Heart of the Matter
To George Googasian, every case is personal
Published in 2008 Michigan Super Lawyers magazine
By Ellen Piligian on September 8, 2008
George Googasian has had his share of publicity and hefty personal injury verdicts. But those are not the cases that come to mind when he thinks about why he became an attorney more than 40 years ago.
He likes to reflect on a case from around 1966, before he became a full-fledged plaintiff’s attorney. It involved an Oakland County physician from Argentina who was called to military duty in the United States. The doctor declined to serve, believing he had reasonable cause: His wife was pregnant, plus he’d already served in his own country’s military. But suddenly, he found himself facing deportation, leading to a trial in federal court.
“We won. We beat the Immigration and Naturalization Service,” recalls Googasian, still pleased. “No one expected us to win.”
For Googasian, whose immigrant parents had also faced deportation before he was born, the case was special. But his main reward was that the doctor is still in practice. “It had to do with helping to make the community in which I live a better community. He’s my buddy today.”
It’s not unusual for Googasian, 72, a father of three and grandfather of nine, to grow close to his clients. “[They] become part of my family. I have to protect them and I have to look after them,” says Googasian. “I can’t leave it at the office.”
That kind of heart has made Googasian, head of Bloomfield Hills-based The Googasian Firm since 1981, a respected plaintiff’s advocate among lawyers and judges alike. “If I were in trouble, I’d look to him as my lawyer,” says Judge Avern Cohn with the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, who’s known Googasian since they were both active in local Democratic politics in the ’60s.
This year, Googasian negotiated a multimillion-dollar arbitration for the family of a 7-year-old boy who was skiing down a slope when he was run over and killed by a snowmobile responding to a call at a Michigan ski resort. In 2002, Googasian secured a $6.5 million verdict for the family of a 6-year-old girl killed in 2000 when a school bus hit her after dropping her off at her house. The suit accused the Dexter Community School District of failing to act on previous complaints about the driver, who was accused of accelerating before the child finished crossing the street. And in 1997, Googasian won more than $5 million for the family of a man who died after a hospital allegedly gave him blood tainted by a deadly bacteria during hip-replacement surgery.
Practice makes perfect
Googasian practices with three colleagues—his son Dean, Tom Howlett and Craig Weber—all of whom are also on the Michigan Super Lawyers list. Clarence Darrow, he says, inspired him early on. Defending the little guy against the big guy felt right. Darrow “was always bucking the tide. And that’s largely what we do. Your satisfaction comes from knowing the other side has their attorneys and their money. So you give the little guy something to fight with.”
His firm takes only a small percentage of the cases that come through the door. It aims for variety—from wrongful conviction and legal malpractice to class action suits and pro bono work. All have one thing in common: people in the midst of life-changing events. “When it has that kind of significance, what you’re doing really makes a difference,” he says.
Googasian, who attended the University of Michigan before graduating from Northwestern Law in 1961, originally thought he wanted to do criminal work. But after working as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan for the U.S. Department of Justice from 1962 to 1964, an appointment by U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, he realized it wasn’t for him.
“I felt my skill could be better used than working on behalf of people charged with crimes. In too many instances, if you were really good you could successfully defend people who should not have been successfully defended,” he says. “That was unsettling.”
Throughout Googasian’s career, including stints as president of the State Bar of Michigan from 1992 to 1993 and the Oakland County Bar Association from 1985 to 1986, he’s had a lifelong love of politics. Between 1964 and 1970, Googasian juggled his job as a trial lawyer at Howlett, Hartman & Beier in Pontiac, where he was doing mostly trial defense work, with his role as Democratic County chair of Oakland County. And in 1970, he led U.S. Sen. Phil Hart’s re-election campaign. During that time, the only chance he got to see his entire family—including his wife of 49 years, Phyllis, 70; daughter Karen, 47, who now lives in Oakland Township; Steven, 44, an attorney who lives in Indiana; and Dean, 38, who lives in Bloomfield Township—was at breakfast.
Googasian has slowed down since those days, though he is still a role model to Dean, who joined the firm in 2001 after working for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and at a large Detroit firm. “He’s everything I ever wanted to be,” says Dean. “He’s the most honest person I know; I’ve never seen him back away from a legal fight or from something legally or politically that needed to be said or done.”
Howlett, who likens practicing law with Googasian to being a young Detroit Tiger getting to play baseball with Al Kaline, is also inspired by Googasian. “The competitive streak is absolutely there. It’s great to see,” says Howlett, who joined the firm in 1998. “It’s not just being civil and gentlemanly, it’s also being the best.”
Being the best has additional challenges today, including corporate efforts to cap malpractice suits and lawyer fees, says Googasian. “Corporations don’t like anybody telling them they have to be accountable and act responsibly. So they go after the lawyers. They’ve denigrated the profession.” That’s made it tough to do one of the favorite parts of his job, work with juries. Specifically, the challenge now is in “trying to understand how to present a case, given the mindset of jurors we encounter who’ve been poisoned [to believe] that anybody suing is a bad thing.”
Googasian’s close friend, Grand Rapids attorney Jon R. Muth—also on the Michigan Super Lawyers list—calls him “an idealist and old-fashioned liberal in the best sense of the word.” Googasian worries that young people have little interest in what’s going on in government. “They don’t know and they don’t care,” he says. “Maybe it’s because I was brought up by parents who didn’t grow up in a democracy. They bred in me that this is a special place, and special places don’t stay special if you don’t take care of them.”
Googasian’s parents, who met in America, were immigrants of Armenian descent. His father fled the Russian Revolution and his mother was orphaned after losing her parents in the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks in 1915. “She overcame so much,” he says. “Brothers and sisters were scattered all over the world, some were killed. She made it. And she had no bitterness or anger. She simply kept moving forward.”
Googasian recalls the story of how the couple, before either had citizenship, were nearly deported. “He used to talk about this with tears in his eyes,” says Googasian of his father, an intensely hard-working man whose plight so inspired his co-workers at the General Motors factory where he worked that they signed a petition to get their boss to hire an attorney for the couple. They were taken to Canada so they could re-enter the U.S. through that country, then became citizens and stayed.
Googasian says they taught him the value of education. Raised in Pontiac with his older brother (now a retired engineer), he recalls how his parents made ends meet by running a grocery store, while his father headed out each afternoon to work his second job at the nearby factory. “My dad would always say, ‘They can take everything from you. [But] they can’t take what’s in your head.'”
Today Googasian’s success can be seen in the myriad awards displayed in his tidy office, where family photos occupy almost every surface. Among his favorites is the 1997 Respected Advocate Award given by the Michigan Defense Trial Counsel; Googasian was its first recipient. “If your enemies respect you, that’s a good thing,” he says with a smile.
He also likes the 1995 Roberts P. Hudson Award, the highest honor the state Bar bestows on lawyers. And he is proud of last year’s Distinguished Brief Award, which recognizes the most scholarly briefs filed before the Michigan Supreme Court. While Googasian’s name is on the plaque, he says, “Dean did 100 percent of the writing.” Dean also got his own plaque.
Awards are nice, but Googasian, who lives in Oakland Township, finds his greatest joy in family—especially the grandchildren, who range in age from 6 to 18. “There’s nothing he likes better than to have the grandkids spend the night at their house and give them popsicles for breakfast,” says Dean.
Not that Googasian is ready to retire. “I don’t know what it feels like to be 72 because I feel like I’m 35,” says the former marathoner, who keeps busy working out, participating in multimile bike trips and practicing his photography—large-scale photos of Glacier National Park line the walls throughout his offices. “I’ve told my partners, ‘You tell me when it’s time to go. But until then, I’m here.'”
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