Denver Attorney Michael Sawaya, Every Client Is Important To Him
Noted Denver attorney Michael Sawaya attributes his attorney-client “hands on” approach to a story his grandmother once told him. She said a lawyer had driven her and her family from Segundo to Trinidad, a 34-mile round trip, so they could have their day in court.
“This is an immigrant Lebanese family,” Sawaya explains. Then with a shade of sarcasm to underline the prejudicial atmosphere of that period, he adds, “They are not important, okay, you understand?”
The year: 1905.
The Sawayas, a Centennial family, had been in Trinidad since the early 1900s.
Sawaya says his grandmother told him how impressed she was that this lawyer would actually take the time to pick up their family, and take them to court. She emphasized to young Michael how that one gesture, meant so much to her.
“We’ll, I’m doing it the same way,” Sawaya says who meets with every client who has been involved in an automobile accident.
Then pointing to one of the two reddish brown chairs strategically placed in front of his dark brown finished wood desk, he adds, “Everybody who sits in that chair, they’re going to think, ‘I get to talk to this lawyer. He must be pretty important.’ So I want to make sure they feel important, because it’s their case, not mine.”
Nifty-Fifties, North East Park Hill
Sawaya, 68, was born in Trinidad, Colorado. Three years later his family moved to Denver. An even though an oil painting of Fishers Peak, Trinidad’s iconic 9,600 foot landmark hangs behind his desk, and Sawaya will tell you that he’s “proud of where he came from,” the distinguished trial lawyer has deep roots in the Mile High City – especially in the African-American community.
As an East High School graduate, Sawaya grew up in Northeast, Park Hill on Thrill Place and Glencoe during the ‘50s.
“We moved into the neighborhood when I was 5-years old,” he says. “I feel like that’s part of my community.”
Sawaya says he’s been blessed to have lived in an integrated neighborhood with families of African-American, German, Russian, Jewish and Japanese decent – a rarity in those days.
“We were the Lebanese-American family, he says. “The Seymours, an African-American family lived next door. Mr. Seymour was the secretary for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. So he was pretty prominent. We had a little bit of everybody. You didn’t see that much in the ‘50s.
“Mr. Dolan lived across the street. He was the first Black man to build a house east of Colorado Boulevard in 1950. He was the nicest man. He had to carry a shotgun out there with him when he was building his house, because he was not wanted.”
It was the 1960s television series, “Perry Mason” that inspired Sawaya to become a lawyer. He says at the time, everybody wanted to be Perry Mason. So he said to himself, ‘I like that,’ but had no idea what a lawyer’s job really entailed.
“But I learned that when I went to law school,” Sawaya says. “The more I got to know, the better I liked it. I like to help people with their problems. I like to know that there is an organized and honest way to resolve problems. That’s what lawyers do when we are doing it right.”
Early in his career, Sawaya served as a lawyer for the Denver branch of the NAACP for about 20 years. During that period, he worked with the former Denver NAACP branch president, Menola Upshaw who passed away in 2011.
Sawaya says he and Upshaw had talked about launching a pilot project, which would take young pregnant mothers and mentor and help them during their pregnancies.
“And then once their child was delivered,” he says, “we would mentor the child for the next five years with someone who was familiar with their entire culture. So that way we wouldn’t limit them to poverty and language that was only fit in poverty circles.”
Sawaya says the project stills interest him, because once someone becomes imprinted with language and once they have had deprivation of nutrients in their early years – they’re not going to stand the chance as somebody else who had those advantages.
However, it’s Sawaya’s groundbreaking holiday cab fare program that many Denverites may recognize his name. Sawaya picks up the tab for drivers who called a cab instead of getting behind the wheel because they’ve had too much to drink.
“I decide to try it 10 years ago,” Sawaya says. “First we only did it on New Year’s, and then we started with major holidays. I don't like the idea of people driving drunk.”
Sawaya’s says his sister had died in a car accident where alcohol was involved. So, he’s not happy to see anyone driving drunk.
“I mean, how many people have gotten behind the wheel when they have had too much to drink, he asks – probably everybody in this country. Because of the fact that we all drink too much at times and we all believe we are safe, even when we’re probably not. Sometimes the drunker you are, the less you realize how drunk you are.
“It has worked out giving something back to the community,” he says. “Frankly, it’s just a small drop in the bucket. I figured it does make people stop and think, ‘Should I be driving a car with any alcohol?’ Maybe, I’m doing them and somebody else a favor.”
Sawaya says if it’s just a tiny little drop, maybe it will ripple off to other people.
“At least it lets me know, I did all I can.”
After graduating from law school, Sawaya says jobs were scarce. So he worked out of his mother’s house the first year until landing a job in April 1976 with George Ashen, a successful general practitioner. During his tenure as a lawyer, Sawaya has tried just about every kind of case under the sun from big bond houses to divorce cases to working with civic associations. He’s represented more than 40,000 people in his career including a first-degree murder case involving a young man from North East Park Hill.
“I got the guy off,” Sawaya says. “They dropped the charges, proving that he did it out of self defense. I’ve represented people in large value cases; people who have been severely injured, and I’ve represented lots and lots of folks in the community for just their ordinary legal affairs. I started this law firm when I was 27; it was a lot smaller of course for the first 15 or 16 years.”
For the past 28 years, Sawaya has been exclusively working automobile accidents, personal injury, workman compensation and Social Security disability cases. Since 2002, Sawaya’s offices have been located in the historic Bailey Mansion, 1600 Ogden St., with 100 employees and 22 lawyers.
Music and Culinary Arts
It isn’t just legal wrangling that defines Michael Sawaya. The counselor is also a musician.
“Well, I’m studying the piano,” he explains with a slight smile. “I can’t say that I’m performance ready, but I could play by ear for the melody; which I have done before. But, the flute and saxophone are my instruments.”
Sawaya started playing the saxophone at 8-years-old when his father, a musician in his own right, gave him a saxophone.
“I still remember the day he gave it to me,” Sawaya says. “I was in the East High school band, and since then, I’ve played with musicians, but I’ve never been in group. I have played around town a few times, and played at my friend Clint Williams’ funeral where I soloed.”
Sawaya says if he can’t spend time with music everyday, then he feel like it’s not a very good day.
“It could be piano, or one of my other instruments, but I have to have music,” he says. But I’m mostly a lawyer, and I don’t have a lot of time to go out and develop my music. I would if I could.”
Another passion of Sawaya’s is cooking. He’s a family man, and loves to cook recipes handed down by his grandmother. Sawaya’s home pantry is full of spices from around the world, and he especially enjoys cooking food from his garden.
“Maybe get some collards and some green tomatoes, and I’ll start cooking something up,” he says. “I’ve been cooking for some 50 years, so you just give me your refrigerator, whatever you got in there, and I’ll cook something up.”
But again, Sawaya’s main passion is addressing issues in the community that are near and dear to his heart.
“I’m part of the community – having been in and around it for the last 62 years. Everyone who sits in that chair is important to me.”