Building bridges; Creating a solid foundation; Cementing relationships … there’s no end to the adages that could apply when introducing a law firm that focuses on construction law. It may seem like a leap from physics to law is out of the ordinary, but for Mahyar Ghassemian, the founding attorney of Ghassemian Law Group in Mission Viejo, it made complete sense. When handling litigation on projects such as highways, stadiums and skyscrapers, being fully versed in the science of it, can be irreplaceable when confronting the legal issues that those who build them might face.
“I have a master’s degree in physics,” she says. “After I got my master’s, I taught at Cal State Long Beach for about a year. After that, I held various corporate positions and finally one of them – with the encouragement of some friends – led me to law school. I finished in May 1999 and after passing the bar, I was recruited into a firm where all the principal attorneys were engineers, and they handled a lot of construction-defect cases. They represented mostly national companies in multimillion-dollar defect cases. They were specifically looking for someone with an engineering or science background because those types of cases rely heavily on experts. You need to be able to put a team of experts together, then talk the talk with them, amass the scientific data and translate it into terms a jury would understand.”
This ignited her interest in construction litigation. After going to a larger firm, she started doing business litigation but felt business and construction went hand in hand because all construction companies are businesses.
Strong relationships tend to form during the years litigation may take and clients often ask: “What can we do to prevent getting involved in litigation, going forward?” She recognized that there was a very strong need for preventative and transactional business advice, and so the firm does both litigation and helps clients prevent, or minimize the cost of, litigation.
In law school, she also recognized the power of strong communication skills, particularly in areas such as science and law that can be technical and involve jargon, for which you need special expertise when conveying a case to jurors.
“Persian is my first language, but I studied English since first grade. I was encouraged to study and become proficient in languages so I could articulate and write properly, which is really what you need as an attorney. You need to be able to write your thoughts and analyze legal problems.
I also knew that I wanted to help businesses. It has been a big driving force in my legal career and throughout my life.” Ghassemian’s father was a small business owner who did not succeed but she feels if he had the right advisers, he would have. It became a personal mission to pursue that while still focusing on construction law. In 2010, she left a partnership in a high-profile civil litigation firm to start her own firm, Ghassemian & Associates, which became Ghassemian Law Group, APC in 2013.
“We are basically a litigation firm but about 10 to 15% of our practice is transactional or preventative,” she says. “We do both business and construction litigation. For businesses, they can be in any industry, not just construction. We handle formation of companies, purchase and sales agreements, corporate disputes, partnership and payment disputes – we can come in at any point and assist any business from formation to litigation.”
On the construction side, they help clients that are builders or any type of contractors such as commercial plumbing, electrical, concrete, paving, lighting, etc., as well as those tangential to construction such as material suppliers and equipment rental companies.
“The business of Construction is where we really shine because all construction companies are businesses, so we add another layer of expertise,” Ms. Ghassemian says. “We also have engineers and architects as our clients. One architectural company specializes in building hotels and another does storage units. They are mainly preventative clients – we help them minimize any threat of litigation down the road.”
This can involve negotiating and drafting contracts, vetting prospective partners or subcontractors or assisting with geological surveys and civil engineering matters. They want to help their clients navigate all aspects of a project so they do not end up in a contentious – or litigious – situation.
“Many of our cases may start as lawsuits and that’s how we meet a lot of clients,” she says. “But they like and trust us so they come back to our firm over and over for a variety of different reasons. We try to help them avoid, or minimize the cost of, lawsuits. We have a very high settlement rate and are often able to intervene pre-litigation – before a complaint is filed – to bring the parties together and settle because that way the client spends less and so it is the best scenario for the client.”
Though Ghassemian Law Group has expanded by 180% over the past three years, the firm is determined to keep its “boutique feel,” with client-centric service and the ability for clients to build a relationship with their attorney.
“Our motto is that we provide the large firm expertise in a small-firm environment,” she says. “We do not want our clients to contend with multiple layers of attorneys. They should be able to pick up the phone and speak to an attorney who knows the case that day or in one business day.”
When asked: what is the best thing companies of any size – from startups to large builders – can do to protect themselves? Her answer is getting a strong contract for the company, or having a professional review and analyze contracts presented to them.
“The essential building block in any professional relationship is a proper contract,” Ms. Ghassemian says. “You must have a contract that defines the duties and responsibilities of all parties. We recommend anybody who is in construction have a relationship with an attorney who knows the field and will draft contracts for them. And for those expected to sign contracts presented to them, you still need to have an attorney review them so you can know where the minefields are and how to avoid them.”
As an example, she cites that if a subcontractor doesn’t know payment details in a contract, there can be devastating results.
“If you do not know what your contract specifies as to when you get paid, it can be as much as 90 days after completion of the work, which could kill a business or subcontractor. Construction is an expensive business, and the margins are very low. Contractors must purchase materials, hire labor, rent equipment, get their workers to the site – all of this costs money upfront and if they are not paid for 90 days, they’re not likely to last long. That is an example of something that could be hidden in a big contract and missed. If you sign it, you are stuck. I tell people they wouldn’t perform surgery on themselves, why do they think they can do what an attorney does by going online, finding some boilerplate language, and expect to be protected? It’s like performing legal surgery.”
Another preventative measure is to “document everything,” Ms. Ghassemian says. This means keep track of all events and verbal discussions in written format, whether it is a confirming email after a handshake agreement on the site or writing letters to make sure there is clarity.
What is the next level of expertise the attorneys at the firm may be exploring? Artificial intelligence. Obviously, that is an area that is surging in ways most professionals and companies cannot even begin to grasp but Ghassemian has professionals with experience in technology and privacy issues, so they’re preparing the firm to lead into this intriguing 3.0 sector.
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