In the mid-80’s, I was a young attorney working for one of the few firms in Georgia that represented workers in employment matters. Georgia employment law then, and now, was almost non-existent. Federal employment laws generally didn’t provide for jury trials, compensatory or punitive damages; and the 11th Circuit had only recently recognized that Title VII provided protection against sexual harassment. There were few opportunities to connect with like-minded attorneys, either for assistance or camaraderie. Though gratifying, representing workers was often a discouraging experience. Then, I met Paul Tobias.
My then husband had just won a big civil rights case against the University of Georgia, and got a call from a group called the Plaintiff’s Employment Lawyers Associate inviting him to speak at a conference in Florida. Attending that conference changed my life and career forever.
I still remember walking into the small conference room and being pleasantly shocked to see there were so many people who represented workers (probably no more than 50 people), including people who would become lifelong friends. We were greeted warmly by Paul, who said something along the lines of, “You should start a PELA chapter in Georgia.” By the end of the weekend, Paul had convinced us that we had no choice but to go back to Georgia and spread the word about PELA. Thus, PELA-Georgia, now NELA-GA, was created.
The initial group included Pat Nelson, my then husband, now retired Superior Judges David Sweat and Bensonetta Lane, current Federal Judge Amy Totenberg, Mary Ann Oakley and me. Since that time, NELA-GA has grown to its current membership of nearly 150 people.
I attended the second ever PELA convention in Cape Cod, where I met hundreds of plaintiff’s employment lawyers, included Bruce Fredrickson, from Washington, DC, Kent Spriggs from Florida, Harris Butler from Virginia, and Texas attorneys Janette Johnson, and my dear friend, Margie Harris. I have not missed a NELA convention since then.
With Paul’s continued encouragement, I became involved in NELA at the National level, and ended up serving on the Executive Board for nearly fifteen years, including being President for two years from 2004-2006. (I still smile recalling sitting next to Paul during Board meetings when Paul would turn off his hearing aid during particularly long discussions and ask that I let him know when there was something important enough for him to hear.)
For every hour I have devoted to NELA, I have gained so much more in return. In the early days, there was what Paul called the “PELA Pledge,” where members pledged to take any call for assistance from a fellow PELA lawyer. The NELA Exchange has largely replaced that pledge, and the Exchange and other NELA benefits have allowed me and thousands of others to be a part of the nation’s largest Plaintiff’s employment law firm.
I suspect if a NELA family tree was created, we’d find a direct line from Paul Tobias to nearly every NELA affiliate in the Country, and, at least, an indirect line to the majority of NELA members in the US and abroad.
Without NELA, and Paul Tobias, it is fair to say that I would not likely have survived practicing employment law for forty years.
Even as employment laws have expanded, efforts continue to thwart workers who seek the laws’ protection, and workers still face many challenges in the workplace and in the Courts. NELA has and continues to help level the playing field so that workers and their advocates, have a chance to obtain justice through the Courts.
We are all better persons for Paul Tobias having been a part of our lives. There will never be another Paul, and we will miss him forever. His legacy, including NELA, will live on forever, an everlasting tribute to Paul, a truly great American.
Thank you Paul, and thank you Phyllis for sharing Paul with the NELA family.