a bomber, she's got more integrity."
Thomspon, soon to become president of the 2,400-member Virginia Trial Laywers Association, the first woman to preside over a statewide bar group in Virignia, considers Sandground's appraisal a compliment.
"You have to never forget that you are feminine and a lady," she says, "but at the same time when you're in your role as a lawyer, it has nothing to do with sex."
Neither does Thompson's hourly fee which, at $125, with a minimum retainer of $1,000, tops that of most of her male counterparts. Thompson is loath to discuss her income but other specialists say that fees of $25,000 in contested custody or big money divorce cases are not uncommon.
Detractors, among them some of Thompson's former clients and colleagues, say that although she is an extremely skilled, experienced and hard-working lawyer, her consuming passion is making money.
"She has a strictly monetary approach to the practice of law," says one lawyer who knows her well and requests anonymity. "She couldn't give a damn about the effects of protracted litigation on children. She's certainly not emotionally involved in her cases."
Thompson, who concedes she loves "the good life" -- the weekends in Mexico, the designer clothes, the major league jewelry -- rejects the criticism. "In a lot of cases you're helping people, givng them a sense of worth. There's nothing sleazy about helping someone recognize their life," she says, absently fingering a gold and diamond brooch pinned to the lapel of her impeccably-tailored white wool suit.
A self-described perfectionist who typically works at least a 70-hour week, Thompson doesn't know how many cases she's won, but says she has a very good record, a claim substantiated by her opponents. Her clients are predominantly men, says Thompson, who practices exclusively in Virginia and estimates she settles 75 percent of her cases before going to trial.
Not surprisingly, Thompson's reputation extends beyond Washington. When Arthur M. (Smiley) Ratiff, a tobacco-chewing multimillionaire Southwest Virginia coal producer, was sued for $10 million in alimony by his wife of 33 years, he hired Thompson.
The case was settled recently when Ratliff's wife, from whom he had been legally seperated for 24 years, agreed shortly before trial to his final offer of $500,000. Thompson won't say how much Ratliff paid her, but an attorney close to the case says her fee exceeded $100,000.
Thompson believes her unmarried status enables her to be "completely objective" about the wrecked marriages with which she deals. The one man she might have married died in an accident 13 years ago and she never found a man who would "add a dimension to my life and not just be a roommate."
"I think marriage -- if it's good -- is probably the best one-to-one relationship ever invented and if it's not, it's probably the worst," says Thompson, the second of five daughters of an Arlington builder and the only one to pursue a professional career.
"When you marry somebody you mortgage yourself for life. It's not like buying a car, where you have to fill out all sorts of forms. Marriage is a totally unwritten contract based solely on 'I love you' and there are no warranties," she says. Thompson favors premarital contacts and drafts them for clients. "That's the big myth about marriage; people think they've bought a lifetime of security."
Criticizing the "lack of any moral standards today," Thompson deplores the "gross language" in contemporary fiction and movies. At the same time, she keeps a copy of the "Kama Sutra," the ancient Easter manual on love and lovemakikng, on her office bookshelf. "You have to be ready for anything," she says, laughing.
Several Northern Virginia judges say that view is reflected in her courtroom performance and helps account for her success.
"Betty is very effective and never comes to court unprepared," says Alexandria Circuit Court Judge Albert Grenadier, who has known Thompson for 30 years. "That's the secret of being a good lawyer, because most cases are won or lost in preparation, not on the floor of a courtroom."
Some lawyers suggest Thompson also owes her success to the fact that she knows all the circuit court judges in the Virginia suburbs. "A lot of my friends are judges," says Thompson, who is fond of throwing lavish parties attended by a number of Northern Virginia judges who rule ono divorce and custody cases.
She has known many of them since shortly after her graduation from George Washington University Law School. Likewise, she is acquainted with several of the state's political leaders, some of whom she forged friendships with more than 20 years ago, when she ran unsuccessfully for the General Assembly ona die-hard segregationist platform.
In 1957, when Arlington was first struggling with school desegrergation, Thompson won the Democratic Party nomination by blasting integration as "a cancerous growth on our body politic" and comparing court-ordered desegregation to the excesses of "international Communism" and Nazi Germany.
"I don't think you hold to a view you had 20 years ago ," she says now. "I have no prejudices against black people and I consider myself very open-minded. But I think that whether you're black or white, you should have equal rights but you have to earn them."
Times change, too, she says, in her line of work.
"You have to continually live in the present tense because nothing in life is permanent but change," she says. "Things have really changed in the last 10 years. I have clients who today openly discuss their extramarital relationships, women who come and ask if their boyfriend can stay for the weekend if the kids aren't there.
"Ten years ago, these same people would have been utterly embarrassed to tell me those things."