There was a time when Myles L. Berman was just another L.A. lawyer taking on personal injury and criminal defense cases.
But in 1992, a transformation took place. A jigger of chutzpah mixed with some old-fashioned marketing and ... Ka-BLAM!
When the smoke cleared, he was no longer simply Myles L. Berman, but Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney® Myles L. Berman: regional advertising juggernaut, defender of the allegedly tipsy and one of the best-known crusaders against California's increasingly strict laws against drunk driving.
Today -- thanks to a radio ad campaign that sticks in the head like peanut butter in a dog's mouth -- Berman is known in Southern California by the nickname he trademarked in 1997. His seven-lawyer firm has defended hundreds of clients, nearly all of them suspected of driving under the influence.
In person, Berman, 50, is surprisingly low-key -- a broad-shouldered bastion of gravitas in a well-tailored suit. But his marketing campaign is considerably less sober. His firm's barky radio ads, which are a staple on Los Angeles' testosterone-fueled talk shows, feature the motto "Friends don't let friends plead guilty," a play on the slogan favored by anti-drunk-driving advocates. His website, www.topgundui.com, offers lists of Southern California's "DUI cop hide-outs" posted by random drivers.
That attitude doesn't go down well with Tina Pasco, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She said Berman had the right to defend the accused, but his sales pitch could be "very offensive to those who feel that impaired driving is more serious than the ads reflect."
Berman contends that his message is serious. Sitting in his Sunset Strip offices on a weekday morning, he credited his ads with convincing people that it is possible to challenge drunk-driving arrests, which he says are often based on "Draconian" laws and "voodoo science."
"When I first started advertising, people couldn't believe you could beat a DUI case," he said. "Through our marketing campaign, we've educated the public that these cases can be won."
Berman, an Illinois native, knew he wanted to be a lawyer when he was 14, after he took a field trip to a courthouse in downtown Chicago. His big transformation came, however, in 1992, when he attended a conference in Las Vegas that taught him how to poke holes in prosecutors' DUI cases -- often by challenging the precision of breath analyzers.
In California, the legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers had been falling -- from 0.15% to 0.10%, and now 0.08%. Berman factored in L.A.'s sprawling car culture and realized that he'd happened upon a lucrative specialty.
The finishing touch was his handle. It was an idea inspired by his grandfather, Hy Berg, a Ukrainian emigre who was the first United States distributor of the Jeep utility vehicle. He was known as the "King of Jeeps."
"Marketing is something that was in my family for decades," Berman said. "I knew that if you had the right catchy name and it's marketed correctly, it helps identify you as the best at what you do."
So he began advertising as the Top Gun. He had no military or aviation background; it just sounded good. He began with direct mail, then moved to radio. He fired up the website, which repeats that catchy nickname in its introduction like a mantra:
"Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney® Myles L. Berman is a successful, aggressive DUI / Drunk Driving defense lawyer ... "
"The Law Offices of Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney® Myles L. Berman is ready to fight your case ... "
"If you have been arrested for DUI ... and want to contact Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney® Myles L. Berman ... "
Business has soared. Berman has received calls from housewives, day laborers and celebrities. Some drivers even called while a wailing police car was still on their tail.
Some of Berman's colleagues have criticized his approach.
"They just thought that it was beneath lawyers' dignity to advertise," Berman said. "Criminal lawyers didn't like me setting myself out as better than other people in my field. But nobody's ever accused me of not having the ability to consider myself the best. That never was the issue."
Berman says the firm has represented hundreds of successful DUI cases in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, resulting in acquittals, dismissals or reduction of charges.
Ellen Sarmiento, the supervisor for the metropolitan branch of the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, said Berman was known for a "very aggressive" style in the courtroom. But she made it known that she wasn't exactly quaking in her boots.
"There's this image that he puts out that he's the Top Gun," she said. "But if you look at our conviction rate for DUI, it's over 90%, and he's not putting a dent in it."