Profile

Labor’s laborer

Paul Tobias ’58 has worked to improve the working life

Photograph of Paul Tobias
Michael Wilson

Paul Tobias co-founded the National Employment Lawyers Association.


When Paul Tobias ’58 was not yet 30, he wrote to Herbert Hoover, Carl Jung and several hundred others, seeking advice on turning 70.

The project was a birthday gift for his father, but the wisdom he received—keep a youthful spirit, pursue meaningful work, find happiness in helping others—foretold his advocacy on behalf of working people.

For the past 25 years, Tobias has defended the rights of nonunion employees, waging a “David and Goliath” fight for workplace fairness. In 1985, he banded together with a dozen other plaintiffs’ attorneys and founded the National Employment Lawyers Association, whose now 3,000 members form what he calls “the thin red line,” protecting the rights of millions of American workers.

Tobias drifted into law school after a four-year stint with the CIA, contemplating government service. After landing in Archibald Cox’s class, he found the varied aspects of labor law captivating, the conflict exciting.

He began by representing management in Boston and went on to defend both companies and unions in his hometown of Cincinnati. But over time, he developed a niche representing union members in cases involving the duty of fair representation.

“I think my liberal instincts came out,” said Tobias. “I just felt more comfortable representing individuals than I did management.”

This role didn’t endear him to union leaders, and breaking into a bar association dominated by management and union lawyers wasn’t easy. While he won important victories, he also gained a reputation as a rebel. “I’ve made peace with them over the last 15 years,” said Tobias, now a governor of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers.

By the mid-1970s, just as Tobias was setting up his own shop, now known as Tobias, Kraus & Torchia, the tide began to turn. In the wake of legislation barring discrimination in the workplace, there was a new demand for employment lawyers.

In 1984, Tobias called for a meeting of lawyers in his field, arguing, “We have nothing to lose but our cases!” The following year, the Plaintiff (now National) Employment Lawyers Association was born.

For the first five years, he ran the association out of his Cincinnati office. He wrote to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requesting the names of attorneys on Title VII discrimination cases. Within two years of its founding, the association had 450 members in 42 states. Almost 300 new members joined each year, and the number reached more than 2,000 by 1995.

In 1987, Tobias co-wrote the first major treatise geared to plaintiffs’ attorneys, “Litigating Wrongful Discharge Claims.” He also published two survival guides for employees and helped create an educational nonprofit, the National Employee Rights Institute, now known as Workplace Fairness.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of employment discrimination cases filed in federal court increased by almost 250 percent. “Companies are much more cautious in the way they run themselves now, because of their fear of lawsuits,” said Tobias.

Watching the growth of the plaintiffs’ bar has been thrilling for him, but he is discouraged that there is still so much unfairness in the workplace, such as the “antiquated and nefarious” at-will doctrine, which allows many employers to terminate employees at any time, for any reason.

“People think that if they are treated unfairly, a lawyer can help them,” said Tobias. “But they think the law is better than it is.”

Now 76, Tobias says he has no plans to retire. He is currently an ALI adviser on the “Restatement of Employment Law.” He has also helped form a senior law division of the Cincinnati Bar and is hoping to develop a National Senior Service Corps. And he is completing a book of advice for those over 70, compiled from his father’s birthday letters.

“There is a great deal to be done in the world after one has achieved his three score and ten,” wrote Roscoe Pound to the senior Tobias. “There is nothing that keeps one alive like steady attention to worthwhile ventures.”

—Christine Perkins


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