Even at age 90, Albuquerque lawyer John Donald Robb Jr. continued to go to his office daily at the Rodey Law Firm, where he specialized in issues related to environmental and natural resources law and was affectionately referred to by his colleagues as the firm’s “senior diplomat.”
His real passion, however, was the work he did on behalf of the poor and the homeless.
The award-winning lawyer and advocate for those less fortunate died July 13 after suffering a stroke the previous day, said his son, John Robb III. A memorial service will be held for him at 10 a.m. on July 24 at the Heights Cumberland Presbyterian Church, 8600 Academy NE.
John Donald Robb Jr. attended Yale and the University of New Mexico before serving in the Navy during World War II. There, he saw duty in the Pacific and was aboard a destroyer that was caught in the same typhoon that capsized two other destroyers and killed 800 sailors.
“I asked John how his experience in World War II affected him as a lawyer and he said it taught him the importance of fighting for a noble cause, and that being a lawyer, in his view, is a noble cause,” said Charles Vigil, president and managing director of the Rodey Law Firm. “This is a trait that made John such a fine trial lawyer.”
After his military service, Robb earned his law degree from the University of Minnesota and then returned to New Mexico, where his parents, John and Harriet Robb, had lived since 1941. His father had given up a career as a corporate lawyer in New York for music and composing, his real passions. He came to New Mexico for a job as professor of music at UNM and later became dean of fine arts. He died in 1989 at age 96.
John Donald Robb Jr. set up his own law practice in 1950. His expertise in the courtroom brought him to the attention of Bill Sloan, a senior partner at Rodey, the following year. Sloan offered him a job, and Robb became the firm’s last named partner at Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb.
“John Robb was our partner and our friend,” Vigil said. He continued to attend firm meetings and as the “senior diplomat” was “our last link to the early days” of the firm and “was a constant reminder of the firm’s rich legacy.”
Robb, who had originally been a “nominal” church-attending Christian, his son said, had a religious epiphany when he was about 40 years old. After that, he rededicated himself to a more spiritual life, became more involved with the church “and seriously embraced the Bible’s call to care for the poor and needy.”
Early in his career, Robb accepted an invitation to serve on the board of the new Albuquerque Legal Aid Society, an experience that opened his eyes to the realization that the poor were not getting adequate representation and access to the justice system. He subsequently served on the National Legal Aid and Defender Association Board and was appointed to the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants and served six years as chairman.
He also served on the United States Office of Economic Opportunity’s National Advisory Committee while Legal Aid was housed under that agency. He became a proponent of the reform movement in which Legal Aid sought to change unfair or discriminatory laws through class-action lawsuits, lobbying and other legal efforts. That advocacy put him at odds with members of his own Republican Party, who wanted to significantly reduce and then eliminate federal funding for Legal Aid.
Merging his commitment to the poor with his Christian principles, Robb began a pilot program in Albuquerque in which Christian lawyers volunteered time to counsel clients and mediate disputes. As a result, there are currently Christian Legal Aid programs throughout the country.
Robb has been listed in The Best Lawyers in America and was awarded the Outstanding Lawyer of the Year and the Distinguished Service Award by the State Bar of New Mexico. In 2006, he received the ABA’s Advocates Award during ABA Day on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in recognition of his lifetime of service to the ABA and Legal Aid.
Robb once told colleagues at Rodey that “law has always satisfied me intellectually, but legal aid for the poor is an affair of the heart.”
He was the much-beloved father of John D. Robb III, Celeste Robb-Nicholson, Ellen Bea Robb, Bradford Hight Robb, George Geoffrey Robb, and David McGregor Robb. He also leaves 20 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His wife of 68 years, Peggy, died in May.