The Portsmouth office for New Hampshire Legal Assistance sits about a block from the Piscataqua River. Like most old Portsmouth buildings, the office is flush to the one-way road. Getting out of your car, you’ll immediately be met with the intoxicating scent of the sea: a blast of salt and wind that notifies you’re a stone’s throw from a torment of water.
Which is what the Piscataqua is, legendarily. As the tides shift, the river churns, generating a fearsome display of swirling water and hidden undertows that can vacuum unsuspecting targets into the inky blackness below.
It’s a worthy metaphor for the labyrinthine topography of the legal system; you won’t consider the reams of statutes until you’re faced with navigating them. And for most people, this is so imposing, a casual evening dip into the jaws of the Piscataqua would be preferable.
Enter John Tobin, Executive Director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA), and his staff of highly-skilled legal eagles.
A United Way partner agency, NHLA is a state-wide resource for low-income individuals whose circumstances have brought them face-to-face with the morass that can be state and federal bureaucracy. These situations can include domestic violence, housing, consumer debt issues and utility shut-offs or, more intimidating, Medicaid and Medicare denials.
John and his detachment of lawyers and paralegals work on behalf of clients who could otherwise not afford the fees of private firms. Operating solely in the realm of civil litigation and advocacy with government agencies, the lawyers at NHLA have opted to apply their talents to advocating on behalf of the vulnerable. In 2013, NHLA has already served 865 Seacoast-area clients through referrals and representation, especially in housing and family law cases, which represents over two-thirds of their activity.
“We’re working to help people stabilize their lives,” he says. “Some people demonize the poor, but there are others who mythologize them as well. All people have flaws. All people make mistakes. Some just have the resources to fix those mistakes.”
The lawyers at NHLA have opted to follow a different professional route, eschewing the comparative riches of litigating in a firm–which isn’t to say the agency is wanting for talent. John is insistent on this fact: he has some of the best and brightest working for him, born of the most premium law schools. The advocacy they’re practicing is tapping into a vein of idealism that propels people into the legal career in the first place.
“Sure there are lawyers who get into the field to make money,” John says. “But many want to make the world a better place. This work enables people to fulfill that desire in a deeply satisfying way.”
Asked about his relationship with United Way, John feels both agencies share the same vision in long-term, systemic change. Though the NHLA helps clients one at a time, the case outcomes they achieve set precedents and have long-lasting effects.
“United Way is uniquely valuable and effective in pulling together the business community and the social service network for the good of the both sectors and community as a whole,” he says. “They create social capital as well as financial resources to address community problems and improve all of our lives.”
The work of NHLA has an economic pay-off as well; successful child support advocacy in a domestic violence case can reduce a family’s dependence on taxpayer dollars. Additionally, NHLA’s extensive work in Social Security and Medicare cases bring federal dollars into the state.
John knew from the get-go this was to be his professional trajectory. Raised in a poor Irish family, John’s father put himself through law school with key help from the GI bill, and he taught John both a love for the lawyering craft and an appreciation for the fact that we all depend on help from each other during our lives and should look for every opportunity to give back. John has been with NHLA for 38 of the 42 years it’s been in existence.
Adorning the wall of the NHLA conference room in that Portsmouth office is a shelf unit jammed with books on federal statutes. It is an intimidating sight. But John and his colleagues embrace their complexity. For within the density of those texts lies the ability to extend a needed life-line to those that desperately need it, and pull them from the depths.