I’ll never forget my first meeting with Paul Tobias. I suspect that’s true of every other NELA members who had the privilege of being a friend of Paul, working with Paul or just meeting Paul at a NELA convention.
One of Paul’s many roles was to be a Johnny Appleseed of plaintiffs’ employment law. He loved to plant the seeds from which whole forests of warriors of fighters for employment rights have grown.
In 1985, some people talked about the need for an organization of, by and for plaintiffs’ employment lawyers. Paul made it happen. Later, some talked about the need for a non-profit organization supporting the cause of workers’ rights, especially for non-unionized workers. Paul made Workplace Fairness happen. Some thought it would be a good idea to learn about employees’ rights internationally. Paul made that happen, too. The list goes on and on.
Paul didn’t just tell people these were good ideas. He was a happy warrior. He loved to engage with people, to urge them enthusiastically to take up the cause and to have a good time doing it. That is why he started every NELA convention, for decades, with a roll call of the states. Not only did that wake everyone up, but it was a joyous act. It was his inimitable way not only of starting the convention, but of having fun doing it. That fun was infectious. It was Paul.
He brought the same enthusiasm to everything he did. He started a 5K race at NELA conventions, sometimes modifying the age brackets to help him win his own bracket. He loved to play tennis with the same competitive urge. He loved to ski and to swim. Not only did he launch a series of trips to four continents to learn how other countries handle employment disputes, he loved to organize the trips and to be our lead ambassador, the person who did our official greetings and engaged with our counterparts abroad.
He was the same way with each of us. If any of us had a problem, we knew we could call him and that he would respond with help and encouragement. It was the same way with anyone we met. One of my favorite photos of Paul, from one of his international employment-law junkets to China, was of Paul happily meeting and talking to a group of Chinese schoolgirls we met during a sightseeing excursion to Macau. That was the same Paul we knew from meetings with employment lawyers, judges and government officials.
Paul was not perfect. He made mistakes. He had regrets that sometimes his well-laid plans didn’t work out so well. But that never stopped him from trying, from encouraging all of us to keep on going and to push the boundaries. While some of us might have griped a little, we all knew that we were all part of the same effort to bring some semblance of justice to the American worker. His fight and our fight were one, are one. His enthusiasm became our own.
It is impossible to think of NELA without understanding the passions of Paul Tobias. It is impossible to think of Paul without considering what he helped to birth with NELA. He knew that his cause would not be resolved during his lifetime, that NELA was one way his vision would survive him. We can honor his memory by continuing and improving on what he helped to create.