Paul H. Tobias Tribute

Terisa E. Chaw

Words are inadequate to express what Paul Tobias means to me, The NELA/Institute Family, and the cause of employee rights. No one who met Paul could ever forget him. His ready smile, welcoming demeanor, hearty handshake, and genuine interest in people made them feel special, like a long-lost friend.

I will always be grateful to Paul for trusting me with his “baby,” and giving me the opportunity of a lifetime to serve as NELA’s Executive Director. Not only did we have a deep professional relationship, we also had a profound personal bond. He was my mentor, friend, and champion. I affectionately called him “Boss.” 

As I think about my 27 year partnership with Paul, memories abound. Paul took time from his busy law practice to call me to check in and ask if I needed his help with anything. He began these calls on a weekly basis when I first started at NELA, and they became monthly as the years passed by. Among the many precious memories I have of Paul are his handwritten notes of encouragement to me; singing “New York, New York” karaoke-style and dancing together at NELA Galas to raise funds to support the DC Office; the way he demonstrated his appreciation for each member of the NELA/Institute Staff; and his unparalleled empathy for workers who had no legal recourse, but just needed someone to listen to their story.

Paul often said NELA was his greatest professional accomplishment. Because he took a chance on me in 1990, I too can say that NELA is my greatest professional accomplishment. I am most proud of playing a role in making Paul’s dream of NELA’s charitable public interest organization come true. One of the first tasks Paul gave me when I became Executive Director was to draft a memo on the formation of what would become The Employee Rights Advocacy Institute For Law & Policy. It took 17 years for The Institute to become a reality, and today it is NELA’s indispensable partner in advancing equality and justice in the American workplace. The Institute project that is nearest and dearest to my heart is The Paul H. Tobias Attorney Fellowship Program, which provides a new lawyer who embodies Paul’s indomitable spirit the opportunity to work at The Institute for two years.

As we mourn the passing of our beloved Paul, I am also celebrating his remarkable life and legacy. It is my fervent hope that Paul’s family will find comfort in knowing how much he means to us individually and collectively. He left the world a better place than he found it, and recruited all of us to join him in ensuring that workers have effective legal representation to enforce their rights to a fair and just workplace, adequate remedies, and a right to trial by jury. Paul inspired generations of employee rights advocates, including my eldest daughter, who will continue to make his dreams tomorrow’s reality.

Boss, it was an immense honor and privilege to be your co-conspirator in building the largest plaintiffs’ employment law firm on the planet—you will always hold a special place in my heart.

“Let us make our future now, and let us make our dreams tomorrow’s reality.”

               —Malala Yousafzai