Morada attorney strives toBy Ross Farrow/News-Sentinel Staff Writer

Not too many attorneys have pictures of themselves with the late "King of Torts" Melvin Belli or Pope John Paul II. Nor do they have overhead mirrors above their desk or a black Jolly Roger pirate flag outside their door.

Larry Drivon does.

A Morada resident, the 61-year-old Drivon is quite the unorthodox attorney. And he's been immensely successful in his 32-year law career. Among his accomplishments:

His numerous lawsuits against Roman Catholic churches and priests over child molestation issues. He also help write the state law allowing alleged child molestation victims to sue pastors, churches and other institutions during the 2003 calendar year, even though the statute of limitations had expired.

Investigating Enron and other electrical providers for the state Senate on a pro bono basis during California's energy crisis.

Winning a $295 million judgment in a 1999 Ford rollover case in Ceres. Drivon said it is the largest judgment to be upheld by an appellate court.

Earning the attorney of the year award from the San Joaquin County Bar Association. He will receive the award in early May.

Drivon's office is at the northwest corner of Channel and North San Joaquin streets, a block away from the San Joaquin County Courthouse. He has a lovely view of the county Registrar of Voters office and a large parking garage.

It's a one-way window; he can watch the pedestrians in front of his office, but they can't see him.

Religious lawsuits

Drivon's greatest achievement of late has been his lawsuits against various Roman Catholic diocese throughout the country.

The most significant case to hit Lodi was that involving James and John Howard, who were awarded a $30 million judgment from a San Joaquin County jury in 1998 (it was later reduced to $13 million).

In a separate criminal case in 1993, Father Oliver O'Grady pleaded guilty in 1993 to four counts of sexual abuse involving the Howards in Calaveras County, where he was a priest at the time.

O'Grady served seven years of a 14-year prison sentence before being paroled in November 2000. O'Grady, now 57, was deported to his native Ireland a short time later.

Before he was arrested, O'Grady was pastor at Lodi's St. Anne's Catholic Church from 1971 to 1978,

With the new law allowing old cases to be filed this year only, Drivon said his office has filed about 260 cases so far this year. Statewide, he expects up to 500 clergy abuse cases to be filed by himself and other attorneys.

"It's just an unbelievable story," he said. "The things that have been done in the name of Christ are unbelievable.

"I had a woman who was 65 years old," Drivon said regarding an alleged clergy abuse victim he recently met. "She kept it a secret for 52 years. I was the first person on the face of the earth she told, and she was sobbing like it happened yesterday."

Drivon maintains the Catholic church's problems go as far back as 955 years ago, when the pope at the time said, "I think we have a problem."

Drivon referred to St. Peter Damian, who in the 11th century said, "Whoever scandalizes one of these little ones, it were better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."

Drivon was instrumental in getting a law passed last year that lifts the current statute of limitations law for the 2003 calendar year.

The law, Senate Bill 1779, sponsored by State Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, allows victims to sue churches and other institutions that employed known molesters who later abused other victims.

Previously, victims of childhood sexual abuse have either until their 26th birthday or within three years of discovering emotional problems linked to a childhood molestation to take legal action.

In spite of the clergy abuse that has been made public in the past two years, Drivon has good things to say about the priesthood.

"The great majority of priests are like the great majority of lawyers -- fine upstanding dedicated people," Drivon said.

In a nutshell, Drivon fancies himself as representing the underdog. He refuses to represent companies, corporations, institutions or government.

He made an exception by representing government in the Legislature.

Legislative decision

Drivon became involved with the Legislature two years ago due to his friendship with Sen. Joseph Dunn, D-Garden Grove, chairman of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Price Manipulation of the Wholesale Energy Market.

In 2001, the Senate cited Enron for contempt, and Drivon issued a number of subpoenas, including one to former presidential candidate Ross Perot.

His work earned him the National Law Journal's pro bono award in January for attorneys who donate some of their own time.

"He was the difference in our committee's work," Dunn said. "In political arena, it is often difficult to conduct aggressive investigation because there's too much politics."

Dunn also credited Drivon for aggressively bird-dogging electricity providers.

"It was Larry who insisted we go the subpoena route," Dunn said. "He is the one who said that Enron was not cooperating. It was really through his really aggressive nature we got things done."

Drivon was also credited with gaining bipartisan support.

"I told Larry he had to open lines with the Republican side of the committee or it would disintegrate into partisanship," Dunn said.

Drivon worked especially hard with state Sen. Bill Morrow, R-Oceanside, a difficult task because Morrow and Dunn share serious philosophical differences, Dunn said.

Drivon developed such close ties with Morrow that Dunn entrusted Morrow to lead the investigation, even though, as a Democrat, Dunn chairs the committee.

"Larry has actually put out many fires to prevent any political interference with Sen. Morrow's investigation of the municipal electricity utilities," Dunn said.

"I know (Drivon) sacrificed many income-producing opportunities to work on our investigation committee," Dunn said.

Dunn and Drivon have known each other since the mid-1980s, when both served on the California Trial Lawyers Association Board.

In the mid-1990s, Dunn said he was a prosecuting attorney with a noted Minnesota attorney against O'Grady when Dunn was asked if he knew an attorney from Northern California who could help with the case.

"We were unfortunately feeling that we were getting hometowned because we weren't from Northern California," Dunn said.

Man behind the desk

While Drivon is dead serious about his job, he doesn't take himself too seriously. For example, just how much of a legal expert is he?

"The definition of an expert is talking to a group of people more than 100 miles from home," he said.

Or when he talks about another hobby, Drivon says emphatically, "I collect wine -- and I drink it, too."

Born in San Francisco, Drivon moved to Stockton at the age of 5, when his father, also named Laurence Drivon, took a position with the county District Attorney's Office and later became a judge in San Joaquin County.

One of his first jobs was in the 1960s was at a law firm in Lodi headed by the late Leonard P. Cain.

"(Drivon) had a quick mind, good retention -- kind of a latter-day Mel Belli, but not as flamboyant as Belli," said retired attorney Scott Matthews, a former associate in Cain's law office who lives in Lodi.

Drivon became a law partner of legendary San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli in the mid-1980s. In fact, Drivon's Stockton office was then called The Belli Building.

His association with Belli, which lasted three to four years -- Drivon doesn't recall -- is the reason he has a black Jolly Roger pirate flag with a skull and crossbones on the wall outside his office door.

"Mel had a cannon on the roof of his building (in San Francisco)," Drivon said. "Whenever he settled a case, he'd go to the roof, fire the cannon and raise the Jolly Roger."

Drivon and Belli began their partnership after lecturing together at several law conferences. Drivon recalled that Belli was born in Sonora and attended school in Sonora and Stockton.

"I asked him if he'd be interested in opening an office in Stockton," Drivon said. "We wrote an agreement on a napkin."

It's not as if the colorful Belli set up shop in Stockton. Drivon would drive to San Francisco every Saturday to meet with Belli and other attorneys in the law firm.

Drivon said it was his decision to part ways with Belli.

"We were getting busier, and he was getting busier than ever," Drivon said.

And Drivon got real tired driving to San Francisco each Saturday for file reviews.

Perhaps if Belli were alive today, he and Drivon could correspond by e-mail to save Drivon from driving to San Francisco every week. Right?

"I'm sure Mel would never look at an e-mail," Drivon said. "Mel was a verbal and visual person. He didn't have time to read things, except for newspapers."

Drivon's current law partner, Stewart Tabak, has been an attorney with the firm more than 20 years. Tabak was a law clerk for Drivon before that.

"When you are a defense attorney, you have to realize there are Larrys out there," said Robyn Drivon, chief deputy county counsel for San Joaquin County, Larry Drivon's sister-in-law. "His mission is to help those who are harmed or have been treated unjustly. We need watchdogs like Larry."

Law is in the Drivon family's blood. His father, who will turn 90 in September, remains active. As a retired judge, he performed two weddings during a weekend earlier this year.

Two brothers are attorneys, and a sister-in-law, Robyn Drivon, is chief trial counsel for the San Joaquin County Counsel's Office.

Two stepsons are also in law. Davey Turner, who lives in Lodi, works in Drivon's law office, and Todd Turner is a deputy district attorney.

"I'm proud as punch (of Larry)," said his father, who was the county's district attorney for nine years and a judge for eight years until his retirement in 1977. "He was named one of top 10 lawyers in the nation nationally by taking on Enron and those corporations."

The elder Larry Drivon was referring to his son winning a National Law Journal award last year for his pro bono work for the Legislature.

Always on duty

Drivon's wife, Donna, an information systems operator at his law office, can't get him away from work, even during free time.

"I have my cell phone with me all the time," Drivon said. "Every one of my clients has my phone number.

"It does irritate her, but if I'm privileged enough to be an attorney, I believe people should be able to get hold of me if they need me," he said. "Their pain doesn't have business hours."

Drivon's office has mirrors on his ceiling and walls strewn with photographs, including one taken some 20 years ago of him shaking Pope John Paul II's hand at the Vatican.

Drivon, who is not Catholic, doesn't consider shaking hands with the pope as highly significant, calling the meeting "another gathering of 40,000 or 50,000 of (the Pope's) closest friends."

Drivon met the pope while on a European lecture tour with Belli and two other attorneys. Belli, a Catholic, wanted to meet the pope, Drivon said.

Despite his busy schedule, Larry Drivon finds time to engage in woodworking, identifying gemstones, grading diamonds and roasting his own coffee at his home. He also has some miniature horses and a parrot named George.

Drivon previously showed dogs, winning best of breed or variety in 1992 at Westminster Kennel Club with giant and miniature Schnauzers.

"I didn't win; the dogs did," Drivon said, demanding grammatical accuracy.

"It's like when they ask, 'Did you breed them?' I say, 'Well no, not personally.'"

Although his success has been based on people he considers taking advantage of others, Drivon said he'd like some rest.

"I'd rather that people be nice to each other," he said. "The older I get, the more I wish that to be."


Comments about this story? Send mail to the News-Sentinel newsroom.


help underdogs

It is better to be Dragon Master than Dragon Slayer. Some Dragons are meant to be mastered, others meant to be slain. Odin, Great Spirit, God, grant me the wisdom to know the difference. "May the Valar guide and bless you on your path under the sky"