By Konrad Putzier
As a trained engineer, construction lawyer Michael Zetlin understands the technical details he builds his cases on.
This engineering expertise is one of the reasons why the founding partner of Zetlin & DeChiara LLP rose to become one of New York’s most successful construction lawyers. But it also took timing and the willingness to take a bold step.
“Engineering was in my blood,” said Zetlin, who grew up in Long Island. His father was the well-known engineer Lev Zetlin, who founded LZA, which later became Thornton-Tomasetti. “I grew up with Philip Johnson in my house,” Zetlin recalled.
Zetlin was good at math and sciences, and it seemed like a logical step to follow his father into the engineering profession. In the early 1980s, Zetlin enrolled at Columbia University to study engineering.
But he soon realized that he couldn’t escape his father’s shadow as an engineer, and decided to change his career. “I would have been a very good engineer, but I would not have been my father,” he said. “It was not so much a rebellious act as a revelation.”
Around the same time as he turned away from engineering, Zetlin became interested in law. “When the Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway collapsed in 1981, my father was called as an expert witness. I worked part-time for him doing research, and was exposed to legal world,” he said. “I was hooked. By my third year in engineering I knew I would go into law.”
After graduating from Columbia, Zetlin enrolled at Fordham Law School, already knowing that he wanted to become a construction lawyer. But the transition from science to law was far from easy.
“It took a lot of education,” he recalled. “Math and science tend to be more absolute, while law is more a matter of debate. In engineering school you solve equations, here you debate.”
Despite his initial struggles, he became a good student and was hired after his graduation by Whitman and Ramson – at the time a large Manhattan law firm. One of his first cases as a young attorney dealt with cost overruns at a particle-board factory, but often he would have to work on cases that had nothing to do with construction.
“I did not have a steady diet of construction cases. They wanted me to be more of a commercial litigator – but that was not my interest,” he recalled.
After three years at Whitman and Ransom and a brief stint at a boutique law firm, Zetlin co-founded his own practice in 1992, specializing exclusively on construction law. Initially, the firm’s four lawyers shared one room in an office they had sublet from another law firm. Despite the limited space, Zetlin described the firm’s first few months “exciting.”
Zetlin’s wife, with whom he has two sons, 25 and 23 years old, and a 19-year-old daughter, helped build up the firm before giving up work to take care of the family.
Zetlin& DeChiara LLP grew quickly, and after nine months the firm moved into a larger office.
Zetlin said the firm’s small size was no disadvantage. “It’s a relatively small universe of lawyers that really have the specialization on construction law. Adversaries weren’t an obstacle, it was really just getting known and proving ourselves.”
The firm has established its reputation in part by being involved in the construction industry beyond its immediate cases, Zetlin said. For example, the firm advises the New York Building Congress, and Zetlin teaches a class in construction law at Columbia University.
The dearth of new construction following 2007 affected the firm — Zetlin said he had to downsize by not replacing departing attorneys — but it is now back in “growth mode” and looking to add to its current 22 attorneys. “For now, the market is strong,” he said. “Institutional building is strong — especially by universities and hospitals — and we have some large projects.”
Zetlin’s oldest son, who is currently in his third year at Fordham Law School, won’t be among the new hires. “Unfortunately, he doesn’t want to work in his father’s firm,” he said. Then again, not following in his own father’s footsteps never did Michael Zetlin any harm.