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When a Rolex just won't do

The airport restaurant spun like some sky-high rotisserie. Inside, the pressure was palpable. Around a table for three was a burly Detroit lawyer, his beautiful client and a slender, regal-looking man from Tampa.

The Detroit lawyer, Jim Goss, laid it out. Carol Ann May's divorce trial in Naples was barely three months away. That very day, during the deposition of her husband, Ed May, the car parts king, they had decided the divorce lawyer they had hired wasn't up to the job.

The marital estate was worth millions. So was Mayco Plastics, the company that supplied plastic parts for Chrysler's biggest success story _ the minivan.

But the husband was low-balling the settlement offers. After almost 29 years of marriage and two children, Carol Ann May deserved more than the paltry $4-million or $5-million he was offering.

To get more, they needed the best divorce lawyer they could find.

That was why they had come to Stephen Sessums. Then 58, he was at the top of his profession. A national reputation. A list of big-name and big-dollar clients. And a seat on the exclusive Matrimonial Network, an elite group of the nation's top-earning divorce lawyers.

They call themselves "The Dirty 30."

And now here they were, at CK's Restaurant at Tampa International. Goss looked across the table at Stephen Sessums. We need you, Goss told him.

Goss was right. By February of the next year, a Naples judge awarded Carol May almost $20-million in tax-free bonds and cash.

Sessums had won and won big. And Carol May had paid big _ $230,000 to Sessums' firm in hours and costs. Another $300,000 to an accountant. Plus fees to Goss and a co-counsel in Naples.

Then Sessums came to Naples to discuss his final fee. Carol May assumed he wanted a small bonus. Sessums had a larger number in mind.

That number was $1-million.

"I was thinking of a Rolex," Carol May would say, "and he wanted the factory."

Carol May wouldn't pay it, not one penny of it. Stephen Sessums sued her for it.

This week, the renowned divorce lawyer who is so comfortable in the courtroom finds himself in the uncomfortable position of plaintiff. The case has come to trial.

Stephen Sessums wants his million dollars.

In Tampa, the Sessums name is synonymous with legal and personal success. Stephen finished first in his law school class at the University of Florida. Terrell Sessums, Stephen's brother and one-time law partner, won a seat in the Florida Legislature and ended up speaker of the Florida House.

While Terrell went to Tallahassee, Stephen loved lawyering. He did personal injury, tax and matrimonial law. By the mid-1970s, he focused exclusively on divorce cases.

By 1985, he was a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. In 1987, the National Law Journal listed him as one of America's top divorce lawyers.

Stephen's voice has just a hint of the South in the vowels. His elegant, well-groomed exterior masks the heart of a fighter. He likes playing hardball.

The May case was big league hardball. Big stakes. Tough issues _ May's husband claimed his business and other investments weren't marital assets. He claimed his wife had committed adultery.

The trial was only months away. Although Goss had told him the case was 80 percent prepared, Sessums knew better.

"Nobody ever brings you a case in good shape," Sessums testified Monday.

But it was his kind of case.

If he took it, he told the wife and her lawyer that night, he would want $300 an hour for his time _ $50 above his regular hourly rate. And he would want Carol May to sign a contract saying the final bill would be determined "at the conclusion of the case."

May and Goss agreed. Two weeks later, Goss looked over Sessums' contract. Carol May signed it.

Stephen Sessums has never been a witness in a legal case. For his first appearance in that role, he wore an olive summer suit. Although the jewelry in her divorce case was worth more than a million dollars, Carol Ann May left those jewels at home. She wore simple gold earrings.

Florida Bar rules prohibit lawyers in divorce cases from making their fees contingent on how much they win for their client.

David Townsend, Sessums' lawyer, told Judge Gasper Ficarrotta on Monday that the extraordinary dollar figure was a factor in the $1-million bill, but not the only factor. Sessums had to pass off his other cases, hire extra help and work nights and weekends preparing for the divorce case.

George Vega, May's attorney, countered that the settlement wasn't that extraordinary. "The case didn't have tremendous results," he said. "It's just that the zeros were bigger."

During cross-examination Monday, Sessums conceded he didn't know of any $1-million fees in other divorce cases.

But Townsend said May hired a top-notch lawyer and the fee reflects that.

"There is a subliminal message that if you are a lawyer ($1-million) is just too much money," Townsend said.

"We have achievers in all aspects of our society who rise to the top of their profession. Lawyers are no exception."

Indeed. As the trial continues today, Sessums' attorney will call witnesses who will describe his client as a Michael Jordan of divorce lawyers.

And May's lawyer will try to convince the judge that Sessums deserves the Rolex . . . but not the factory.