By Kathie Ragsdale
David Wolowitz’s determination to give voice to those who cannot speak for themselves has taken him from the wards of Concord Hospital to the slums of Liberia, Africa.
A practitioner for more than 45 years, Wolowitz spent the bulk of them at McLane Middleton, where he was co-chair of the firm’s Education Law Group and became a national authority on how to protect children from abuse by peers and educators, from bullying to sexual misconduct. He has led more than 300 training sessions on that subject in 27 states and 10 countries.
Wolowitz stepped down as a director at McLane Middleton on January 1, but remains of counsel to the firm and now works privately as an expert witness on the standard of care for safeguarding children.
“What I’m most proud of is helping schools create healthy and safe cultures, which I’ve done for more than 30 years,” he says.
A native of Washington, DC, Wolowitz earned a bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies at Washington University, and a master’s degree in East Asian Studies from Harvard University, living in Japan for a total of two and a half years before and after college.
But he felt “in limbo” regarding a career and enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School, with an interest in public service.
In 1974, he came to work at New Hampshire Legal Assistance as a summer student and ended up spending four years as an attorney there, then helped start the Public Defender Program in Rockingham County, where he worked another four years.
“All my interest in the law and my good fortune and opportunities came from being in public service law in New Hampshire,” Wolowitz says. “I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it weren’t for that. It shaped everything I did.”
One of his first cases at NHLA ended up before the state Supreme Court, when he represented women who had been wrongfully committed to the state hospital. New Hampshire did not have no-fault divorce at the time, and mental illness was considered grounds for divorce, Wolowitz explains. Husbands seeking to end a marriage could send their wives to doctors for a diagnosis of “hysteria” and that would be enough for commitment.
“I remember when I met my first client at the state hospital; they didn’t want to allow the women to have lawyers,” he remembers. “They said their husbands’ lawyers were their lawyers. I wasn’t going to allow that to happen.”
Neither was the NH Supreme Court. Wolowitz, then only two years into his practice, won the case, giving due process rights to the women.
Wolowitz also had a longstanding in interest in mental health issues, and soon after that success found himself approached by a young man under his parents’ guardianship who had been sent to the notorious Laconia State School for Children against his will. A judge told Wolowitz he could not represent the young man because his parents’ lawyer represented him and Wolowitz once again took the case to the NH Supreme Court, winning due process rights for his client. The school, where many children lived in sub-human conditions, was closed in 1991 following a federal class action lawsuit.
Following his public service work, Wolowitz joined the former Hampton law firm of Sanders & McDermott and won such acclaim as a litigator that he became an invited guest instructor for the Trial Advocacy Workshop at Harvard Law School, a position he held for 29 years.
In 1991, he was recruited by McLane Middleton and asked to do some work at Phillips Exeter Academy, becoming the school’s primary outside attorney, as well as primary outside attorney for St. Paul’s School in Concord and Phillips Andover in Massachusetts.
Tom Hassan, president of the nonprofit School Year Abroad and the former principal of Phillips Exeter, has worked with Wolowitz for more than three decades.
“I, and scores of other school leaders, have benefitted greatly from David’s vast and deep experience in the law as it applies to schools,” Hassan says. “He is always there when needed, not only with sound legal advice, but very thoughtful approaches to dealing with people and the problems at hand. He is the ultimate lawyer, as well as counselor.”
Wolowitz also developed a reputation training mental health professionals on ethics, particularly regarding inappropriate sexual behavior, well before the “Me Too” movement or Catholic Church sex abuse scandal were raising awareness of the issue.
What he learned and shared with clients is that rule-based training doesn’t work – that a professional may not be dissuaded from having sex with a client just because it is against the rules.
“You can’t just tell people what a rule is and expect them to follow,” Wolowitz explains. “What works is changing the culture.”
Wolowitz and McLane Middleton colleague Linda S. Johnson co-chaired the firm’s Education Law Group and developed a national education program to help do just that.
He sees four underlying behaviors in those who exploit or abuse the vulnerable – poor boundaries, unclear roles, a mishandled power balance, and a lack of accountability.
“What you can do is flip them,” Wolowitz says. “If you know having poor boundaries and role ambiguity, etc., are problematic, it’s not a leap to realize you can train people on having clear boundaries, clear roles, being accountable for their behavior, and using their influence for healthy childhood development.”
Johnson, who worked with Wolowitz for some 30 years, remains vice chair of the Education Law Group, says her former colleague “quickly developed a national and even international reputation as a go-to lawyer in the areas of risk prevention and crisis response for independent schools. Clients knew they could call upon David in times of crisis and he would guide them through appropriate responsive action with compassion for the people involved.”
She adds that he is also passionate about civil rights.
“One example is his many commentaries on the recent divisive concepts law and the chilling effect that has had on teachers’ rights to teach without fear of unjust retaliation,” Johnson adds. “He does not remain silent when he sees injustice in the world.”
Among Wolowitz’s more memorable cases was one involving More Than Me, an American charity running schools in Liberia, which Wolowitz was hired to investigate following allegations of rapes of students.
“It was one of the most powerful, moving experiences I’ve ever had because I met the girls who went to the school, they took me to their homes which I can tell you is not an invitation that was given lightly and not one not to be accepted,” Wolowitz says. “I had to be escorted into the slums, but the family that took me in were wonderful.”
Following his and other investigations, the school was forced to close, and its assets were transferred to another organization.
In another case, he won a lawsuit against Lakeview NeuroRehabilitation Center in Ossipee after his client’s teenage daughter ran away with one of her caretakers despite warnings about her vulnerability. That facility, too, became the target of an investigation following multiple charges of abuse and neglect, including a client death, and closed in 2015.
Wolowitz’s primary work focus these days is as an expert witness in cases involving abuse or exploitation, such as situations where a coach has been convicted of sexually abusing students on his team and there is a dispute as to whether the school should have known about the abuse.
“The question I get hired for is, were the policy and training and reporting and prevention and response procedures adequate or within the standard of care,” he explains. “I look at the policies, the training, whether there were red flags, and then I give an opinion.”
Wolowitz is also on the board of the Heifetz International Music Institute in Virginia, and the Museum of New Arts in Portsmouth, and does volunteer governance training.
He and his wife, Susan, live in Greenland, where he enjoys bicycling, photography, and spending time with his grandchildren.