Jonathan Ross oral history, 2019

Private practice lawyer who was a co-founder of Bar Leaders for the Preservation of Legal Services in 1980s. Chair of SCLAID. Member of ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.

Oral history details

Storyteller: Jonathan Ross
Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: May 9, 2019
Where relates to: New Hampshire
Topics: American Bar Association (ABA), LSC: General, and Pro bono
Law type: Civil
Collection: CNEJL
Georgetown Law Library link (possible video):
Length: 0:19:17

Full text of transcript

Download PDF: Transcript

Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library Oral History Collection
Interview with Jonathan Ross
Conducted by Alan Houseman
May 9, 2019

Alan Houseman: This is an oral history of Jonathan Ross, who is a private lawyer in New Hampshire and has played, as you will see, an extraordinary role in civil legal aid. The interviewer is Alan Houseman for the National Equal Justice Library and the Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library. Today is May 9, 2019.
John let’s begin with a very brief overview of where you grew up, where you went to college and law school, your private practice, and a brief overview of some of your other activities. Then we’re going to come back and talk about some of these in greater detail.

Jonathan Ross: I was born in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1942. I went to what was then called the Smith College Day School, a private school run by Smith College through eighth grade. I went to public high school in Northampton for two years. When I was told that Grapes of Wrath was a dirty book and I could not read it for credit, I ended up going to Mount Herman, a private school also in Western Massachusetts.

Jonathan Ross: I went to Hobart College and then Georgetown Law School. I graduated there in 1967 and spent the next year at Harvard Law School getting an LLM.

Jonathan Ross: I got married in 1964 after graduation from college. My first job was with a firm in Manchester, New Hampshire after my work at Harvard. I stayed at that firm until 2012 when we closed that firm. I then joined Primmer Piper Eggleston & Cramer in that year and I’m still practicing full time there. My practice is, and has been since about 1988, focused exclusively on family law.

Alan Houseman: Okay. So you were one of the co-founders of Bar Leaders for the Preservation of Legal Services. What led you to do that? What part of your background led you to do that? Why was it set up and what did it do?

Jonathan Ross: Well public service and giving back to your community was an ethic that I learned from my parents. My dad was a dentist, my mother was a social worker. Each of them in their own way contributed a great deal to Northampton where we lived and grew up.

Jonathan Ross: In 1985 I was president of the New Hampshire Bar. Gail Kinney, who was the executive director at that time, suggested that we invite the Legal Services Corporation Board to meet in New Hampshire. They accepted that invitation and met at a place called Gilford, New Hampshire. This was Ronald Reagan’s board. I and Michael Greco, another co-founder who was then president of the Massachusetts Bar, came to that meeting to welcome these folks to New England and to talk about the need for legal services. Each of us in our own way was appalled at how rude and obstructive the members of that board were. How they treated poorly those folks, some of whom had come from across the country to address them. I grew up not liking bullies. So Mike and I had some conversations, spawned in large part by Gail, about what we could do about that.

Jonathan Ross: In December, the following month, the board met in El Paso, Texas. Gail Kinney went there and got president-elect Bill Whitehurst from Austin to attend on behalf of the Texas Bar. He had the same experience that we did and had the same reaction. In February of ’86 the American Bar Association met in Baltimore. The three of us with Gail got together to talk about what we had experienced and said, “We need to do something about this.” Because the Legal Services Corporation was under attack from the Reagan Administration. We felt that lawyers and bar leaders should be involved in that. And that’s how it came about.

Alan Houseman: And what did you do? What did Bar Leaders do?

Jonathan Ross: We tried to energize the American Bar Association to become more proactive than it was. I recall one of the ABA presidents telling us, “Now boys, we can solve this with quiet conversation. You’re making too much noise.” That’s a paraphrase. But we did not feel that the American Bar Association was out front enough on this.

Jonathan Ross: So we went to a variety of ABA committee meetings to push the issue of adequate funding for Legal Services Corporation for the provision of legal services for people who could not afford lawyers in critical circumstances. We attended Legal Services Corporation board meetings and testified at them and raised questions with them. We went to Congress and we testified in front of a number of subcommittees including the Appropriations Committee that was chaired by Ernest Hollings and Warren Rudman, who was the Senator from New Hampshire. The other thing that we did was we went to National Conference of Bar Presidents meetings. We published a newsletter. We tried to get every state bar and every large metropolitan bar to join what we called Bar Leaders for the Preservation of Legal Services for the Poor. And ultimately we were successful in getting them all.

Alan Houseman: Right. And how long did this organization… well, I guess it was an organization.

Jonathan Ross: Actually it wasn’t.

Alan Houseman: How long did this effort last? Let me put it that way. I certainly worked with it a long time but I can’t remember.

Jonathan Ross: We went quietly off into the sunset as the ABA really stepped up and became much more proactive on this issue. But certainly into the 90s it was active. We purposely did not make it an organization.

Alan Houseman: Right.

Jonathan Ross: We did not want to give those who opposed us the opportunity of criticizing — you didn’t follow this rule, you didn’t follow that part of your charter. We just did it together. That’s why it was an ad hoc group, and ultimately we were successful in getting all the bars and the ABA exercised about this. But the issues are still with us today. This is not a race for the short winded, as you know.

Alan Houseman: Right. You’ve been active on a number of ABA committees after your Bar Leaders for the Preservation of Legal Services initiatives. Talk about the committees you’ve been on, what they do and how you view that work.

Jonathan Ross: Well I have to step back and say that I’ve always been active in bar association work since about 1976 starting in New Hampshire. I’ve been a member of the American Bar Association since 1968. Through the work with Bar Leaders I got to know a number of people at the ABA. Cubbedge Snow from Macon, Georgia was on the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and he was going on the ABA board of governors. I was asked if I would take the remainder of his term on the Standing Committee, which I thought was a very nice compliment. I said yes.

Jonathan Ross: The Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense has the jurisdiction of representing the American Bar Association in the civil legal services area. It’s a relationship with those folks like NLADA and the Legal Services Corporation and the social policy group that you ran to try and make things right for the delivery of legal services to those who can’t afford it, and indigent defense work. So I was fortunate enough to serve out Mr. Snow’s term. I made enough of a contribution to get my own term of three years. Then a few years later I was asked by President Martha Barnett to chair the committee, which I did for three years. It was an interesting time. I worked with some very good ABA staffers like Terry Brooks and Bev Groudine. The work that we had started with Bar Leaders just continued but in a different format. For me, the experience also put me into the indigent defense world. Years before, Jim Neuhard had recommended principles for a public defender system. That proposal had been kicking around the ABA. We finally got that through the house of delegates when I was chair. I was chair during the year of the 40th anniversary of Gideon. We held hearings around the country with Norm Lefstein trying to find out whether the promise of Gideon existed at all in some states.

Alan Houseman: You’ve been on some other bar committees. I think you’re on one now still.

Jonathan Ross: I’m on the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service. This is my third time on that committee. I have an ethic that says that lawyers have an opportunity and an obligation to give back to the communities from which we earn our living. Lawyers have an ethical responsibility to do work for those who can’t afford it. It Is important. So the opportunity to work on the ABA committee that fosters pro bono work throughout the United States has been a wonderful opportunity.

Jonathan Ross: It’s a small family in legal services as you know. In 1984 I hired Steven Scudder to be the pro bono director for New Hampshire. When he became the director for the ABA, the opportunity to work with him was a great gift. I served on the membership committee under Trish Refo who is now president-elect nominee of the ABA. Our group was the first to propose lowering the dues and changing the format of the dues structure for the ABA. That looks like it’s now going to go forward many years later. I had the opportunity when I served on the ABA Board of Governors to be liaison to IOLTA. Then later on I became a member of the IOLTA Commission, which is a funding vehicle that’s extremely important to the delivery of legal service. I’ve served on the bar services committee. There’s always something to do.

Alan Houseman: Wow. There’s not many people that I know of that have been on as many ABA committees that relate to legal aid. Jon Asher may be the only one besides you that has done as much. Lora Livingston, I guess, has been on several.

Jonathan Ross: Right.

Alan Houseman: For the record, we have the oral histories of Steve, Terry, Bev, as well as Will. We’re actually trying to get the transcripts out this year. Other players have been in for interviews. Actually I have Jon Asher’s and Lora’s. These activities are very, very important it seems to me.

Jonathan Ross: Well they’re very important. No one of us can take credit for what happens. But the group that you’ve mentioned is a brain trust that has done wonderful work.

Alan Houseman: So let’s complete some of your other bar work.

Jonathan Ross: Yeah.

Alan Houseman: You been president of the New Hampshire Bar. I think you’ve been on some activities of the New Hampshire Supreme Court and Bar Foundation. You’ve been involved in the New England Bar Association Foundation and the National Conference of Bar Presidents. Why don’t you describe that work and maybe describe a little about some of the organizations that people may not have heard of?

Jonathan Ross: Well in 1976 there was an opening on the Board of Governors for the New Hampshire Bar. I thought I might try that. And I was fortunate enough to be elected to that position. I enjoyed bar work. I enjoyed the people, I enjoyed the issues. It opened a lot of doors to me, particularly in legal services that I hadn’t really focused on since I was in law school. So I served on the Board of Governors and then decided that I would run for president. I became president of the New Hampshire Bar in 1985 and that was the year that we started Bar Leaders.

Jonathan Ross: There are regional bars throughout the country. The New England Bar Association is simply one of those. New Hampshire sends representatives to it. I found the interaction among the six states that belonged to that group energizing and interesting and got a lot of good ideas. So I served on that board for 20 years and was president for one year.

Jonathan Ross: There really is no New England Bar Foundation. Mike Greco and I, because he was on that board at the same time I was, formed the New England Bar Foundation in the event we needed it. We never ended up needing it to raise money or be a 501(c)(3) for the purpose of helping to fund legal services. But we put it together so that it would be there.

Alan Houseman: Right.

Jonathan Ross: The National Conference of Bar Presidents is something that you just do when you’re a bar leader. I found that interesting and it was also a platform for us to present our push as Bar Leaders for the Preservation of Legal Services. It was a place to go where we got all of those state representatives there. We published a newsletter. We would go in early and put out the newsletters on the table with everything else. We would push to get on the program, which we were successful in doing.

Alan Houseman: I also have Bill Whitehurst’s oral history. Mike’s is yet to go. I want to ask you, given your long-term involvement in efforts to preserve the Legal Service Corporation, efforts to expand pro bono, efforts to preserve and enhance the IOLTA program, where do you see the civil legal aid going, and what would your hope be for its future?

Jonathan Ross: My hope would be that we would be able to fund necessarily lawyers committed to the work of people in need for full representation. That’s a dream. It’s probably not going to happen. What I see happening now is an effort to find other ways to meet some of those needs with a variety of different approaches from law students to paralegals to other kinds of advocates. It brings me back to what we fought against in the 80s, which was the idea that poor people’s issues are not very complicated and paralegals or lightly trained people can take care of that stuff. I’m sorry, I don’t believe that. Their legal issues are as complex and as important to them as anybody else’s, no matter what the finances are that are involved.

Jonathan Ross: But I think we have to be practical because we need to know that representation makes a huge difference to people. Those that go in on their own stand much less chance of getting justice than those who have some kind of representation. So my hope is that we find a way with a supportive government and others to provide qualified, competent legal representation for those who need it.

Alan Houseman: All right. You’ve won some awards over your career. Are there any that stand out to you as important or very important or most important?

Jonathan Ross: Well the Arthur von Briesen Award from NLADA I’m proud of. It was a surprise when it happened. I think I can thank Gail Kinney for putting my name in. It’s a great honor. So I’m proud of that. I’m not sure that I deserved it, but I got it. My local county bar association gave me an award called the Order of the Rock as an important member of that group. And since those are the folks I work with every day, I feel good about that.

Alan Houseman: Right. I think we’ve covered everything I wanted to cover, but I have the sense that we should be having more conversations. Maybe we’ve actually covered it in every way. Are there other things that you’d like to talk about, get on the record? Other things that you’ve done or other thoughts you had that we ought to have on this oral history?

Jonathan Ross: The ABA has really stepped up on legal services issues. So we have ABA Day in Washington, DC every spring. That program’s been going on for maybe 23 years now. I think I’ve been to 21 of them. And adequate funding for the Legal Services Corporation is always the number one issue. It’s always the number one issue for members of the association who send in their views on this kind of thing. So I’m very pleased by that. I would urge those who follow me to continue to do the same thing because it makes a difference. The grassroots organization that the ABA put together — that was the brainchild of Howard Dana, now a retired state Supreme Court Justice from Maine — is a very effective way of dealing with the issues that we all face in terms of justice, whether it’s civil legal aid or other. Those kinds of things we need to continue to do. It’s a cooperative effort from a lot of different places.

Jonathan Ross: I think the right to counsel in civil issues will be the next big issue on a more national basis. That’s happening in some places. But it’s happening more by identification of types of cases as opposed to a broader view. My own sense is that, when your family, your shelter, your ability to take care of yourself, your health, is an issue, you should have the right to counsel. There’s too much that goes on in regulation and law for people to win their way through that for themselves.

Alan Houseman: Okay. Well thank you.