Bar News - October 18, 2017
Practitioner Profile: Hilliard: A Lawyer’s Lawyer
By: Kathie Ragsdale
Russell Hilliard stands at the foot of the mountain Idunda, where impassable roads prevented his group from ascending. Instead, parishioners came down to them, bearing gifts of Iringa baskets as mementos of their visit. (Courtesy photo)
Russell F. Hilliard in his Portsmouth office. Kathie Ragsdale photo.
Fellow attorneys describe him as “the very definition of professional,” but he is also a man who leads a church group on an annual mountain hike, volunteers each year in Tanzania and plays hockey every winter weekend with a team that has included former New Hampshire Governor John Lynch.
Russell Hilliard is past president of both the New Hampshire Bar Association and the New England Bar Association and is a current member of the American Bar Association House of Delegates, but his contributions extend far beyond the legal profession.
The Portsmouth resident began his career as an engineer, having graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Working one summer in the early 1970s for an engineering firm in Manchester, he interacted with some lawyers who were involved in the same mill yard redevelopment project.
“I told my father I thought their work was more interesting,” he recalls, sitting in his Portsmouth office. “I just changed course.”
In Hilliard’s view, the lawyers were the ones who pulled together all the various aspects of the project and propelled the work forward in a meaningful way, and he was inspired by lawyers’ capacity to make positive change in the community. “I’ve always had an interest in the power and the tools that lawyers have to effectuate good,” he reflects. “To a large extent, we represent clients and their interests, but we’re always still officers of the court and have a larger duty to make sure the justice system we have works.”
His father was initially “horrified” by his decision, Hilliard says, but came to find his son’s legal work so interesting that he went to work for him after retirement as a paralegal.
After earning his law degree from Cornell Law School, Hilliard joined a two-person law firm in Concord, with Vincent Dunn, a former bank commissioner under Governor John King. When the late Governor Hugh Gallen appointed Dunn to the Superior Court, Hilliard joined the firm of Upton & Hatfield on May 16, 1980.
“My practice evolved into civil litigation, now commercial litigation, and representing lawyers in disciplinary proceedings,” he says.
“Ninety to 95 percent of grievances against lawyers are determined to be unfounded,” he adds. “One of the things I love about representing lawyers is they’re very appreciative of your help. It’s nice to close those files and have it be done.”
He estimates that about one-third of his practice is defending lawyers, with the other two-thirds in commercial litigation.
“In my view, Russ is a consummate professional, equipped with a sincere desire and intention to provide the assistance sought and needed, and which he accomplishes with consistent attention to his client’s views and inquiries,” says Scott Carlisle, a former Maine lawyer and friend of 17 years. “Russ is also blessed with an overall positive outlook, which, as far as I can tell, extends to most of the people and circumstances he encounters.”
One of Hilliard’s more memorable trials, in federal court, involved a client who was being sued by a Russian firm over the sale of a plywood plant in Claremont. The case took him to Moscow for depositions and “the Russian company that had sued my client couldn’t have been more gracious hosts,” Hilliard says. “Every night they took us all out to dinner – both sides – for a week.” The court found in his client’s favor – a decision affirmed on appeal.
Hilliard also became friends with the New York lawyer representing the Russian firm, as both became presidents of their state bar associations and are now members of the ABA House of Delegates.
“I always tell young lawyers, you need to treat everybody with professionalism and courtesy because you never know, down the road you may be in a different setting,” Hilliard says with a smile.
Hilliard is well known and respected throughout the New Hampshire Bar.
“Anyone who knows Russ will tell you that he is at all times the very definition of professional,” says fellow attorney James Wheat, who has known Hilliard for more than three decades. “And if you weren’t aware of all that Russ has accomplished to date in his career, you would never hear it from him. He is modest to a fault and a true gentleman in every sense of the word.”
Hilliard has been active on several NH Bar committees, is a past member of the NH Public Employee Labor Relations Board and is past chair of the NH Legislative Ethics Committee. He is charter president of the Hopkinton Rotary Club and past president of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Newington.
His work with Holy Trinity has ranged from leading an annual mountain hike (Mt. Washington and Mt. Katahdin have been two destinations) to, more recently, yearly sojourns to Tanzania as a church ambassador.
The Bega Kwa Bega (“shoulder to shoulder” in Swahili) program began in St. Paul, Minnesota, as a partnership between US Lutheran churches there and Lutheran churches in inland Tanzania. Holy Trinity got involved because of a Tanzanian parishioner whose father was a Lutheran pastor in Isimani, Tanzania.
Hilliard, who had taught legal ethics at the former Franklin Pierce Law Center (now UNH Law) for 10 years, agreed to teach at the Lutheran University the Bega Kwa Bega group had established in Tanzania, and ended up teaching an entire semester in 2009 and a six-week course in 2012. He and his wife, Jo, have also volunteered for two months a year in Tanzania, originally as coordinators, handling banking for projects and scholarships and, since 2015, as ambassadors visiting Tanzanian parishes partnered with US counterparts.
Hilliard emphasizes it is not missionary work. Tanzania, he says, is “a stable, safe, democratic country” with villages that have brick houses, gardens at most residences and churches in the center. Though the country as a whole is half Muslim and half Christian, the area where he works, in the highlands 300 miles from the Indian Ocean, is largely Christian.
The ambassador work involves visiting the far-flung Tanzanian churches that have US partners, bringing greetings and gathering news to take back, as well as checking on building projects like schools and churches. The Tanzanians provide the labor and make the bricks for the buildings, and the Americans supply money to pay for materials, like steel, the Tanzanians cannot provide.
Asked what he gets out of his volunteer work, Hilliard responds, “You need to go to Tanzania. The joy that they bring to life from lifestyles that have far less material goods than ours is just overwhelming – and the sense of friendship and being neighbors. We’ve just made deep friendships over there and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to think I had some small part of some projects over there.”
That dedication comes as no surprise to Mark Edwards, a church friend of 15 or 16 years standing.
“He’s a remarkably decent person,” says Edwards, former president of the divinity school at Harvard University. “Our church has invited an Indonesian congregation to use our facility… A few years ago he was doing pro bono work for some of them. That’s one indication of how he serves the community in a variety of ways.”
“You could imagine him being quite an effective judge,” Edwards adds. “He has both the temperament and the breadth of knowledge. He’s the sort of person the bar has every reason to be proud of. At a time when there’s a lot of jokes about attorneys, this is a person that belies the jokes.”