Noted Oakland county attorney holds true to lifelong philosophy

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTO ABOVE  BY TOM KIRVAN

by Tom Kirvan
Legal News

A past president of the State Bar of Michigan, George Googasian is widely admired as a man with an impeccable legal reputation, an attorney now in his eighties who continues to help set the standard for excellence.
His considerable skills as an advocate haven’t been limited to the plaintiffs he has represented over a career that spans nearly six decades. He also has gone to bat for his legal brethren on occasion, particularly when they become the object of public scorn.

Tom Howlett, the chief operating officer of The Googasian Firm, knows full well. He learned as much in 1986 after writing an award-winning story for The Dallas Morning News, where he authored an in-depth feature on the travails of a woman whose husband was killed when a jet crashed in 1985 on its final approach to the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

The story detailed the lengths that a number of unscrupulous attorneys went to secure the widow as a client, principally in the hope of cashing in on a multi-million-dollar settlement from those responsible for the crash.

“Soon after writing my story... in July 1986, I received a thoughtful note from someone a thousand miles away,” Howlett recounted. “The person reminded me that the lawyers who had initially bedeviled [the widow] in the wake of her husband’s death were the rare exception, rather than the rule.

“The note writer? George Googasian, who had just completed his term as president of the OCBA [Oakland County Bar Association] and whom I would join in practice... later.”

Howlett’s anecdotal story  says a lot about Googasian, who longed to be the “next Clarence Darrow” – the legendary criminal defense lawyer whose courtroom skills literally “made a monkey” out of would-be president William Jennings Bryan in the 1925 Scopes case on the creation-evolution controversy.

It was a fanciful dream that he harbored while pursuing his pre-law studies at the University of Michigan, where he would graduate with a bachelor of arts degree in 1958. It continued to blossom while he studied at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago. The dream met reality during his two-year stint as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Detroit from 1962-64.

“I found out in fairly short order that criminal law just wasn’t for me,” said Googasian, founder of the Oakland County law firm that bears his name. “It was time for me to shift gears.”

Instead, Googasian decided to cast his legal lot in private practice, joining Howlett, Hartman, & Beier, at the time the largest law firm in Oakland County. He spent 17 years with the firm, building a reputation as one of the finest trial attorneys in the state, handling defense litigation work for insurance companies, major utilities, and publishing concerns. The move from the public service sector to private practice was
“family-driven,” according to Googasian, who knew that his tenure with the Department of Justice was subject to the whims of the political patronage system.

A desire to mesh his family values with his professional philosophy led Googasian to form his own firm in 1981 at an office on Long Lake Road. The Googasian Firm, now located on Telegraph Road in a building that he owns, specializes in representing plaintiffs “whose lives have been altered by the misconduct of others,” while also selectively representing clients involved in business disputes. It is a five-attorney practice that prides itself in remaining nimble.

“What I like is the fact that our size is an advantage when it comes to communication,” said Googasian. “We each know what the other is doing. We, as a group, review every case that comes into our office, sitting down at our ‘round table’ to discuss them in detail and whether they’re worth pursuing.”

And “worth” isn’t necessarily measured in dollars and cents, according to Googasian, who served as president of the State Bar of Michigan in 1992-93 and head of the OCBA in 1985-86. He is proud of the volume of pro bono cases the firm handles and the number of cases “where we made a difference in the lives of those with catastrophic claims.”

“We seek justice for our clients in a manner that properly reflects the high quality of the people we have the privilege of representing,” according to the stated philosophy of the firm, guided by an “unyielding commitment to results, respect and civility.”

Over the years, Googasian has helped clients win seven-figure verdicts, awards, and settlements in a number of high-profile cases, including for the family of a seven-year-old skier who was run over and killed by a snowmobile responding to a call at a ski resort. A few years earlier in Washtenaw County, a jury rendered a $6.5 million judgment for the family of a six-year-old girl killed when struck by a school bus in Dexter.

‘Those are tragedies that could have been prevented had it not been for reckless and careless behavior by the respective defendants,” Googasian said. “No amount of money can give those families their children back.”

There is a family feel to the firm. Googasian’s son, Dean, is among the partners, as are Tom Howlett and Craig Weber. Associate Debra Janicki, an alumna of Michigan State University College of Law, has been an attorney there since 2007.

Like his father, Dean earned his bachelor’s degree from the U-M, graduating summa cum laude from Wayne State University Law School in 1997. And like his dad, he has been active in the OCBA, currently serving on its board of directors. He was formerly served an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., before joining Honigman in Detroit. He is now CEO of The Googasian Firm.

Weber, an alumnus of Aquinas College, also graduated from Wayne State Law School, and has spent the past two decades with the firm specializing in medical and attorney malpractice and wrongful death.
Howlett, also a past president of the OCBA, is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Michigan Law. He was a four-year member of The Crimson newspaper staff at Harvard, eventually serving as managing editor.

“After making my way to The Googasian Firm in 1998, it occurred to me that I was able to enjoy the closest legal equivalent to playing baseball everyday alongside Al Kaline,” Howlett reflected. “Like my boyhood sports hero, George’s approach has always been classy, impeccable, and formidable.

“With George having stepped away in recent years from the active practice but still having the desire to come to the office nearly every day, we are extremely fortunate to have a Hall of Famer in our dugout,” said Howlett.
In 1995, Googasian was the recipient of the Roberts P. Hudson Award, the highest honor conferred by the State Bar. Two years later, he won the state’s Respected Advocate Award
Googasian’s parents were of Armenian descent. His father, Peter, fled Russia at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, surviving an odyssey that eventually would take him to a job in the copper mines of the Houghton-Hancock area in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

His mother, Lucy, who spent time in orphanages in Turkey, Greece, and Egypt, was helped by the American Red Cross helped Lucy to leave Egypt.

Googasian’s mom and dad became U.S. citizens in 1933, eventually owning a small grocery store in Pontiac. It was in the Oakland County city where the couple would raise their sons, Armer and George. “My name was going to be Ara, but because I was born on George Washington’s birthday, they decided to name me George instead,” Googasian said with a smile.

Googasian and his wife, Phyllis, have known each other since the fifth grade in Pontiac when he showed early signs of leadership as captain of the Safety Patrol. They began dating as students at U-M, where Phyllis, whose father served as mayor of Pontiac for a time, graduated from the business school. They were married in 1959 following his first year of law school at Northwestern. Her smarts and U-M schooling paid off when she landed a job in the City of Chicago personnel department, pulling home an annual salary of $9,500.

“My first job (as AUSA) paid $8,000,” Googasian recalled of his early marital days when the couple was “making big money.”

But it was enough to begin raising a family, now at three children and nine grandchildren.

They relish the time they spend together at the couple’s vacation home on beautiful Walloon Lake near Petoskey, enjoying the pleasures of waterskiing, kayaking, fishing, pontoon boat rides, snowshoeing, skiing, and snowboarding.

The beauty of the surroundings reflects his time in 1956 as a “gear jammer” in Glacier National Park in the Rocky Mountains. That scenery served to inspire his interest in photography, a passion he has indulged again during subsequent visits to the park. His law office is lined with photos of the park, many of them enlarged to capture the grandeur of the national treasure.

 “No photo can quite do justic to the true beauty of the park, but I gave it my  ‘best shot’ in a couple of instances,” he quipped.