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Special Report: Uncuffed Success

“Does this camera angle make me look bald?” Darren Kavinoky once tweeted to his followers. In fact, Kavinoky is a cue ball but wears many hats. He is founder of Kavinoky Law Firm, a 16-attorney firm in Encino specializing in criminal defense of drunk driving cases. He also hosts “Deadly Sins,” a true crime TV show, and “Breaking Point,” an intervention show that debuted Jan. 15. And he serves as the chief marketer for his firm, starring in a new $2 million media campaign to promote his 1-800-No-Cuffs brand of DUI defense on TV, radio and online. The ads and two shows, both on the Investigation Discovery cable channel, give him instant familiarity to TV audiences as well as the celebrity factor. A recovering addict himself, Kavinoky also appears as a keynote speaker at addiction and recovery events, and he is certified to perform interventions with addicts and their families. He met with the Business Journal at his office in Encino to talk about the complications of running a prosperous law firm, his adventures in the TV business and how his recovery from the depths of addiction drives everything in both his personal and professional life. Title: Founder Company: Kavinoky Law Firm, Encino Born: Santa Monica, 1966 Education: Attended San Diego State but was academically disqualified (“flunked out”); J.D., San Fernando Valley College of Law Career Turning Point: Successful defense of a deputy sheriff falsely accused of rape. Most Influential People: John Floyd and Tom Skeren, partners at Floyd Sheren & Kelly in Thousand Oaks; Larry Boyle, former prosecutor and colleague. Personal: Lives with wife Alona and daughter Hailey, 12, in Encino. Three dogs. Hobbies: High-intensity workouts, Iron Man competitions and other endurance events. Question: Why did you launch the No Cuffs campaign? Answer: In criminal law, the critical feature is the branding. It’s the “sticky” phone number of 1-800-No-Cuffs. No one thinks about a criminal lawyer until the moment they need one. It was essential to have a number to promote that if you are driving around, you may not pay attention to the radio ad, but if the phone number is burned into your brain, hopefully it will be top-of-mind when you or someone you know needs it. That has turned out to be the most effective marketing we have done. How did you get into TV in the first place? When Mel Gibson got arrested for DUI, “Entertainment Tonight” was looking for someone to give what I call expert blah-blah. That seemingly random event changed my life. What happened? “Entertainment Tonight” called me. Intuitively, I knew the story was going to last more than one night. And I just happened to be near my house when they called. So I swung in and grabbed different suits, ties and glasses. At the studio, I walked in with my wardrobe. They were taken aback. I said, “Look, the story is going to be with us for a long time. Why don’t we shoot different sound bites with me in different suits, and then you can release them during the week without me coming back?” They were stunned. Nobody in the history of television had thought about their needs. How did you get your own show? I did more with “Entertainment Tonight” and even became a field correspondent. They started flying me around the country to cover stories like Balloon Boy, Tiger Woods and his infidelities, the divorce of Jon and Kate Gosselin from the reality show “Kate Plus 8,” and the John Edwards scandal. That caused a cascade of events that led to my having my own show. Why did you name it “Deadly Sins”? It all goes back to Tiger Woods. I was bobbing on the nose of a boat off the coast of Tiger Woods’ home in Florida, and I had a moment where I realized it was always one of the seven deadly sins – mostly lust, greed and envy – that drove the stories I covered. My notion was to write a celebrity misbehavior book around the seven deadly sins. I ran into someone at CNN who said I should talk to their agent. She (the agent) said it would be a cool book, but a better TV show. She had just done a deal with Discovery, so she suggested we take a lunch with them. They took my celebrity idea and it went through the Hollywood machine and came out a true crime format. The show is about extreme misbehavior. It always ends with a body bag. How about “Breaking Point”? It was tailored for me. It may seem crazy, especially for entrepreneurs, that on the one hand I’m hard at work trying to make a difference in people’s lives and thus put myself out of business as a criminal defense lawyer. But it’s really aligned with my personal mission. Doesn’t TV take time away from billable hours? It does. How do you manage it? The way I leverage my time to take on other projects is to treat my business like a business. Many attorneys become highly paid wage slaves to their own business, where they bear all the risk of failure. By treating my business like a business, and not just being a traditional sole proprietor, I can wear several hats. So how do you run your company? I see what we do as four activities. Marketing makes the phone ring. Sales converts the ringing phone into paying clients. The legal services must be excellent to fulfill the brand promise. And there is operational infrastructure that allows the previous three activities to exist. If something doesn’t hit on one of those four activities, it’s a shiny object to be avoided at all costs. A lot of attorneys and business owners never scale their business beyond them doing everything. For me, that’s a bad place to be. Why DUI? Not to knock people who do wills and trusts, but to me criminal defense lawyers are the rock stars of the industry. I always enjoyed performing – in high school theater, that sort of thing – and I thought I might want to go into acting. For me, law was a safer route to accomplish that. You have a captive audience of 12 people who couldn’t get out of jury duty. In law school, I became interested in criminal law. It was the days of the O.J. Simpson case and criminal law was just the most fascinating. How did your childhood influence your career choice? I was a kid who felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I was fat, moved around a lot. My parents divorced when I was young, and my mom remarried several times. I always felt I was on the outside looking in. What changed that? I had a pivotal moment when I was 13 years old, living on the outskirts of an affluent area in Richmond, Va. We were way on the outskirts – a crappy one-bedroom apartment – but I was going to school with kids who were very well put together. I was at this party and all the cool kids were there. I was in my husky-sized Toughskins jeans from Sears, and they were in their Topsiders. Some of the cool kids were passing around a joint. One passed it my way. How did you react? If you felt about yourself the way I felt about myself, there was no Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” moment. Here was my golden ticket to be with the cool kids. I took a hit off that joint and in a moment, everything changed. I felt like I could hang out with the cool guys, laugh and tell jokes. I remember, in my 13-year-old brain, thinking, “I want to feel like this every day for the rest of my life.” Did you become an addict? For almost two decades, if it was a day of the week that ended in “y” – which I think is every single day – I was either loaded or in hot pursuit of getting loaded. It took me to some dark places. The ’90s was not a good decade for me. I was skidding across the bottom. What about your career? Amazingly, I made it through law school during this time. And then got work, but things got worse when I started practicing law. I got into criminal defense because I was a criminal. Being with that element brought out the worst. I lost everything. Like what? The wife threw me out. I eroded my practice to the point that I was moving furniture at a store in West Hollywood – basically homeless. I was never disciplined by the bar or anything, but I couldn’t function as a lawyer. Five trips to rehab. Hospitals and overdoses and car wrecks. I was really suffering. What pulled you out of it? I had another pivotal moment. The only reason my wife didn’t divorce me was that her family was dealing with another crisis – she was too busy to file the papers. At one point, through her grace and benevolence, she allowed me to stay with her so I wouldn’t be homeless. I was sitting there one night reading this book called “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Sobriety.” Ridiculous title for a book about addiction, because your thinking is what’s screwed up in the first place. I have a joint burning in the ashtray and some Crown Royal on the rocks. What did she do? She walks by and says, “Aren’t you supposed to be sober when you read that book?” For some reason, when she spoke those words it pierced through the layers of denial. I could see the gap between who I was capable of being and who I was. And when I could see it, I could get some power over it. That was May 9, 2000. That was a pivotal moment that put me on the path to having this law firm and other businesses. Are you still married to her? My wife and I recently celebrated 19 years of marriage. The fat kid in the husky-sized Toughskins has done seven Iron Man Triathlons. And I have a 12-year-old daughter who has never seen daddy under the influence of anything. How did it affect your career? I’m a personal example of the seemingly miraculous transformations people can have. That’s of vital importance in my law firm. Let’s face it, people come to a criminal defense attorney on their worst days. And I want to give them a sense of hope that the seemingly worst events, like getting arrested, can actually be the best thing. I truly believe that when the handcuffs go on, the windows of opportunity open. How did you get into criminal law? My dope dealer’s half-brother, who was a deputy sheriff, was falsely accused of rape by an alcoholic phone sex actress. The family came to me for help. I went to the only criminal defense lawyer I knew and said I would give him all the money if he would show me how to do this. That was when I first hung my shingle. We ended up winning that guy’s case. That’s how it all started. What year was that? 1997. What is your advice to other entrepreneurs? Since this is the Business Journal, just a quick story about our mission statement. We hold firm-wide summits every six months. We got together at one and created a typical corporate mission statement, about a page long. We spent the day word-smithing and picking at it. “We are committed to being relentlessly thorough in holding the government to the highest standards of its ideals. Blah, blah, blah.” It just went on and on. The next day people kind of remembered it. The next week they remembered they had worked on a mission statement. It was completely useless, as many corporate mission statements are. So what’s the point? When we got together at our next summit, we said “That didn’t work. Time for a do-over.” So really, what are we in business to do? We create custom-tailored solutions to legal problems, but that’s not far enough. Really, we deliver peace of mind. When people are arrested, there is a great deal of fear. The mission of the firm is to bring peace of mind to the client, their family and society. It’s amazing that having such a clear and well-defined mission statement has helped in the day-to-day functioning of our business. Can you give an example? When a lawyer is at a crossroads – Should I take this deal? – he can ask, “What will promote the most peace of mind for the client?” That mission statement has been so important. Did you have any mentors who influenced your career? John Floyd and Tom Skeren, partners at Floyd Skeren & Kelly in Thousand Oaks. I worked for them while in law school. A former prosecutor who became a defense lawyer named Larry Boyle. He taught me the relentless work style that’s necessary to be effective. In criminal law, you may win or you many lose, but you should never lose because somebody out-worked you. That’s the obligation you have to the client, and Larry taught me that. Finally, do you have any anecdote that sums up your work? There was a guy I represented that I met in treatment. He was a rock musician in one of those hair bands, one-hit wonders of the ’90s. I ended up getting clean and he didn’t. He was charged with possession of heroin and cocaine and DUI, and sought me out as a lawyer. I got him a miraculous result in court. We walked out of the courtroom with high fives and celebrations. Five months later his father called to invite me to his funeral. He overdosed and died. That was a gut-check moment for me. I went back to that day in the courtroom. I was celebrating the win, but I sat back and asked “What did we win?” That was the moment I had to get clear about the legacy I wanted to leave, and what difference I wanted to make in the world. Since then, my work has been more in alignment with that.

Joel Russel
Joel Russel
Joel Russell joined the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2006 as a reporter. He transferred to sister publication San Fernando Valley Business Journal in 2012 as managing editor. Since he assumed the position of editor in 2015, the Business Journal has been recognized four times as the best small-circulation tabloid business publication in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. Previously, he worked as senior editor at Hispanic Business magazine and editor of Business Mexico.
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