By Haley Freeman
Michael Jaafar and Zak Mahdi, known across metro Detroit simply as “Mike & Zak,” made it their mission to provide zealous advocacy for real people. “I am from Detroit,” Jaafar said. “I love dealing with people and helping people. I have always been a problem solver. Before we were partners, Zak and I had been friends for a long time. We decided to start a practice together before we even finished law school. We both had the same vision for helping people.”
“I wanted to serve the underserved.”
One of Jaafar’s early observations about the law was that the rich could afford big law firm representation and with it, a better shot at justice. On the other hand, people who couldn’t afford to retain a big firm were often encouraged to settle cases because the cost of litigation was too extensive for a smaller firm to handle. Jaafar explained, “From the beginning, our goal was to know our craft well, and to only handle a small subset of cases so that we could represent clients on a small budget effectively. The areas I chose were debt workouts in lieu of bankruptcy and credit report problems.”
“I was born and raised in Dearborn,” Mahdi said. “It is home to me, and that is the major reason why I have my office here in the community. I am actively involved, and I love this community. My family and friends are here. The reason why I became a lawyer is that growing up I saw people being underserved. I wanted to serve the underserved. We don’t really go after the big clients. When they come along, that’s fine, but our main focus has always been the little guy who doesn’t have tons of money for a retainer.”
“We deal with consumers – primarily individuals and small businesses,” Jaafar said. “Mostly, they do not have big, complex issues. Usually they need help with opening a business, buying or selling property, solving problems with debt or credit or handling small litigation. This is the subset of problems they have, and we have taught ourselves how to represent clients with these problems. Not a lot of attorneys want to tailor their careers exclusively to these issues.”
“We are one of the only firms that handle all around credit and debt defense with a focus on credit and defending people against debt collection,” Mahdi explained. “We provide complete debt defense and credit representation. We have been helping people fight against inaccurate credit reporting lately and are having a lot of success with it. I look forward to seeing the look on my client’s face after I have been able to help them get out of financial imprisonment and they leave the courtroom with a fresh start.”
Sometimes, small clients come forward with a David and Goliath case. Jaafar and Mahdi were lead counsel in a consumer protection suit brought against Mc Donald’s Corporation and one of its franchisees for falsely advertising the sale of halal (Muslim kosher) food. According to Jaafar, “It was one of our proudest moments as lawyers. Small people in the community came to us about a wrong that was being done to them and asked us if we could remedy it. We had the ability to take on a big entity and prevail. When we took on the case, people told us we were crazy, but we got a positive result for our clients. For us it was really no different from representing on our smallest cases. It just fit with our philosophy of doing things.”
“I think the McDonald’s case demonstrates our diligence for our clients, and our willingness to stand for what’s right in the face of overwhelming adversity,” Mahdi observed.
Both Jaafar and Mahdi have been business owners in other service areas. They understand first-hand the needs and concerns of their small business clients. “We are not typical attorneys,” Mahdi said. “People tell us that a lot. When people first have to come to an attorney, you get the sense that they are already on guard and dreading it. Most are not turning to an attorney because they just won $10 million in the lottery and need help with estate planning. Most are here because of a problem in their life. I want to be more than just a legal dictionary. I am there to listen and help them. It is one of the most important things we do here, and I think it is one of the things that separates us from the pack. I come from a big family, and that is what means the most to me. It is the backbone of who I am. Most of my clients become good friends of mine. I start every meeting just getting to know the person, then we talk about their legal issues. I get to know them personally so I can serve them in the best way.”
As a result of their efforts to reach out to real people in their community, Jaafar and Mahdi have become well-known media personalities in the Detroit area. “We want to be the everyman attorneys. We used to do seminars in inner city churches – workshops on how to do your own legal work for small issues. They were so successful that Murray Feldman from Fox news asked if we would give advice on TV,” Jaafar said. “It was just something that was natural and organic. We have been working with the station for over five years now. We don’t even have a contract.” He and Mahdi appear regularly as legal correspondents and offer legal advice to viewers. They are also regulars on “Mason Radio in the Afternoon,” a radio talk show hosted by local personality John Mason.
“We are on the radio with Mason every Thursday. It started as a grass-roots effort. We came on the show and talked generally about bankruptcy during the first show. Now we have been on for almost six years running. We give legal advice to callers and are becoming known as people who help out,” Mahdi said.
Helping people in the community to succeed is a big priority for Jaafar and Mahdi as professionals and as people. “Doing work for the community helps us to stay humble and stay grounded,” Mahdi said. “I am passionate about youth programs. My background is from Yemen. The community here has become pretty large over the last 30 or 40 years. I am first generation, and it is important to me to give back to our youth. I want them to know that it is possible for them to become attorneys and doctors and pharmacists. Like me, most of their parents don’t speak English. I have three children. I want them to have more and better opportunities than I had.”
The partners’ business philosophy is reflected not only in the way they treat clients, but also in the way they treat each other. Jaafar explained, “From day one we did something that is considered to be very unorthodox in the practice of law – we agreed that it didn’t matter who worked more hours or made more money. We agreed to split everything 50/50. That applied to all of the losses, and all of the profits. We understood that there would be times when one of us would do more than the other, but in the long term it would balance itself out. And we have no contract between us – nothing in writing. We just have a handshake, which is ironic for a couple of attorneys. Yet that has led us to seven years of success. And our friendship and constant communication with each other allows our clients to leverage the power of two attorneys rather than one. They have two dedicated lawyers for the same price as one lawyer. Between the two of us during the past seven years, we have helped dozens of thousands of clients. We have never had one single complaint. We get along very well on a personal level, and we trust each other.”
“We are hard-working and committed,” Mahdi said. “In 10 or 20 years, I want my clients to look back and say, ‘I had an attorney from Jaafar & Mahdi and he changed my life.”