Thursday, January 13, 2011
2011 PERSONS OF THE YEAR: Jack Denove
Century City Plaintiffs’ Attorney Fights in Courtroom, Boxing Ring
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
Entury City plaintiffs’ attorney John F. “Jack” Denove of the law firm of Cheong, Denove, Rowell & Bennett is not one to back away from a fight, either in or out of the courtroom.
The former president of the Consumer Lawyers Association of Los Angeles says he has tried “well over 100” cases to a verdict and secured 10 awards in excess of $1 million over the course of his legal career. Denove, a third-degree black belt in karate and the 1968 Junior Golden Gloves boxing champion of Southern California, also went five rounds with former North America Boxing Union light middleweight champion Floyd Weaver at a September meeting of the Italian American Lawyers Association, of which he is president.
While the match was declared a draw, Denove is now willing to concede that Weaver “killed” him in that bout.
“I had the reach, the age, and the height on him, but….” Denove tosses up a hand and shrugs dismissively.
Losing a trial, however, he says, is much harder on him. “I get all depressed and come back to the office and say ‘Charlie O’Reilly would have won this case,’” referring to prominent plaintiffs’ attorney Charles B. O’Reilly who died in September.
But Denove adds that his law partners Wilkie Cheong and Mary Bennett—the latter is also his wife—chide him, “Charlie O’Reilly would never have tried that case.”
Denove’s wife says he acts like he “is the only person in the world who could ever possibly lose these cases,” but he “has gotten better, thank God,” over the years.
She opines that “most really dedicated trial attorneys get very seriously into their client’s case, because you can’t take the case to trial if you don’t believe in it.”
With Denove however, “what I’ve seen time and again, is that he throws himself so much into it that he can completely overlook the negatives in a case,” Bennett says.
Cheong describes Denove as “always sort of gung-ho, aggressive with a ‘let’s go get ’em’ attitude,’” that “has to be tempered with some common sense.”
Denove “takes [losses] a lot harder than he should, I think,” Cheong says, because “he feels so bad for the client, he thinks he let them down.” But when that happens, Cheong remarks “the best thing to do is put him back on the horse and let him ride off on another case.”
Denove is no stranger to horseback riding, having served as president of the Cowboy Lawyers Association in 2004. Cheong, also a past-president of the group, remarks that Denove is “a fearless rider” who “is not afraid to get his seat dirty.”
Beverly Hills practitioner Gary Dordick, a long-time friend and member of the Cowboy Lawyers, opines that Denove personifies the expression of “climbing back into the saddle,” both literally and figuratively.
“If Jack falls off a horse, he gets back up, if Jack loses a trial, he gets back in the courtroom,” Dordick remarks. “That’s his nature.”
He adds that Denove also “looks damn good in a cowboy hat.”
Bennett says Denove is “an extremely good rider,” having come a long way from the first time when they went riding together in Palm Springs in the mid-1970s and Denove “fell off every time we galloped around a corner,” she recalls.
Denove does not limit his battles on behalf of his clients to the courtroom, having worked over the years to raise funds to challenge ballot initiatives which he felt were “trying to put plaintiffs’ lawyers out of business.” He pressed his efforts as president of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles in 2000 and as a member of the Board of Directors of the Consumer Attorneys of California.
He recalls having held up a huge salami at one fundraiser and telling the assemblage that it represented them and their practices, while a meat cleaver represented the insurance companies. “And then I started whacking the salami and taking the pieces and throwing it at the audience,” Denove says with a chuckle. “I don’t know if it was effective, but people know when I go out there, I’m serious.”
He remarks that it “really upsets” him when “people that make a good living out of the practice” are “just in it for themselves,” and do not “think ahead about if this law gets passed, what’s that going to do for their future clients?”
Bennett says Denove was an effective advocate for CAALA because he “doesn’t tell people what to do, he goes out and he does it.”
Denove “would always be out there walking the streets, calling other lawyers and encouraging them to get involved,” she says, recalling:
“He worked really hard.”
Dordick, who is also a plaintiffs’ attorney, opines that Denove is “as committed as anyone can be to improving the legal profession and fighting for the rights of his clients and all the rest of our clients.”
Woodland Hills attorney Steven P. Goldberg calls Denove a “war-time president” of CAALA since the group was fighting to defeat a series of ballot initiatives during his tenure which would have imposed a fee cap for plaintiffs’ attorneys, and did so by a narrow margin.
Dordick says his friend “really goes out of his way to help other lawyers,” and “devotes a considerable amount of time to educational programs and to the bar associations.” The attorney posits that Denove “probably gives more of himself than any of the other lawyers in the community.”
Denove is a diplomate of the American Board of Trial Advocates and member of the American Association for Justice, Los Angeles County Bar Association, and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.
The attorney has headed the Italian American Lawyers Association over the past year, a group he says he joined in 1977 at the behest of one of its founders, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mario Clinco, now deceased.
IALA Vice President Stephen A. Mesi says that Denove “really breathed a lot of life into the organization,” securing “huge attendance” at the monthly meetings at Casa Italiana downtown by organizing events such as the boxing match—which was billed as “Carnage at the Casa”—and attracting new members.
James Michalski, the group’s treasurer, comments that Denove has “done a tremendous job” of leading the organization.
“He has exceptional leadership skills and a natural charisma that inspires people,” Michalski says, emphasizing that Denove “made everyone feel included and welcome” at events.
Secretary Damian D. Capozzola remarks that meetings during Denove’s tenure have been “very well-run,” with “an extra element of pizzazz,” such as the boxing match or a performance by the Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic Orchestra.
As president, Denove “really raised the level of the organization” this year, Capozzola says.
Childhood and Education
Denove was born in North Hollywood and has resided in Southern California his entire life.
His mother, Ann Fairleigh Denove, was an actress who appeared in several stock productions before landing the leading role in a national touring production of “Kiss the Boys Goodbye” in 1939. After the outbreak of World War II, she enlisted in Wave Officer Candidate School for the U.S. Navy.
When the war ended, she began working with Harper’s Bazaar Magazine in New York, selling advertising, and it was there she met Denove’s father, Jack Denove. The couple married and relocated to California where the elder Denove worked as a film producer and director. He handled John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential advertisement campaign, even though his son says he was “a staunch Republican.”
Bennett suggests that Denove “got a lot of his drama, his love of being on stage” from his parents.
Denove says that while growing up, “the one thing that would always upset my father was dealing with lawyers, so I figured that was the way to go.”
Then he raises his eyebrows, laughs and admits this is not the truth.
“You want the true story, all right,” Denove says, placing his elbows onto a paper-strewn conference table and leaning forward onto them to tell his tale.
The year was 1969. He had just graduated from University High School.
“I didn’t even take the SAT’s because I knew I was going to junior college, since my grades weren’t that good,” Denove recalls. “I just wanted to do karate….That was all I cared about back then.”
Then he met an attorney named J. Michael Kelly through his karate group. Kelly, Denove says, motivated him to become an attorney.
“For years I wanted to punch him out for this…because being a lawyer was tough,” Denove exclaims.
He recalls Kelly saying:
“You know the car I drive? That’s because I’m a lawyer. You know the apartment I have and all that stereo equipment? That’s because I’m a lawyer.”
All this, Denove claims, failed to impress him.
“I couldn’t have cared less,” he says. But then, Kelly asked him, “You know the girls I date?” Denove sits upright, widens his eyes and exclaims, “I said, ‘That’s because you’re a lawyer?’ ”
At the time, Kelly was dating Cheri Ann Mariotto, better known as “Miss Tanya,” the symbol of a suntan lotion, appearing on the Sea & Ski suntan billboards, Denove says.
Denove earned his associate’s degree from Santa Monica City College in 1971, then transferred to UCLA where he declared history as his major, explaining that “supposedly it was easy, and I just wanted to use college as a way to get into law school.”
After graduating in 1973, Denove entered Loyola Law School where he met the woman who became his wife.
“So there you go, Michael was right,” Denove says.
Denove recounts that Bennett had invited him to go sailing with her for their first date, then put him to work scraping barnacles off the hull of her catamaran.
“And then she says, ‘I hope you’re not afraid to go out in the ocean,’ because this other guy [she used to date] wouldn’t do it,” he recalls. Denove says that although he was “a little apprehensive” since he is “not the greatest swimmer,” he agreed to head out to open water with Bennett on the 14-foot craft.
“She knew, even back then, how to motivate me to do what she wanted me to do,” Denove reflects.
The couple wed in 1980 and have no children except for the “four-legged ones with tails,” Denove says, referring to the couple’s two cats and six horses.
Denove began his legal career with the insurance defense firm of Roper Folina in 1976.
“They gave me a raise after four months and a big Christmas bonus, and I said ‘Thanks, but I’m not cut out for this kind of work,’ ” Denove recalls.
Denove says he wanted to try cases, but did not think he would be hired by the District Attorney’s or Public Defender’s Office, so he “figured…the next best way of doing it” would be joining up with two friends from law school—Robert S. Musa and Wilkie Cheong—to open Musa, Cheong & Denove in 1977.
“Musa was number one in his class until he started hanging out with Cheong and me,” Denove adds. “He got two Bs, and we’re probably responsible for it.”
Cheong laughs as he agrees, “We didn’t have the best of study habits,” and “showed [Musa] how to have a good time.”
Denove describes the office as having had “three desks and one office” when it began. After the first year, Musa “got divorced, and had to get a real job,” so he left the firm, Denove says.
But the firm continued to grow, and did so quickly. Within three years, it moved to the space in Century City where it remains today.
Cheong says “it’s been great” working all these years with Denove, and credits the longevity of the law partnership to their friendship.
Denove’s wife joined the firm when she finished law school in 1977 and added her name to the marquee in 1999.
Denove’s long-time assistant Loraine Jackson, who now is the firm’s director of business development, remarks that the office is “like a family.” Melinda Kay, who was the sole secretary when she joined the firm 32 years ago and is now the office manager, adds that the entire office goes on trips together one to two times each year. Past outings include a ski trip, white water rafting, and visits to Disneyland, Catalina and San Francisco, Kay says.
Bill Karns, an associate at the firm, remarks that “there’s always a whole bunch of nonsense going on” within the office, and “we have a lot of fun over here.”
Kay calls Denove “a big silly,” and describes a time when Denove “did summersaults down the hallway.” Karns insists, “There’s not a firm party that goes by without Jack putting on some type of wig.”
Karns, however, emphasizes that “when it’s time to answer the bell, we take things very seriously.”
For Denove, Karns says, “there’s no such thing as set hours.”
Denove will spend all night working, if necessary, and has done so on several occasions, because he is always “beyond prepared” for a trial, Karns remarks.
He praises Denove as someone who “can take extremely complex issues with a host of variables, and condense it to one sentence that regular people can understand, adopt and repeat.”
Karns adds that Denove is also able to digest a case quickly, commenting:
“I’ve seen him take a case on Friday evening, and pick a jury that Monday, try the case, and wipe the floor with the other side.”
Long Beach attorney Richard Carroll, who says he has been Denove’s courtroom rival on several occasions over the past two decades, comments that “when you get a case with [Denove’s] name on it, you know it’s been well-screened, well-thought out, well worked out, and you know he’s going to give you a run for your money.”
Goldberg agrees that Denove “will take a case and he will take a cause that no other lawyer will take and he will take it as far as it will go,” while Dordick posits that Denove “has won cases that I don’t think any other lawyer can win,” and that he “is not afraid to try any case.”
Carroll similarly remarks that Denove “will take on long odds for his clients,” by “going up against big opponents” such as “corporate America or a seven-defendant medical malpractice action.”
Denove “puts his principles before his economics, and he’ll take on cases on principle alone,” Carroll says, explaining:
“To him, he’s just trying to help someone who he thinks has been wronged.”
Capozzola praises Denove as “really a man of many talents, a true Renaissance man,” while Dordick sums up by remaking:
“Jack is probably the best lawyer, cowboy, and boxer that I know.”
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company