Cara Ghassemian has combined her work as a lawyer with a side hustle in tourism. Poised to launch a new venture selling Sicilian hand-painted ceramics and crystals to Australians, she has also been offering private holidays through her start-up business “Aussies in Morocco Tours”. Ghassemian tells MELISSA COADE how she has rediscovered a passion for languages and adventure.
With a vague ambition to kick-start a new career as an art seller, Cara Ghassemian returned to university in her mid-40s to study art history, Italian and French. Now 54, she has found the perfect way to pursue her interests in business and exotic travel. Her side hustles in tourism and Sicilian artisanal products are serious business endeavours that fuel a love of faraway places and foreign cultures – things Ghassemian can’t get from practising law.
“I find that with the law, it’s a very disconnecting experience. In litigation, it’s a fighting, adversarial experience, and I’m not sure how healthy that is for the human psyche – particularly the human psyche that is into connecting,” Ghassemian says.
The daughter of a music teacher and stock and station agent, Ghassemian grew up in the heat and wide open spaces of country NSW. Her father, who did not have any formal education, was a strong proponent of learning French, and the notion that it was a diplomatically and culturally significant language stuck with the young Ghassemian. She spent her “traditional, mono-lingual, middle-class” childhood fascinated by the couple who ran the local Greek café in Moree, where she went as a 10-year-old girl to eat meat pies and people-watch in the afternoon.
“I’ve always had a thing about frontiers. I have always felt constrained and wanted to be free like a bird since I was a small child,” Ghassemian says.
An intellectual property expert who works part time from the Sydney offices of Thomson Geer, Ghassemian says she is lucky to be able to combine her interests. After all, she says, life is not a dress rehearsal. She uses her French language skills to communicate with her business partners in Morocco, and she relies heavily on her Italian for the business importing Sicilian crystal and ceramics.
“I completed my studies while working full time in sole practice, with the flexibility that gave me,” Ghassemian says. “I use my business skills, particularly those learnt through small business networking, to help me prepare business plans and to reengage with contacts made through that activity, such as a website developer and a travel agent.
“I also used my intellectual property knowledge to help secure the intellectual property assets for on-sale value down the track. But I got other lawyers to settle the consultant agreements and the booking terms and conditions, because a lawyer who acts for herself has a fool for a client – I really believe that.”
A chance encounter with a fellow languages student introduced Ghassemian to Morocco. Her classmate, Anna, was engaged to a man from Morocco and had a special interest in Moroccan fine art. When Anna invited Ghassemian to travel to the country it was the beginning of an enduring love for a place that sits at the very edge of Africa. Anna now works with her in Ghassemian’s “Aussies in Morocco Tours” business.
“What we have to focus on in Aussies in Morocco Tours is the trust and the safety aspect for our travellers. We also have to be accountable and use trusted suppliers,” Ghassemian explains.
“We do everything we can to look after everybody, but with any adventure there is an element of risk. What I say is that we will do our best to look after your health, your safety, and to protect you from charlatans.”
In 2015, Ghassemian’s legal work centred on huge efforts to bring civil claims on behalf of victims of child sexual assault. The case demanded her full-time attention for about three years, and her intellectual property work receded in importance. Reflecting on the experience, Ghassemian says that kind of work can be a huge stressor for a sole practitioner acting on a no-win, no-fee basis. But it is also a great example of how legal practitioners can end up feeling feel conflicted about good business versus care for their clients.
“What happens is that you have all these overheads for two years relating to a matter for which you are not receiving payment. Then at the end, if you make a commitment to a client that ‘I will get you a certain sum’, that can mean you take a cut in your fees.
“Because your client is a victim of child sexual assault, you don’t want them to be a victim again through the process. You want to try and preserve them, look after them and do the right thing by them. That’s always the conflict that’s present in your work as a lawyer – between being a human being and being a lawyer. They can be quite different in various ways.”