Oregon State Bar Bulletin — MAY 2010
Profiles in the Law
Helping the World by “Showing Up”:
Robert Newell Has an Eye for Mercy
By Cliff Collins

Robert Newell was joined by children
at this canal project in southern Iraq.

Rags-to-riches stories don’t come any better than that of Robert D. Newell, who went from being raised dirt poor to a perennial listee in “Best Lawyers in America.”

His story began in Oregon more than 60 years ago, when he was born in Portland and raised by converted Quakers on a farm in Gales Creek in rural Washington County. One of four children, Bob began working in the fields at age 6 to earn money for school clothes, picking strawberries on his family’s farm and beans, rhubarb, berries and other crops in nearby farms.

He attended Forest Grove High School, where as a junior he began sending off letters to colleges. With the exception of a single B, he was a straight-A student and received a scholarship offer from Harvard College, which he accepted. He set his sights on becoming a college history teacher, but the Vietnam War intervened in his plans.

Two years after registering for the military draft, he applied and was accepted for conscientious objector status. Newell, who married in college, volunteered to do alternate service in Vietnam, and after spending time there in a hospital, he completed his service in programs in the United States.

Newell’s decision to go into law came about slowly, or as he puts it, “In a sense, I backed into it.” It began with political involvement: In 1970, he and some friends became concerned about an upcoming American Legion convention to be held in Portland. War protests were at a fever-pitch around the country, and Newell says he and his buddies concocted the idea of what became the Oregon Vortex, a gigantic rock music festival in rural Estacada.

The idea was to draw young people to the concert and avoid bloodshed or vandalism by or toward protesters in Portland. Newell says then-Gov. Tom McCall eagerly picked up on the notion. “It was our idea, but we were happy to give him credit,” he says.

As a result of that successful diversion — Newell notes that some protests did take place, but violence was avoided — he made the acquaintance of Craig Berkman, a Republican who was running for state treasurer. Berkman hired Newell to be his campaign manager and handle fundraising. Newell worked for about a year on what was ultimately an unsuccessful effort, and during that period he began thinking of going into the ministry. A friend who was a Presbyterian minister invited Newell to join his church staff in Southern California, where Newell spent a couple of years in administration and education duties.

After that experience, he likes to tell friends, “I decided I was more interested in the exercise of power than the dispensation of mercy” — an ironic choice of words given what later became a major focus of his life. “I sat down and weighed my options,” he says. He had considered writing or journalism, as well as teaching, but decided that “law school would leave more opportunities than anything. A law degree is not going to foreclose anything to me; it was the lowest common denominator.” He came back to the Beaver State and entered law school at the University of Oregon.

The Newells’ first child was born in his inaugural year of law school and their second child just after he finished. Getting out as expeditiously as possible became a priority. “I was interested (in law school) the first year, but quickly got bored with it,” says Newell, who attended year-round and received his degree in December, ahead of the rest of his entering class. “At that point I had a family, and needed to get busy and put food on the table.”

Private practice seemed the best way to do that, and he joined a big firm in Los Angeles, which he ended up hating. He then was recruited by another large firm there. “That was just awful. After a year, they fired me. I was not willing to work till 10 at night.”

He and the family returned to Oregon, where he took a job with the firm Black Kendall, which — after two subsequent mergers — is now Davis Wright Tremaine, and where he now has practiced happily for the past three decades. He concentrates on complex commercial litigation, health care litigation and software litigation. His work includes securities, unfair competition, trade secrets and litigation in federal and state courts.

Early on he gained extensive trial experience and expertise in Oregon and federal procedure, and frequently speaks before lawyers and industry groups on Oregon legislation, Uniform Commercial Code cases and other litigation topics.

Forming Mercy Corps
The organization that today is Mercy Corps, based in Portland, grew from two separate entities. One, based in Portland, began in discussions among five friends in the early 1980s. They sat and talked about their international experience, which for one of the five, Newell, rested solely on Vietnam, but for the four others, was greater. In Seattle, Dan O’Neill, had founded Save the Refugees Fund, which he organized in response to the plight of Cambodian refugees fleeing the “Killing Fields.”

One of the Portland five, Ellsworth “Ells” Culver, was at the time vice president of a group called Food for the Hungry and had spent his entire career in the nonprofit world. In addition to his involvement with the Portland group, Culver worked with Dan O’Neill in forming the successor to Save the Refugees, which became Mercy Corps, to provide emergency relief in disaster situations.

The Portland group wanted to “rather than handing out food and blankets, do something with a larger impact,” says Newell. Ultimately, the five friends came to the conclusion that relief must be coupled with development if enduring change could occur. “So we put the two organizations together,” Newell explains. “Ells was doing relief work; he was the catalyst, saying ‘relief without development doesn’t get anywhere.’ We decided we needed both sides of it.”

Thus the Portland and Seattle groups joined forces to embody that core principle of providing both relief and development based on the perceived needs of recipient communities and focused on long-term solutions to hunger and poverty. The organization started small, with an initial development project in Honduras and since then Mercy Corps has worked in more than 82 nations and delivered more than $1 billion in relief and development assistance, including food, shelter, healthcare, agriculture, water and sanitation, education and microfinance loans.

The organization helps more than 10 million people each year recover from disasters, build stronger communities and find their own solutions to poverty. It has been an international leader in responding to the Haiti earthquake, the Indian Ocean tsunami, war in Afghanistan, food shortages in North Korea, ethnic conflict in the Balkans, and economic transitions in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Newell’s initial role was to form the legal entity for the Portland group and serve on its board, and he has been on the Mercy Corps board since the combination of the two entities, holding every office on it and traveling each year to Mercy Corps projects around the world.

“The group that started both organizations was motivated by religious values, the desire to help other people,” says Newell. “It was driven by a desire to provide what we could to enable people to escape poverty.”

For him personally, there was and remains an additional motivation: “I grew up poor. I got a scholarship from people in the Harvard Club of New York City. I have no idea why they picked me, but I do know that that (educational experience) exposed me to a world I didn’t know existed.”

Newell observed that the initial project in Honduras, which provided a loan fund for people to grow crops, “enabled them to increase their income to change their lives. Over and over as I travel, I find that (doing) one little thing can change people’s lives exponentially.”

“A lot of this is just showing up,” he says. “I didn’t have a vision or epiphany, but others I knew did.” Mercy Corps recently completed a $10 million fundraising campaign and last year recognized Newell with its Humanitarian Hero Award.

“I never had raised that much money before,” he admits. “A lot of what gets accomplished in this world is just grunt work. Oftentimes people think they have to have some grand vision or epiphany; I know how to show up.”

Neal Keny-Guyer, chief executive of Mercy Corps, says Newell “has been at the heart and soul” of the organization from the beginning. But Keny-Guyer says Newell has made his most significant contributions overseas: “When he travels to Mercy Corps programs, Bob brings the appreciation and encouragement of our board to our team in the field. And when he returns, he takes it upon himself to educate our board about the work he saw up close.”

Newell received the Oregon State Bar’s Pro Bono Challenge Award for the most individual hours of pro bono legal services from 2004 to 2006.

Carol J. Bernick, partner-in-charge of Davis Wright Tremaine’s Portland office, says Newell’s work “has inspired a generation of lawyers to find their community passion. We thank him for broadening our horizons and demonstrating not only the obligation to give of our time, but the incredible rewards it brings.”

Newell sees his practice at the firm as complementary to his volunteer efforts. “What I enjoy about my work is helping people solve problems.”

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2010 Cliff Collins

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