Welcome to our Members in the Spotlight page where we feature notable Armenian Bar Members.
A: I met Raffi Hovannisian – the founder of the Armenian Bar Association – at a party in New Jersey in 1989. He told me about the Armenian Bar Association and that he hoped I would attend the first meeting, which took place in January 1990. I did attend and was honored to be elected to the first Board of Governors with David Balabanian as the Board’s first Chairman.
Q: What were the original goals of the Armenian Bar Association and could you describe the growth you have seen within the organization?
A: There were interesting times in the early years of the Bar Association as we sought to find our way to accommodate the initial goals that were laid out. Raffi wanted an association that brought together Armenian practitioners throughout the country and beyond. I always thought that much of the impetus for formation of the Armenian Bar Association was to assist the many immigrants from Armenia and the Middle East that settled in California, many of whom were not English speaking, and to assist them in adapting to their new country and the legal hurdles that many of them faced. At the initial meeting there were attorneys from the east coast and west coast, as well as Belgium and Canada. We discussed at length what we thought the goals of the Association should be and all of that ultimately formed the direction that we initially took. With the independence of Armenia in 1991, the focus of the Association’s efforts expanded and included the providing of education materials and assistance to the new republic in helping it establish its constitution and rule of law.
The Association continues to evolve, improve and expand its role both as a bar association and as an active member of the worldwide Armenian community. Its achievements are attributed to the dedication of its very active members who stand up to protect the legal rights of attorneys and the issues affecting the Armenian people, not only in the United States but worldwide.
Q: Upon completing your studies at George Washington University, what was your first paid job? What lead you to practicing commercial real estate and corporate law?
A: My first job out of law school is the same one I still have; I joined Winne Banta on September 9, 1968. The previous summer, after completing my second year of law school, I worked for Winne Banta as a clerk, now known as a summer associate, and at the end of that summer I was offered a job when I graduated. My starting salary was $8,000 per year, which I accepted. New York was paying $10,000 per year, and I felt that my preference would be to remain in New Jersey, where I was born and raised, rather than commuting to NYC.
When I was about 18 years old, I had seen the movie “The Young Philadelphians” with Paul Newman, who played the role of a tax attorney. By the end of the movie, I knew I wanted to be a tax attorney. While I took all of the tax courses I could in law school, I had an equal interest in real estate law. My father was a surgeon but also a builder, and as a boy I would listen to him and his partners talking about their projects and knew what amortization was long before I knew how to spell it, so the natural segue ultimately was in real estate, which evolved into land use planning, commercial real estate development and finance, as well as corporate work, all of which had the element of taxes. My tax background enabled me to assist clients in the structuring of entities from both a real estate and tax perspective.
Q: Could you discuss the efforts that were involved in you reaching the commendable status of Managing Partner of this prestigious firm?
A: When I started at Winne Banta Basralian & Kahn, I was the youngest attorney and 50 years later, I am the oldest of the attorneys in our firm. My goal was not to be Managing Partner, but like many things in life, it evolved. I was always interested in construction, and as we renovated our offices and increased the size of them over the years from a modest 3,000 square feet to over 19,000 square feet, I handled all aspects of our office, including two major moves as we expanded from a 7 person firm to our current 35, with a total of 65 employees. With the untimely death of our Managing Partner in 1983, my role in the firm expanded to include preparing the annual budget, overseeing health benefits and insurance, and mentoring young attorneys in the real estate field. In 1991, we had several attorneys leave the firm which required some restructuring, and as a result, I went from de facto Managing Partner to the Managing Partner. The early 90’s was a particularly stressful time because of the economy and my efforts were focused on building our practice and the firm, while at the same time expanding my business base.
By the mid 1970’s, my practice was growing in real estate, including land use and municipal law. In 1974, there was a substantial downturn in the economy and our major banking client needed in-house counsel for a month to oversee its national mortgage portfolio until new permanent counsel could be hired. As a result, I became special counsel, vice president and secretary of the mortgage division, while at the same time, maintaining my burgeoning practice. I spent 8 hours a day with the mortgage division and almost an equal amount of time in my own practice while traveling extensively to negotiate workouts and retaining local counsel to handle foreclosures where necessary. Fortunately, both the mortgage company and our offices were in the same building and I was able to balance both sets of activities. That one month expanded into a year, but as a result, our firm became the bank’s primary outside counsel, handling its loan activities and workouts and new loan representation and compliance work. Our firm had handled the formation of the bank’s holding company in which our banking client was the lead bank, and thus, I was involved in handling the multiple acquisitions by the holding company, which included compliance with the Blue Sky Laws of the many jurisdictions in which the banks were located, and to handle the listing of the holding company on the New York Stock Exchange. Others in our firm did the actual formation of the holding company and compliance with all of the SEC requirements which that involved. The combination of my real estate background and the experience gained by working on the holding company formation enabled me to segue into representing corporate clients, not only in real estate but in other aspects of our clients’ businesses.
Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as an attorney?
A: I think it was being part of growing our firm and being a practicing attorney, and I could not conceive of working in any other profession. I have enjoyed every day of my life as an attorney, and while there can be stress-filled days, I have never gotten up in the morning and said I would rather be doing something else.
Q: What is the best advice you ever received regarding the practice of law?
A: I was only out of law school for a year or two and I was handling a real estate matter with an older practitioner who also was a trial attorney. I mentioned to him that I was preparing for a trial several weeks off and that I was worried about my ability to handle an eminent domain matter in a jury trial, and whether my grasp of the rules would enable me to object where appropriate. He told me that if I knew more about my case than anybody else in the world, then I would know when to object and when not to, and how to achieve the desired result. From that day to this, I have always prepared my cases to know more about them than anyone else. While the only cases I try today involve land use planning, I prepare every case, whether it is before a board, trial court, or appellate division, on the basis that there is nothing that will occur that I do not know about. I have always followed the axiom “chance favors the prepared mind.”
Q: What advice would you give to a young attorney entering this profession?
A: I would, of course, always counsel to be honest and forthright, diligent in approach to his work, be prepared and be responsive to your clients’ needs, calls and emails. Approach your work by being prepared and do it all with enthusiasm because it is infectious, in the good sense. Lastly, keep your anger in check and replace it with calm, and never make enemies of other attorneys as the world is round and it may well come back to haunt you some day.
Q: In 2010, you were awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, what did achieving that award mean to you?
A: It is fitting that the ceremony for awarding the Ellis Island Medal of Honor is held on Ellis Island where hundreds of thousands of immigrants passed through its gates. The award is given to members of various ethnic groups, and I view it not as an individual achievement on my part, but recognition of what those groups contributed to the American society and continue to do so and work toward the common good of the United States.
Q: What other charitable organizations are you involved with and why?
A: I served on the AGBU Central Board, as well as the Armenia Fund Board, both for a number of years. It was an opportunity to be more involved in the Armenian community both within and outside of the United States. The history of AGBU speaks for itself and its hundred plus year service to the world wide Armenian diaspora, as well as Armenia, has made an incredibly positive change in the lives of so many. Armenia Fund focuses its attention to the projects in Armenia, such as roads, waterlines, schools and basic infrastructure. I also serve on the Board of the Winifred M. & George P. Pitkin Foundation formed by Winifred Pitkin. Both she and her husband were physicians, and while there were no specific directions in the Foundation formation documents as to focus of its contributions, the Trustees have focused primarily, but not exclusively, on medical education, training programs and education broadly. It does not contribute money for bricks and mortar since the Trustees feel that the contributions are better suited to actual educational agenda and charitable endeavors. I also serve as a member of the Board of Trustees of Bergen Community College Foundation, whose efforts are directed toward scholarships. Bergen Community College is the single largest community college in New Jersey with over 16,000 matriculated students and is the #12 nationally ranked school out of 2,500 community colleges in the United States. I have also served on the Northwest Bergen Heart Association Board, among many others.
Q: Who were your role models?
A: Perhaps it is cliché-ish to say, but my father and my mother were both exemplary role models. My father arrived in this country in 1920 just before his 19th birthday with less than $100 in his pocket and no education. He worked as a tailor, and 13 years later graduated from the University of Vermont School of Medicine. My father always told his six children that if we worked hard, we would be successful. He omitted to tell us that there are a lot of pitfalls along the way, but working hard, more often than not, does achieve the desired results. My mother, who was the daughter of immigrants from Diyarbakir, worked in order to attend New York University from which she graduated in 1935. My other role model was Winston Churchill, not because he led an exemplary life, but more so for his courage, strength and leadership that took Britain from the brink of disaster at Dunkirk to victory with the Allies in both Europe and the Far East. His logic and eloquence of his public speaking and the war years gave courage to all Brits. It was Edward R. Murrow who said in speaking about Churchill that “he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” It was his words and leadership that gave the people of his country the power to overcome the adversities that had afflicted them since 1939.
Q: How far back do you trace your roots when asked “where are you from?”
A: My father was born in Diyarbakir, as were his parents and grandparents. My maternal grandparents and their parents were all born in Diyarbakir, as well. If a non-Armenian asks me where I am from, I say “New Jersey.” A number of years ago when I met an Armenian while on a trip to Europe he asked me where I was from and I answered “New Jersey.” His response was, “no, no – I don’t mean that. Where are you from?” My response, of course, was “Diyarbakir.”
Q: What makes you a proud Armenian and proud of your nationality as a whole?
A: I am proud to be both an American and Armenian – the former because it is the nation of my birth, and it has given opportunity to everyone who strives to improve himself. As an Armenian, we have much to be proud of since our heritage goes back 3,500 years. We were the first nation to accept Christianity, and we are generally hard working and diligent people who put their heads down and move forward. So long as we do not define ourselves as victims of the genocide, then we can look to the future for the survival of our nationality and Armenia.
This interview was done by Steve Gokberk who is an associate of Salenger, Sack, Kimmel & Bavaro. He practices plaintiff’s personal injury and medical malpractice throughout New York State.