In 1978 I was living in Ohio. I was the Executive Director of Women’s Law Fund, a not-for-profit legal organization and grantee of the Ford Foundation established to eradicate sex discrimination in employment. The Law Fund was handling a number of Title VII cases in the Southern District of Ohio and Title VII litigation, generally, was on the increase, especially in Cincinnati. At that time there were not many attorneys who were familiar with the special problems presented by Title VII cases. Pregnancy discrimination and the BFOQ exception were still live issues under Title VII. I decided that it would be a wise use of the limited funds in the Law Fund’s budget (and beneficial to the Cincinnati bench and bar) to sponsor a day-long conference in Cincinnati dealing with sex discrimination and related federal legislation. I arranged for practitioners and judges to speak on various topics and allowed sufficient social time during lunch for the participants to get to know one another. One of the practitioners who attended that conference was Paul Tobias.
Near the end of the conference Paul approached me with an idea: “This was great! You need to hold conferences like this across the country and organize the plaintiff’s bar to take on the employers.” We then discussed the benefits which such an effort could produce. While he kept urging me to “think big,” I explained to him that Women’s Law Fund was essentially a law firm; that the Ford Foundation gave us funding to engage in precedent-setting litigation, not to hold conferences around the country urging others to take on litigation. We just did not have the funding to take on such a venture. We ended the day with an understanding: if he wanted to organize plaintiff’s employment lawyers, he could count on me to provide whatever support I could within the limits of my funding.
Over the next months, Paul and I spoke on occasion. And then, the precursor to NELA was born; an organization of lawyers from New York to California practicing in all aspects of employment law. And then, in 1985, Paul organized this loose collection of attorneys into the National Employment Lawyers Association. And his vision of a national gathering of plaintiff’s employment attorneys, where the participants could both share their legal experiences and insights as well as build those personal social bonds which sustain, had become a reality. In the interim I had moved on to the EEOC and my contacts with Paul became less and less frequent. But at every NELA conference I attended, Paul and I would talk about that day in Cincinnati, Ohio, when this brash employment lawyer had a vision: a vision of attorneys, working together, across the country, to achieve workplace fairness for employees. Paul Tobias, you will be missed.
“Ha’makom yenahem etkhem betokh she’ar avelei Tziyonvi’Yerushalayim.”