Started with New Hampshire Legal Assistance in 1971 and became Executive Director.
Oral history details
|Robert D. Gross
|Date of interview:
|Nov 1, 1991
|Where relates to:
|Civil legal aid: General
|Georgetown Law Library link (possible video):
Full text of transcriptDownload PDF: Transcript
Georgetown University Law Center
National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with: Robert Gross (RG)
Conducted by: Guy Lescault (GL)
Interview date: November 1, 1991
GL: This is the oral history interview of Robert D. Gross taken on 1 November ‘91 at NLADA’s convention in Portland Oregon. Guy Lescault is conducting the interview. Today we are going to be talking to Bob about New Hampshire legal assistance, how the director has survived the years since when? Tell us a little about your background and how you came to be involved in legal aid.
RG: I’m a product of the ‘60s, I guess, and was doing some community organizing in Cleveland one summer and there were some tenants who were organizing and were at the stage where they needed a lawyer and there didn’t seem to be any around to handle low-income people’s problems and I think that kind of planted the seed in my mind about being a lawyer. My brother was a lawyer…is a lawyer…but the “was” was seeing his law books lying around and that persuaded me for a while that I didn’t want to become a lawyer because if you’ve seen those thick things, as you know, kind of a drag. After a stint in Berkeley in the sixties, I decided somewhat reluctantly, to go to law school but it was clear at that time that I was going to do legal services and so I did.
GL: You went to law school where?
RG: Cleveland, Case Western Reserve University, 1969 graduated in ’72, went to New Hampshire Legal Assistance as a summer law intern in 1971, 20 years ago. Twenty dollars and a room was the pay for the summer. It was a great experience.
GL: How did you get to New Hampshire from Cleveland?
RG: Should I say by Volkswagon bus? Actually, I had gone to summer camp in New Hampshire and that summer I really wanted to go to San Francisco to do legal services but it was more difficult to traverse from Cleveland and I was talking to my brother and he happened to be an acquaintance of this fellow who was the brand new director of New Hampshire legal assistance and he said, “Why don’t you call George?”
GL: George being Bruno.
RG: And I couldn’t resist the offer.
GL: The money?
RG: The money was so enticing, but no, the idea of doing legal services in a state that I remembered fondly, it was great.
GL: What did you do that summer?
RG: That summer, the program was really in its infant stage and how infant it was was that I had taken a two-hour course, I think, in law school called Poverty Law and when I came to New Hampshire legal assistance, I was the expert on welfare. Of course, I didn’t know where the court was much else what to do once you got in it.
GL: Couldd you go into court?
RG: Not at that time, I don’t think. But what we did was, when I arrived as I recall, the state, New Hampshire being conservative is always trying to cut the budget for low-income people or human services, had issued an AFDC reduction of 50% in the checks and George said to me, “Stop it!”
GL: You read poverty law.
RG: That’s right. And actually we drafted a complaint and in those days there were welfare rights organizations and they got together and had a demonstration and one never knows what we did, if anything, to lead to the result but the cuts were stopped, at least in welfare. They probably took them out of education or something. But I learned a lot and I learned actually how good that course had been in law school. It was really amazing.
GL: Had you any clinical program in law school?
RG: Yeah. Actually, I worked with some other people, Bob Sable and Lionel at Cleveland Legal Aid society. They don’t remember me because they are already ensconced but did clinical both in the law reform unit and then the neighborhood office including some criminal representation, a small amount, and trial advocacy. This is going back. So you learned a little bit about standing up. Then that summer, I don’t think we did any court at New Hampshire Legal Assistance. There were the railroad reductions, and then I did assist an attorney in the first class action that was filed in that state and learned another lesson. The state was aid to the permanently and totally disabled and New Hampshire, in its wisdom, only considered physically disabled as qualified so there was a class action brought and there was a preliminary injunction, I think it was TRO, and the attorney went up there and had the witness on the stand and the judge who was listening very intently and was I think very concerned with what was going on asked, “Well, how is she getting by?” The father was on the stand, as I recall, and the father said, “It’s ok. We’ll take care of her.” And the preliminary injunction, the TRO, went down the drain. But the case was won eventually and it was headlines in New Hampshire. You may remember this, I don’t know
GL: Well, headlines in what? The Union Leader?
RG: Headlines in the Union Leader which was, you know, the incredible amount of dollars that were going to be spent to take care of these people who shouldn’t be taken care because I don’t know why. Because they are mentally disabled, I suppose.
GL: There might be some people who’ve never had the opportunity to see — can you describe the Union Leader?
RG: The Manchester Union Leader: editorials on the front page, often, the headline is an editorial. Shall I talk about the ones that affect us?
GL: Well, there were the, if I recall, name of welfare chiseller and cheat and their names would be printed on the front page.
RG: Right. Anytime there was a vote in the state legislature that had to do with taxes, that might increase taxes or even smell of increasing taxes, William Loeb, then editor, would print the name in bold print of anyone who came close to even thinking about voting for taxes and those were the days of Mel Thompson, who was known for his strange behavior. Wanted to, at one point—
GL: He was the governor?
RG: He was the governor. Wanted to arm the National Guard with nuclear weapons, I think to protect New Hampshire from Maine.
RG: Lobsterman, right. The wars. He ran on an axe the tax pledge and New Hampshire since then, and this has been 20 years ever since then and not before, it has been routine that if you want to be elected as governor, you have to take the pledge against the tax, and against anything that looks forward beyond the 18th or 19th century as well, I guess. I shouldn’t be cynical. . .
GL: Coming from a large urban area like Cleveland and your experience with Cleveland, legal aid in New Hampshire in its early days was sort of a stranger in a strange land, wouldn’t you say?
RG: I don’t know. As a lawyer with clients, the people were no different, had the same kind of problems and challenges and hopes and dreams. The political environment in which one operated, if that is what you mean, was a little different. Quite different. The press was vitriolic. I stared in ’72—
GL: What made you decide to come back in ’72?
RG: I liked it. I liked the idea that you could accomplish something there. I saw that, being the welfare expert right out of law school but aside from that it wasn’t just an ego thing I don’t think but you had the sense that in that environment and in that size state you could connect with—if you called the welfare department someone would answer the phone and you might learn the person’s name and they might actually know your client in those days. It’s not the case anymore. Butyou felt that you could affect change and it would be meaningful and rewarding and do something good.
GL: If I recall, in the process, you could end up with your case going to the Supreme Court all in one fell swoop. There was not a lengthy delay in the court structure.
RG: No, and you may recall the one that I had, the only one in the Supreme Court, in 1973 or 74 . . .You could do a lot of things in New Hampshire and I came as a Reggie that first year in ’72 and one of the things I did was work on housing and landlord-tenant law and in ’73, the legislature met every other year for six months, three days a week, and some thought even then it was too much.
GL: Paid legislators?
RG: One hundred dollars a year.
GL: And the size?
RG: The third largest legislative body in the world, 400 members.
GL: Your neighbor was a legislator. The age?
RG: Average age was probably around 67 at that time. But for some reason, I went to the legislature in ’73, I guess George probably said, “Do it” or “Stop it” or something up there. I had a moustache and was from out of state and didn’t have the accent down yet of the north country where still a lot of things were dominated in the area of housing. There was one legislator, Hilda Brunga (??), she was well passed 67 and every time there was a bill that reached the floor of the house that had landlord tenant involved, she would, with her walker, come from the very back, so it was very dramatic. It would take her a couple minutes to get up to the podium and she’d get up there and she’d say, “This is a liar’s bill.” And we lost every one of them.
GL: “I am a landlord. All tenants are pigs. Is there any need to pursue this?” [laughter]
RG: Well, you know, she was a powerful force and one year a few years later, I said, “We’re losing all the time. I think I’ll go talk to her.” I went up to Berlin which is way up north where she lives and apartments were called “rents” and she talked about her rents and she invited me in and we had coffee and I learned that she didn’t understand the process at all and she was hiring lawyers for the early stages of the eviction process and no one else was and so she had this resentment about liars and so whenever she saw landlord-tenant she thought of lawyers and spending money. By the time we got done, she was prepared to mellow out a bit and actually support some simple landlord-tenant reform. The problem was she resigned. She was by then, the oldest living legislator in the country, I think.
GL: When you talk about housing, when I was running next door to the mobile home, it occurred to me that you are the father of mobile home legislation for New Hampshire.
RG: Yeah. The situation was really terrible. Mobile home parks were these self-enclosed entities that the people who ran them would tell the residents from whom they could buy their oil, what kind of skirting they had to have on their mobile homes, how often they had to paint it, who would plow the drives and there would usually be a connection with some relative. Mobile homes were pretty much zoned out of the community except if you got one park in, that was it. If you had a mobile home and you were in the park, you had no place else to go. They were pretty expense then. You were captive and we kept seeing these evictions and these abuses. I remember going to Derry district court, small town in southern New Hampshire, trying to stop an eviction, filing all kinds of state action claims and the case would drag on for a while and you would try to work it out but basically the tenants were being abused. They were owners. They had this equity investment and this is a good segway back to legislation and the Supreme Court. One of the things I did, I think this was ’73 or ’75, I’m not sure when, is worked on legislation, mobile home owners’ bill of rights. There was a legislator from Macomia (??), Republican, the state senate president, Republican. Most people in New Hampshire in government are Republican so I was not surprised, and they got concerned. So there were a lot of people who came out from the parks and we really revamped the laws and enacted essentially, and in reality, good cause eviction, and there are really only four or five reasons you can evict someone from a park and there had to be notice of any problem, an opportunity to cure. It has really been a model. New Hampshire, surprisingly because it is conservative, has good cause eviction in regular housing which followed a decade later and was modeled after the mobile home bill. It’s unusual. But anyway, the story was that another legislative bill I worked on was an appeal from an eviction. At that time you had to post a bond to appeal from the lowest court to the county court. The lower court, not being a court of record and not being a court favorably disposed to tenants, you wanted to be able to appeal but no one could post a bond. So we did some legislation that got through that eliminated appeal bonds and in those days, New Hampshire had very few resources for its legislators and, essentially, you would write the bill. It would go to legislative services and it would come out in proper bill form. One of the things that would be on the front of each bill was a description of what each bill was about and you, me, could actually write that description and did. I had learned a valuable lesson before that if a description in landlord-tenant talked about a penalty for landlords as opposed to some kind of daily something or other then it got confused for a criminal action. So I wrote this bill about appeal bonds and I wrote the speech that the senator who sponsored it gave on the senate floor, a short little thing, and the bill passed and about three weeks later, I was in that Dairy district court on that eviction, another one from a mobile home park, and we lost. I’m not sure why. I can’t remember the details, and we filed an appeal. It wasn’t surprising that you lost, and I was prepared. I came into court with the statute, with a copy of it and said to the judge, “We want to appeal” and he said, “You have to post a bond” and we said, “No.” I was polite and said, “Here’s a copy of the statute,” and he said, “You are still going to have to post a bond” and the dialogue went on for a while and nothing occurred positively and you had three days to get your appeal perfected before the sheriff came to remove people forcibly. So I went over to the Superior Court and the first thing that happened there was I filed a write of prohibition and the clerk said, “You can’t file that in the Superior Court” and so I had to drive back 45 miles to my office to do some research to show him that you could indeed file it in that court. So then he let me back in the next day, took me in to see the judge and the judge said, “So, you don’t like what the lower court judge did, huh?” And I said, “Yeah, you got it. That’s why I’m here.” And he said, “You’re not going to like what I’m doing here, either. You need to post a bond.” I couldn’t quite understand this. I had written the bill. I had it in front of me and it was pretty clear, concise, and direct and the third day was running out. So I filed an appeal in the Supreme Court and talked to the clerk and they said, “You’re on oral argument tomorrow morning.” And it was the fastest case that had ever gone through that court and we put a brief together some way or other and got there and I started to introduce myself and the chief justice said, “Now remember, none of us has read anything yet.” [laughter] But we were vindicated and they cited in the opinion throwing out for the appeal bond the legislative history for the bill that I had written, which I cited in the brief. A good lesson about how to do things.
GL: This is still all as a Reggie attorney, right?
RG: No. I think I was—well, maybe it was my second year as a Reggie or maybe my third year. Legal services was so new then, generally and in New Hampshire in particular , that you were called upon to do an awful lot. Things we, in our wisdom now, we wouldn’t ask people to do it, we wouldn’t want people to do it, unless they were carefully supervised.
GL: Go to the Supreme Court tomorrow.
RG: Go to the Supreme Court tomorrow and so in those first few years, I wrote a manual on landlord-tenant law having never been in landlord-tenant court but surprisingly it’s held up to this day because I interviewed the judges and tried to get a sense of what was going on.
GL: With lobbying.
RG: Lobbying in the early ‘70s in New Hampshire with a lot of success, shockingly, and you can never tell sometimes. Did you really make it happen or was it going to happen anyway but in some cases you knew because you were the architect and it wouldn’t have happened but for your energy. I do remember back when Mel Thompson was the governor, every time I was in the legislature and saw the governor coming, I would almost hide. I would kind of duck in out of the way because he hated legal services and if he knew that we were involved in any legislation, the thing would get vetoed. He had this guy who was chairman of the sweepstakes committee at the time and he was a political appointee and he was appointed to investigate our lobbying. The investigation consisted of finding out every bill that we had been involved in and we tried to avoid that until the session was over because we knew what the consequences would be. any time a bill got to the governor’s desk that would be it so there was nothing. Everything we were doing was proper and lawful and we were registered, and appreciated by the house and the senate there but the governor’s office did not like legal services. Finally, we gave him the information that showed the fifteen or sixteen bills that we had been involved in and some of which had passed and some of which he had signed into law. We had a good chuckle at that. That was the time when the governor and the union leader decided to attack legal services, 1973. I don’t know what else — they didn’t have anything else to do. Headline in the Union Leader here, an editorial on the front page was very fond of two-inch high headlines called news, and the one that I recall was “Legal Parasites Attacked” and “Governor Cites Excessive Pay as Grand Theft.” I don’t know whose excessive pay he was talking about. Presumably, it was legal services. At that time, we were paying lawyers I think $9500 a year out of law school. It wasn’t excessive by any standards for sure and it never has been with legal services. It was the Watergate time and he said something like, “If Watergate was a burglary, legal services is grand theft on a greater scale than anything we have seen in America.” Then, in the following three days in the Union Leader with these two-inch headlines were articles by Mel Thompson, with his picture, attacking New Hampshire legal assistance. This was the headline front page news of the Manchester Union Leader, the paper that allegedly made Muskie cry and which has dominated New Hampshire politics for two decades.
GL: And it’s an error, too, that your federal tax dollars are being used to sue to obtain federal dollars, that whole philosophical OEO error that there is something inherently wrong—
RG: Well, he was an arch-conservative in a conservative stateand—
GL: He was a fool.
RG: Your words, not mine. He still writes editorials in the Manchester Union Leader. He has his picture in a little box on the front page and I guess it’s probably two or three times a week. The Union Leader is the kind of paper that dominates a state and you really don’t want to read it, it’s just awful and after being in the state for a while, it doesn’t seem so offensive because you’re so used to it and every once in a while you step back and you remember what this is all about and the attacks that would come against anyone that did anything positively in the state, they would coin names. Devious Dave was the senate president who at that time was a moderate Republican but they didn’t like him, and those kinds of things. A long time ago.
GL: Well, if I recall too, it was another day of infamy when Nixon went to China and the flag was lowered.
RG: Yeah. Mel Thompson liked to lower the state flag for any political event he didn’t like. That was one of them. What else did he do? Justice Souterhad to defend, as attorney general then, one of those flag lowerings.
GL: Was Warren Rudman attorney general at that time, too?
RG: Warren Rudman was attorney general when I came to New Hampshire through about ’74, ’76. Our office did not have much contact in the early days with the attorney general’s office until we started filing a variety of class action suits. An earlier one stood out like Mt. Hood stands out alone and then there were a couple years and then there was a lot of welfare litigation in ’73.
GL: Were you involved in that?
RG: Yeah. In ’73 through ’75, I became the litigation director, what was it, two or three years out of law school? Well prepared. \But by 1976 we had, as I recall a docket of 11 or 12 cases in the cases in the state Supreme Court and the federal district courts, most of which were class actions, so there was a lot of litigation. I don’t recall at that time meeting Rudman other than one day in the legislature when he was sponsoring the consumer protection division bill which he did create in the state and Dave Souter, Justice Souter, remember it’s a small state [laughter], was his deputy and we didn’t deal with him at that point either. They had someone in the attorney general’s office who is probably still there and had a little corner cubby-hole office and represented the welfare department. I had never been to federal court before. That meant two things: cases took longer than they should have and we won every one of them, and maybe the law was on our side and we had expertise also. But Rudman speaks of that time as feeling that the relationships were good and I don’t remember any hostility between or amongst the lawyers litigating cases. The hostility with the governor was intense, and with the Union Leader, and any time we won a case or filed a case they would take out after us. An interesting footnote is that the governor attacked us, we can talk about that at some point. He used to veto our funding. He vetoed our vista funding. We started the public defender program; he vetoed the legislation. He did everything he could do to eliminate legal services. Our main grant could be vetoed by the governor and overridden in Washington in the OEO days, if I recall it was ’75.
GL: I can’t remember any basis if it was ideological. It was nothing personal, I mean, he just didn’t like us.
RG: Nope. Just ideological. So he tried to eliminate us and anyway the footnote was after he failed, for many years, whenever there was a lawsuit in the paper involving legal assistance there was no mention of New Hampshire Legal Assistance. From going from these headlines, blasphemous headlines, their next approach was just to pretend we didn’t exist and we were never mentioned until 1981. So for about six, sevenyears we weren’t in the paper. It was nice.
GL: A little quiet period. What were the relations with the Bar during that era?
RG: Developing, as I recall. The state Bar Association had not really yet gotten itself together and, while I think it became a mandatory bar at some point during that period, still the local bars, which were mainly social clubs, dominated the legal scene there. There wasn’t the kind of strong pulling together that we have seen in the last decade, and we used to go to the local bar association dinners. It was very difficult to go. They were not friendly environments.
GL: Many women?
RG: Maybe serving cocktails. In Manchester I believe at that time, there were probably two members of the bar. If you recall, when we hired the first woman in Cheshier County which is in the western part of the state, Keene (??) New Hampshire, an otherwise somewhat progressive community, part of the university is there, and asking her to go to a bar meeting was, I mean, you just couldn’t do it. It was unfair to her. They were so hostile and so just really repugnant. It began to change. The more you went, the more you found other people with which you had something in common. You saw that there was some leadership. You saw that sometimes at least for myself in that community, I don’t think in Cheshire county for women it happened, but you saw sometimes they were just trying to give you a hard time because you were the new kid on the block. The same thing I remember in the court system in the county court when we first started to go there frequently, we were always last on the docket and you had to pay your dues into the old boy network. I remember personally going in there, and I would wait, because the clerk, kind of like the old Union Leader, would pretend you didn’t exist and you’d go there and in the morning it was always pretty crowded and they had an excuse for ignoring you and putting you at the end. So I would wait if I had any business until like mid-afternoon and I remember going to the clerk’s office and he had a desk with chairs across and it was kind of a rectangular room and there were some other things down there and he sat there and I went and politely sat down in my chair, and sat there for about 30 minutes before he looked up and acknowledged that I was there. A few weeks later, we were number one on the list and for the rest of the time, we were doing a lot of domestic relations cases, the rest of the time we were always the first on the list and there wasn’t anything I did particular. It was just, you know, “We are going to make a point.” Then they realized that we were prepared. I think that was the reason they put us first and we had volume also. And it would clear the court room and perhaps they didn’t want our clients in there also. I hadn’t thought about that.
GL Did you have a sense, too, that you were also changing the practice of law?
RG: Yes, absolutely. I remember one of the things that that same clerk did. You know, every state and perhaps every locality has their way of what the pleadings should say, “Now comes so and so and does such and such” and it has to look this way on this size paper with so many red lines on either side, and we decided I think to file for some injunction in that county court and I went in there and had an introduction as in the federal system where you can say in short, crisp language what this is about as opposed to “ Now comes the plaintiff who resides at 347 Myrtle Reynolds Street” and the clerk said, “You can’t file this.” “Why?” “You have to say ‘Now comes…’” Okay . . . So we went back to the office. You had to be not too cute and avoid putting just “now comes…” There weren’t word processors then so anytime you had to redo something, it was a major event. A lot of motions were made by phone. There were no records. Some of us miss some of those days when you could get things done, when access to the courts was easier to get there. But the practice was at a level that was not very high and we felt we had to be the best. There was no question about it. We prepared and worked crazy hours because we were in some ways pioneers in that system and in a hostile environment and we knew that it wasn’t our mission for poor people that was going to gain us credibility. It was going to be that we were lawyers every bit as good—
GL: As real lawyers.
RG: As real lawyers, right. And you really had to contend with that and for women it was not an impossible task but it was an immense task, just very difficult. Then for the attorney with a ponytail who was male, it was also a challenge and for the rest of us. [laughter]
GL: I think you are correct in the assessment. How long did you remain director of litigation?
RG: I think it was about a year and half or two years. At that time, I was the program’s first director of litigation and when I became the director, of course there was no one in the program with as much experience it seemed. I had all of four or five years, I was a veteran. I held that job as well for a little while and when the legislative session rolled around, I was the one there. So it took a while to kind of pass those things on. Sometime I think back to that era and think about as director the variety of things I was able to do and still manage the program and do the things you are supposed to and why during the ‘80s was totally taken out for a long time of any of the substance of the program and it’s clearly the bureaucracy of the Legal Services Corporation during that time that removed directors from that role and that involvement and is a challenge and is still a challenge. Now it seems as we try to chase dollars and the challenges that come with special funding and grant applications and evaluations and not just by the corporation. It is really important for directors to remember what it’s about and I’ll get off my soapbox.
GL: No; butI want to go back because you mentioned the ‘80s. You came through a period of the establishment of legal services, raising its significance and doing some significant litigation and legislation in a hostile environment. What was your relationship when you became director with Legal Services Corporations which would be, what, ‘76?
RG: ’76. Well, it was distant but you felt that there was some supportive cast down there. There was the debate as to how much leadership you wanted them to play nationally in terms of setting priorities and speaking out about ending poverty and whatever. It was clearly supportive and there were regional offices that were supportive and would evaluate you and bring peers from other programs. There was competition for dollars because there were discretionary pools of money but it was nothing like today. It was a positive force overall.
GL: What was your funding like in that period after the establishment of the corporation?
RG: Background. When I started in 1976 as director, the first day I got a letter from Vista that said they didn’t want any more Vista attorneys in legal services and I think that was a third of our lawyers. Our program was built on very shaky foundations of pieces of money here and there, volunteer labor, Vista and otherwise, and we had too many offices, spread too thin and the sands would kind of shift and dissipate whether it was Vista or someone else and we just did not have enough funding to support anything like what was needed in the state and nobody does. We didn’t then. Then there was some growth. For us, the growth in the Carter era, our days, was good. It didn’t help us expand, though. It replaced the volunteer Vista and gave us a more solid base. Our goal was to have offices that had at least three attorneys in them, two paralegals and two secretaries, to have a critical mass, and to achieve that goal we had to shrink from I think in the early ‘70s from 9 tiny offices, some were outposts that I visited once a week, but nonetheless were paying the rent. I wasn’t director then. First to 7 then down to 5 and we achieved that goal in about ’79 and had a blissful year until the election of Ronald Reagan.
GL: How was the staff? Were you retaining staff during this period?
RG: In the early ‘70s there was the usual turn over. If you had been there for two years, you were the managing attorney. When you left, you hoped that the other person had been there for at least a year. That is when we had two-attorney offices. One reason we wanted to have three-attorney offices, as we got into the middle ’70s, we had a little more stability. By the time of the Reagan cuts in the ‘80s, when we made our cuts, most of our lawyers had been around for about 6 years so we had a fairly experienced group given the history of legal services at that time.
GL: Did you have to reduce the staff at all?
RG: Y\Oh yeah, by a third, and we took pay cuts. Attorneys and administration took voluntary pay cuts to avoid cutting back further. We wanted to maintain our five offices around the state which we felt was the minimum necessary to provide some geographical accessibility to clients, so that model of three shrunk to two attorneys, one paralegal, and one and a half secretaries, and rather than see it shrink even further, all the attorneys and administration took what was then almost a ten-percent pay cut, a little bit less than that. We just did it. It was what we were going to do. We arranged a line of credit with the bank, got very good at cash flow management, didn’t pull out of that until about ’85. That period was awful.
GL: Where were you with the bar relationship at this time which would have been the initiation of the 10% funding?
RG: In around ’77, relationships with the bar began to improve as we had had 4 or 5 years of going to meeting and interacting with people. The Citizens’ Rights Committee of the bar association applied for a demonstration project from the corporation, as did we. There’s was a pro-bono program. Actually, in ’76 before I became a director, George Bruno applied for Judicare (??) program in one county and so we had this unusual event where we were running simultaneously as demonstration programs, Judicare paying people $20 an hour as lawyers and pro-bono
GL: In Laconia, right?
RG: In Laconia, and, not surprisingly, after a year we decided that pro-bono was more cost effective than Judicare and that experiment ended and the pro-bono program continued and became a supplemental field program, or whatever the lingo was for the corporation at that time, so that we had in place when we set up the pro-bono program, we had complimentary priorities. It was really hand-in-glove. Speak about shoestring, we gave them our furniture to help get them started.
GL: Well, you reduced the staff so you didn’t need it.
RG: The furniture that we had had been given to us as Army surplus so we got them started and gave them all the policies and work that you needed, and got a board constituted, worked with the delivery committee, so by the time the 10% regulation in the ‘80s came in we already had a model of how to involve the bar and the investment that the bar developed in its own pro-bono program worked and it worked because people got to know legal services corporation and they got to know Legal Assistance and when the craziness of the ‘80s came around, you had people who were appalled. I mean, they sat on the board of a pro-bono program and saw these regulations and this paperwork and they were just appalled, particularly because they were running a volunteer program. Why would people from Washington want to stop volunteer service?
GL: To help the cause. What did you, having had to reduce the staff and cut back, what else, in terms of survivor role, did you see yourself playing?
RG: It turned out that one of our Senators was on the Appropriations committee in the Senate and I thought, having learned from the New Hampshire legislature, no matter what you do at the end of the year, the things you really care about seem to end up in a conference committee of Senate and House appropriations, that likely he was going to be in a role to affect legal services. I didn’t really know at that time how great a role he would play. But I decided that, given that we had a senator in that position, I had an obligation to make sure he knew as much about legal services as possible and I went about talking to people in his firm who knew him and knew us and trying to build bridges and I think that one of the things that was important was, what I mentioned before, he had seen a lot of class actions when he was attorney general and had seen the results and had seen that we had won and I think that he saw that we weren’t crazy, that we weren’t deciding what the law was, that the court was enforcing statutes and the Constitution, and we were a necessary part of that and it was appropriate to do that and he had a slightly different view about legislative work at the time, maybe not so surprisingly at the time. He was against it. He did not think that federal funds, taxpayer’s money, should be used to influence legislation. Fortunately, one of his partners had been speaker of the house in the early ‘70s, Kim Zackos (??), and had seen what legal services had done in terms of giving a constituency a voice and I think over time that kind of information was shared and it worked and I think the fact that New Hampshire Legal Assistance by the ‘80s had developed a good reputation, had developed a relationship with the bar, was on its way to becoming an institution of sorts, it wasn’t yet, really added to his understanding and sympathy for what we were doing.
GL: Ever have any interference from the corporation?
GL: You? Or from New Hampshire Legal Assistance, LLC?
RG: Well, actually, I do recall the US attorney at one time, at the end of the legislative session, the Union leader listed the names of all the people who were registered lobbyists because you had to register in the state and we had two or three. Remember, this is every other year, six months, three days a week so it’s not a major investment of our resources and we weren’t full-time lobbying but nonetheless you had to register. You disclose the amount of fees and there are always, at most a couple thousand dollars and he sent it on to LSC saying, “I thought legal services was not supposed to be lobbying.” So they did an investigation. It was mainly by correspondence as far as I knew. That was probably ’83. It was a hot time over lobbying. That’s the only thing I can remember. Of course, there was monitoring. Amelia DeSanto came I think in ’85. It was her maiden voyage in team-captaining monitoring. She came and monitored New Hampshire Legal Assistance and I don’t know if they treated us any differently than anyone else. They looked to see if they could find any instances of non-compliance with the inch-thick book of regulations that were always changing at the time and didn’t. But I don’t think for New Hampshire Legal Assistance –we always wondered if there was any interference any different than what everyone else was facing, which was huge and awful, but any special treatment, we never knew which way it was going to cut for us because of the role Rudman was playing in the Senate, becoming kind of the champion for legal services. We didn’t know how stupid the corporation would be actually.
GL: By what? By their actions?
RG: By trying to attack a program that was by all accounts doing a good job. I remember Ms. Desanto came and in those days they said, “We want to see certain judges. We want to see the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the federal judges and the county judges.” And they were the ones that picked who they wanted to see and we arranged just the logistics of it and we took her to see those judges and I remember during the course of that, she looked at me and said, “You are only giving me the cream. Isn’t there anyone out there that doesn’t like you?” I said, “I’m sure there are. You wanted to see the chief justice. We didn’t make it up. Here he is.” So that’s what I mean by stupid. I think we had a good reputation built on a lot of hard work, a lot of very dedicated people: Legal services attorneys, paralegals, support staff who worked hard to accomplish things for clients and I think at bottom my opinion of why we weathered the storm of the ‘80s, why someone like Rudman was supportive is because we were effective. I think if we were ineffective, nobody would have cared and even though you think being effective might have clashed with an ideology and the powers would want to get rid of you, because we were effective, I think, we prevailed over the ideologues and were recognized as professionals and as competent and there had to be a spark, as there is in someone like Rudman, that we are about fairness and a basic sense of fairness and the attacks from the right just made no sense.
GL: You’ve gotten to the point that you are now mentioned again in the paper and you’ve survived. What do you attribute your rewards? What do you get satisfaction from having survived?
RG: We at the close of every case send out a client satisfaction questionnaire and I read every one that comes back and I don’t see clients as directly as I did back then and the words people write make me feel good about what we do, what we accomplish for people in their individual situations, language not put in legal terms but in human terms like, “Thank you. You got me my medicine.” “Thank you. My child is going to have an education.” Those things just mean a lot to me. And knowing also in a larger sense that we are achieving things and making gains in state institutions, in the way government responds to people. We haven’t ended poverty, that’s for sure, but I think we’ve done a lot in so many ways to make the conditions much less oppressive and to give people greater chance and opportunity. More soapbox but those are the rewards and I guess that’s what keeps me doing it.
GL: And as an institution, from the early days and now established, what do you see as the future within HLA? You have good pro-bono, you have good governmental relations, a dedicated staff.
RG: Yeah, yeah. I’m very proud of our program. I think we do an excellent job and a wonderful staff, some of them have been there almost as long as me, incredibly committed. I think we need to constantly remember where we came from, as an institution, not get divorced from our clients. Not as many institutions do put as much energy in surviving as an institution and in preserving the institutional character of the organization and trying to protect the institution but remembering our roots, remembering that we work for clients, not for ourselves, remaining strong and independent, maintaining excellence and the challenges and barriers to all that continue today and in some ways are every bit as fierce as those Mel Thompson days. In those days in some ways, some things were easier because the enemy was so clear and you had common bonds. Today, when funding atrophies as opposed to being cut all at once, you have those challenges that are tough to overcome.
GL: Where are you with percentage of LSC funding now?
RG: Less than half. When we started the public defender program and that grew as a program, LSC was at one point 20% of our operations. We employed more public defender attorneys than legal services attorneys in 1981 so it was always odd to our board and to the legal community that this outfit in Washington wanted to call the shots about everything that we did. We split off the public defender in early ‘80s. The Legal Services Corporation funding of our civil program was maybe 80% at that timeand now its less than half.
GL: Amazing change from someone who said he had to be dragged to a United Way meeting, who didn’t get into legal services to raise money but wanted to do law and in a period of time found he had to do all to be able to do the law.
RG: Yeah, raising money is a big challenge and a necessary evil perhaps if you don’t like doing it. I found that its rewarding oftentimes because you go to those United Ways and you get some appreciation. You don’t always get the money that you want because there are other organizations they are looking at and United Way is its own institution but you get a chance to get another view from other people about what you are accomplishing and how these see what you are accomplishing and it has been very instructive because the tensions throughout the year is about individual cases and law reform and whatever the rhetoric is, and what I found consistently is that United Way, of all people, want to see you make some change in the community and that’s really strange in New Hampshire.
GL: Which brings to mind the incident with the lawsuit against the public service.
RG: Well, I guess not all United Ways want to see change in the community. The other thing besides the Union Leader that dominated New Hampshire politics was the Seabrook nuclear power plant, tried to be built by a public service company in New Hampshire. We did a lot of work around utility shut-offs and utility rates, nothing about Seabrook, actually, but nonetheless public service company and some large employers in the state teamed-up one year because we were doing some unemployment legislation and got the United Way in New Hampshire’s largest city, Manchester, to essentially kick us out and defund us. We climbed back out and into their good graces and I guess you’re right. There are 10 United Ways that we seek funds from and every year there is at least one where there is some issue. Out in the western part of the state it might be that they have people in some hospitals on the United Way allocations committee and they don’t like what we did about Hillburton or about free-care programs and sometimes they get a large landlord. We had a farmer’s home developer on a board in Concord but I found over time that by bringing those people into the system they get absorbed and become instead of this one potent voice from the outside, a more impotent voice from the inside. It’s a challenge though.
GL: Are you going to stay with the challenge?
GL: Well, good. We’ll do another oral history in about ten more years.