OAKLAND - Though John O'Toole is a lifelong peacenik and self-described "product of the '60s," his 25 years directing the National Center for Youth Law have been a constant fight.
Whether filing class actions against government agencies or scrambling to keep the nonprofit group alive through budget-slashing Republican administrations, O'Toole has had a great time, he said, though it has seldom been peaceful.
"I love the job, and I have no plans for leaving," he said recently in his downtown Oakland office. "I don't always get to do the fun stuff anymore, but I have my hand in all of it. I am involved in all the cases we do. ... This is why I went to law school."
The center, founded in 1970 as an offshoot of the San Francisco Legal Aid Society, takes on county, state and federal government agencies when it finds the rights of children being threatened or violated.
Among its major victories was securing additional benefits for 450,000 low-income and disabled children nationwide, in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Zebley v. Sullivan, 493 U.S. 521 (1990).
In another case, Katie A. v. Bonta, CV02-5662 (C.D. Cal. March 14, 2006), the center compelled state health officials to provide home care for mentally ill children in foster care, so that they won't end up in hospitals or jails.
O'Toole started as a staff attorney at the center in late 1980, and he was named director just one year later, when he was 32. Under his leadership, the center has filed a hundred lawsuits on behalf of low-income children, and it has lost only two.
"We analyze systems of care, and often they just don't work very well," he said.
Other wins that O'Toole, his 10 full-time attorneys and an ever-changing cast of volunteers can claim are major reforms to foster care systems in Utah, Maryland, Arkansas and Washington. The center is suing the state of Nevada, where 80 children have died in foster care in the past four years, O'Toole said.
"If you win a lawsuit like that, all the kids will be better off, in a way that will endure," he said. "Kids don't vote. They don't donate money. They tend to be invisible in the budget process [and need advocates]."
Though O'Toole is legendary in the public-interest world - and so popular among his staff that he has been invited to officiate at one attorney's wedding - he has long been a thorn in the side of bureaucrats at all levels of government. He has been a muckraker for as long as he can remember.
"Race, politics and the Vietnam War - those things politicized me through college," O'Toole said.
During his undergraduate years at UCLA, he helped the nonprofit Western Center on Law and Poverty file a police brutality lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department, serving subpoenas to individual officers on their beats.
"That was very intimidating," O'Toole said. "I'm surprised I survived the first week. Man, they were hostile."
After graduating from Boalt Hall in 1974, he went to work for a nonprofit group in Marysville, a rural Northern California town as far removed from liberal Berkeley as Earth is from Mars.
"I was this long-haired guy suing the county government and winning. I wasn't too popular up there," he said. "But it was a great place to learn how to be a lawyer."
O'Toole wasn't destined to remain a lawyer for long, however.
After moving to the Bay Area to take a job at the National Center for Youth Law, and working as an attorney there during the year that saw former Gov. Ronald Reagan ascend to the presidency, O'Toole was tapped to direct the center for what promised to be turbulent years.
"I spent a lot of time advocating for continued funding. They made my life miserable," he said. "Reagan hated legal services for the poor, and he brought that animosity to the White House. I was not very optimistic we would even survive. I thought we were going under. Suddenly, it was all about survival, not just for us but for the idea that poor people should have lawyers and equal access to justice."
And the fight has gone on.
In 1996, all federal funding to the center, which came through Reagan-appointed Legal Services Corp., was cut. It amounted to a hit of $800,000 a year, or 60 percent of the budget.
O'Toole quickly had to learn to compete with hundreds of other worthy nonprofit groups for private donations and foundation grants - something he has mastered.
And all the while, the National Center for Youth Law kept winning cases.
Staff attorneys there say it is because he insisted they go about their work while he dealt with the political hazards.
"The individual lawyers were insulated from all this political craziness," said Martha Matthews, an attorney with the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles, who worked two stints for O'Toole in the 1990s.
"That was an incredible gift to the people who work there. John was a great example of how a director is able to steer his way through this: the horrible audits, the funding cuts. He kept everything on an even keel. He kept everyone's spirits up. ... It was my favorite job."
As O'Toole made staff attorneys' lives easier by staying out of their way, they made his easier by racking up impressive wins over the years. Class actions initiated by the center have resulted in major reforms - and in some cases hefty retroactive payments to low-income people - all over the country.
This keeps the donations coming and the volunteers pounding on the door to work at the center.
"I like working with the law students," he said. "They come in, 22 or 23 years old, and they're incredibly gifted. They could work anywhere. But they share our values. They want to work here. We don't even pay them. They could be making $10,000 a month somewhere like Morrison & Foerster."
One of the staff attorneys at the center, Leecia Welch, did in fact work for Morrison & Foerster for four years as a litigation associate, and she took a major pay cut to work for the National Center for Youth Law.
"You don't have the same monetary incentives, but you have people who care deeply about children and families," Welch said. "That's something that you can't quantify."
Welch took part in Morrison & Foerster's extensive pro bono program, and she decided to veer into public-interest law.
"It's too good to be true," she said. "It's much more like a family here. I'm never dreading it. I have actually asked John to officiate at my wedding, because the respect goes beyond the office."