Standard-bearer: Past SBM president holds true to his lifelong philosophy


ByTom 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 in the profession.

His considerable skills as an advocate haven’t been limited to the plaintiffs he has represented over a career than 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 – Terri Mayberry – 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 about the Mayberry family in Dallas 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 Terri Mayberry 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 and whom I would join in practice a dozen years 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 that helped define 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 over the next three years 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.”

The ability to “shift gears” was a skill he developed during his undergraduate days at U-M. But more on that later.

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 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 Oakland County Bar Association in 1985-86. He brims at the volume of pro bono cases the firm handles each year and number of cases “where we made a difference in the lives of those with catastrophic claims.”

In short, “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 that is 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 7-year-old skier who was run over and killed by a snowmobile responding to a call at a ski resort in Michigan. A few years earlier in Washtenaw County, a jury rendered a $6.5 million judgment for the family of a 6-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 Googasian Firm, where father and son comprise half of the partnership team. 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 with the firm 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 Oakland County Bar Association, currently serving on its board of directors. He formerly served as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., before joining Honigman in Detroit. He now serves as 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 as a trial attorney, specializing in medical malpractice, attorney malpractice, and wrongful death cases.

Howlett, a past president of the OCBA, is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Michigan Law.

“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.

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, was 15 years younger than her husband. After she spent time in orphanages in Turkey, Greece, and Egypt, the American Red Cross helped Lucy and her younger brother leave Egypt and emigrate to the United States.

Googasian’s parents became U.S. citizens in 1933, eventually owning a small grocery store across from a General Motors plant in Pontiac. It was in the Oakland County city where the couple would raise their sons, Armen and George.

“My name was going to be Ara, but because I was born on George Washington’s birthday, February 22nd, 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. They attended junior high school together, and began dating as students at U-M, where Phyllis 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 personnel department for the City of Chicago, pulling home an annual salary of $9,500.

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

It was enough, of course, to begin raising a family, which now counts three children and nine grandchildren.

Googasian and his family 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.

“It's a magnet for our children and grandchildren during the summer time,” said Googasian of his escape in northern Michigan.

Their lakeside home was formerly owned by Nick Saban, the national title winning coach at Alabama. Saban owned the home while he was head football coach at Michigan State before he left the Spartan job for the top gridiron post at LSU.

“As a souvenir, he left us a jug of Spartan water and an LSU hat with the price tag still on it,” Googasian said of Saban, who won his first national title in Baton Rouge for the Tigers.

As a diehard U-M football and basketball fan, Googasian most likely has never sipped from the MSU jug or worn the LSU hat. Neither could spoil the beauty of the Walloon Lake surroundings. Googasian, after all, is no stranger to spectacular settings, spending the summer of 1956 as a “gear jammer” in Glacier National Park in the northwest corner of Montana on the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

“It was the summer after my sophomore year at Michigan and I drove a 14-passenger tour bus around the park,” Googasian said of the assignment that captivates him to this day.

“We were looked upon as elite-like pilots whose jobs were to serve as glorified tour guides, telling the history of the park and its special features as we drove around it. We talked for tips and by the end I was getting pretty good at it.”

The scenery also 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 which have been enlarged to capture the grandeur of the national treasure.

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