Empowering Workers' Rights Attorneys
Paul was an extraordinary person. We will not soon see his like again.
He was quite simply a wonderful human being: warm, generous, gracious, engaging, kind, caring, funny, humble, passionate, enthusiastic, committed, tenacious, smart, quirky … and more. And of course, he was a wonderful lawyer and leader. He hated injustice and unfairness, and he devoted his professional life to helping “the little guy” against those with more power – as he put it so often, David versus Goliath.
I was very fortunate to be Paul’s friend and mentee. He changed my life in many ways, professionally and personally.
NELA is the “lengthened shadow” of Paul Tobias, and it will carry forward his vision and attributes long after his departure. He embedded in NELA his attributes of collegiality, caring, sharing, passion, and commitment. For those who may not know the story, I have appended a short history of Paul’s role in starting and building NELA (and Workplace Fairness), told from my personal perspective.
Paul changed the lives of literally countless others, and his impact will continue to ripple outward for a long time. What a legacy!
He personally touched hundreds of employee-side lawyers: those he encouraged to help start and build NELA; those he buttonholed to do his bidding, such as starting NELA chapters; those he urged to get involved in NELA and its affiliates; those he invited to NELA conventions or conferences; those he welcomed warmly at those events; those newcomers who he introduced to others; those he inspired with his enthusiasm and passion; those he amused with his antics, including his riotous Roll Call of the States at the start of each convention, which he famously flubbed every year; those he cheered on when they suffered the setbacks characteristic of our practice; and those he warmed with a broad smile and a hearty slap on the back.
He touched thousands of employee-side lawyers who are the beneficiaries of NELA and its affiliates – and the CLE, support, camaraderie, and influence of those organizations.
He touched the lives of thousands of lawyers, whether NELA lawyers or not, who benefited from the improved federal, state, and local laws that resulted from the efforts of NELA and its affiliates and the efforts of NELA lawyers in the courts.
He touched the lives of millions of employees who benefited from the services of NELA lawyers and from the laws that NELA, its affiliates, and its members helped to improve.
In addition to all that, Paul was a good friend to many, including me.
Paul and I worked together closely on NELA and Workplace Fairness for many years. He was always cheerful, positive, and enthusiastic, whatever the challenges. Following Paul’s inimitable example, we muddled through and figured out things as we went along.
Paul organized and lead nine trips for NELA lawyers to places like China, South Africa, Cuba, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and Argentina. A goal of those trips was educational and cultural exchanges; toward that end, Paul arranged for us to meet with government officials, judges, practicing lawyers, bar leaders, and law school professors in all those places. We also did lots of sightseeing, made lasting friendships, and had lots of fun- especially the hilarious (and sometimes baffling) “awards” that Paul announced during the closing dinner of each trip. I will always treasure those adventures with Paul.
Paul obviously believed in trying to make things better and pursing his visions – however unlikely or difficult (as exemplified by NELA). He encouraged others, including me, to do the same. About 1996, at Smokey Joe’s Bar in Key West, he urged me to pursue my vision of starting and building my own law firm. With his encouragement, I did just that about two years later. I often thanked him for his advice and nudging.
In 2005, Paul was honored by being the subject of an interview for the Video History Project of the College of Labor & Employment Lawyers, which preserves the personal stories of distinguished individuals who played a significant role in the development of U.S. labor and employment law. Certainly, Paul belonged in the elite group. That interview is available on the College’s website: https://www.laborandemploymentcollege.org/video-history/video-history-2.
Paul was fortunate to have two very special women in his life: his beloved wife Phyllis and his devoted secretary Patty Losacker. I will always remember how they both did whatever they could to help Paul, especially in his later years. He was a very lucky guy – and he knew it. I can only imagine how tough his passing is for those two wonderful ladies.
I will miss him. We all will miss him.
An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
My Brief History of Paul’s Founding of NELA and Workplace Fairness
In late 1984 or early 1985, I got a phone call from a quirky stranger in Cincinnati. Long before the internet or emails, Paul somehow tracked me down after reading somewhere that I had written a book called “The Rights of Employees.” He told me that he planned to start an organization of and for lawyers who represent employees. His enthusiasm was infectious. I later learned that he had made similar unexpected calls to many other lawyers around the country.
In March 1985, the relatively new Committee on the Development of the Law of Individual Rights and Responsibilities in the Workplace of the ABA Labor & Employment Law Section (later renamed the Employment Rights and Responsibilities Committee) held its midwinter meeting at the Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, Florida. During that meeting, Paul convened a meeting of lawyers attending that meeting who represented employees. I was fortunate to be one of those present, along with Barry Roseman, Cliff Palefsky, Penny Nathan Kahan, and about half a dozen others. Paul told us about his grand idea; and he handed out his one-page mission statement, which provided the blueprint for the organization for years to come. He likened the new organization to a nationwide law firm, with every member bound to help every other member. I recall him invoking his favorite David v. Goliath metaphor. Each person attending agreed to contribute $500 each as seed money. Thus, the Plaintiff Employment Lawyers Association was born … and the rest is history.
Thereafter, Paul ran PELA from the corner of his desk in Cincinnati – with the invaluable assistance of Patty Losacker. He continued button-holing lawyers around the country not only to join PELA but also to start local chapters. With his prodding, I started the New York chapter in the spring of 1986. When a lawyer who “volunteered” to start a chapter failed to get the job done, Paul gently but firmly replaced that person with another “volunteer.” That was the start of the current network of affiliates.
The initial board was enhanced by new members, including Naida Axford of Arizona, who became PELA’s first president. At first, the spring board meetings were held in conjunction with the ABALEL ERR Committee. About 1990, the board decided to change the name of the organization to the National Employment Lawyers Association: Advocates for Workplace Fairness.
About that time, the board decided to hold a convention. Fearing that the convention might not attract enough people to breakeven, the board members pledged to make up any shortfall pro rata. Fortunately, the convention in Lake Tahoe in June 1990 was a great success, with about 150 attendees; the convention lost money, but not enough to sink the organization. That is when the board realized the organization “had legs” and decided to hire its first employee, an executive director. Until then, Paul was the de facto executive director. The board then made one of its best decisions ever – hiring Teri Chaw. NELA really took off.
About 1993, Paul and I discussed the need for NELA to have a not-for-profit arm that could solicit tax deductible contributions and could help promote NELA’s objectives. With a seed grant of $10,000 from NELA, the National Employee Rights Institute was founded for the purposes of educating workers about their rights and promoting worker rights. Paul was Chair of the Board and I was President. Thereafter, Paul always greeted me as “Mr. President” and I greeted him as “Mr. Chairman.” I will miss him calling me that. NERI went on to publish numerous pamphlets, books, and journals. About 2000, NERI was renamed Workplace Fairness and launched its now renowned website: www.workplacefairness.org.
Paul was an honorary member of the boards of both NELA and Workplace Fairness until the very end, out of respect for his role in starting and building both organizations.