Life of service led Concord’s Tobin to NHLA, where he ends 40-year career
Lawyers at New Hampshire Legal Assistance know they can’t take every case that comes across their desk. But Executive Director John Tobin has made sure the cases they do take have the most possible benefit to the state’s neediest residents.
After almost 40 years at NHLA, including 18 as its top administrator, Tobin, 65, will step down July 31. Longtime Deputy Director Lynne Parker, a Concord native, will begin Aug. 1. Tobin departs as one of the most respected members of the state’s legal community, a man who fought tirelessly for civil legal aid and carried the group through significant financial changes in the last decade.
“The basic principle is equal justice under law. That means giving poor people the same range of legal services that wealthy people have,” Tobin said yesterday at NHLA’s North State Street office in Concord. “I’ve always believed equal justice doesn’t mean you just find some lawyer to do something. Poor people deserve lawyers that are as good as any other, and we’ve had some of the best in the state.”
As a child in upstate New York, Tobin heard his father talk about the G.I. Bill and how it helped send him to college and law school. “He always talked about how it gave him a chance to succeed, and he ended up having a very successful career that provided for all of us,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to do from before I went to law school.”
He found a perfect fit in NHLA, a nonprofit civil legal aid program that serves the state’s low-income residents. Clients include victims seeking safety from domestic abuse, veterans seeking benefits, disabled people who want access to health care and families fighting to keep their housing. The organization has offices in Concord, Manchester, Claremont, Portsmouth and Berlin, where Tobin spent the first 10 years of his career.
Since then, Tobin’s advocacy has repositioned civil legal assistance in New Hampshire’s law community, said former state Supreme Court justice James Duggan.
“They were really regarded as fringe lawyers. I think what John has done for N.H. Legal Assistance has really brought the legal aid into the mainstream,” said Duggan, who met Tobin while working in the public defender’s office. “The people who used to not pay much attention to legal assistance now look at it as a keystone of legal services in New Hampshire.”
Success wasn’t a guarantee, as NHLA has wrestled with uneven funding for most of Tobin’s tenure. In 2008, the organization laid off several employees as money from its supporters dwindled. Massive human service cuts in the 2011 state budget resulted in the closure of offices in Nashua and Littleton and forced Tobin to lay off a third of his staff. That it survived is a credit to Tobin’s leadership, Duggan said.
“When the bottom fell out and federal legal aid money went down, it was a bad time for NHLA. John was the one who really had to make the tough decisions and carry the morale of legal aid,” he said. “I think that carried over into the staff.”
NHLA now retains 13 staff in its five offices. “There aren’t enough of us, so we really have to triage and do the things that are the most urgent,” Tobin said. “Every week there are cases that don’t get done, not because they don’t need to get done, but because we don’t have the resources.”
During his first years in the North Country, he’d call utility companies on behalf of families who couldn’t pay their electric bills in the winter. He’d scour their rules and regulations looking for ways to persuade the utility to help with bills. Since then, the NHLA helped create a program that by law added a small charge to electric bills by the Public Utilities Commission. The fee goes into a pool, distributed by local community action programs to more than 30,000 families who need heating assistance.
NHLA also helped bring a lawsuit against the state in 1999 on behalf of mothers who were unable to get dental care for Medicaid-eligible children. The subsequent agreement allowed the state to get better access to dental care for Medicaid families.
As lead counsel, NHLA led the charge to close the Laconia State School and creation of more community-based services for disabled individuals, according to information from the N.H. Bar Association.
More recently, NHLA helped bring a lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections saying female inmates did not have access to the same services as men in state prisons. The lawsuit is on hold, while the state moves forward with plans to build a new women’s prison in Concord.
These cases represent the systemic work NHLA does, Tobin said. Success in these cases starts with the thousands of individual cases NHLA handles, he said.
“If you talk to enough individual clients, you start to see patterns,” Tobin said. “That systemic work – we don’t just dream it up. It is based on seeing lots and lots of clients, and I think good legal aid lawyers should be looking at those patterns and should be taking those issues where they need to go.”
Tobin was an expert litigator who expected excellence from his staff and thanked them endlessly for their work, said former board chairman Mark Rouvalis. “There are few people in the bar who are as widely respected as John,” said Rouvalis, who served on the board of directors from 2001 to April.
“He could have done anything,” Rouvalis said. “He chose a career that was dedicated to helping the lives of others. That’s not a small thing.”
(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)