Pine Tree Legal Assistance has chosen a Maine-born lawyer with extensive experience in justice and equity issues to lead the nonprofit that offers civil legal help to low-income Mainers.

Tom Fritzsche, who grew up in Kennebunk, will follow Nan Heald as the nonprofit’s executive director. Heald, who died of cancer in January, led Pine Tree for more than 30 years, overseeing the creation of several programs and increasing the nonprofit’s budget from $2.8 million in the early 1990s to $7 million in 2020.

Tom Fritzsche will oversee a staff of 75 at Pine Tree Legal Assistance, including 47 attorneys and 15 paralegals, in six locations around the state. Photo courtesy Pine Tree Legal

Over the last year, the nonprofit said it has worked on more than 7,700 cases affecting more than 18,700 people. Their work runs the gamut, with attorneys addressing issues related to housing, domestic violence, farmworkers, veterans and Indigenous people.

When Fritzsche takes over on Sept. 6, he will oversee a staff of 75, including 47 attorneys and 15 paralegals, in six locations throughout the state.

“I feel proud to bring to a broad background of experiences, working with all the different communities that Pine Tree serves,” Fritzsche said Thursday afternoon.

Currently, Fritzsche is the executive director for the Milk with Dignity Standards Counsel, a nonprofit based in Vermont that works to improve housing and working conditions for dairy farm workers. He is a graduate of Amherst College and the NYU School of Law.

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In an interview Thursday, Fritzsche said that his interest in legal aid dates to the early 2000s, when he was a medical interpreter, pesticide safety trainer and health outreach worker with the Maine Migrant Health Program. Fritzsche said he spent his summers traveling from farm to farm, helping translate interactions between medical professionals and Spanish-speaking farm workers who needed care. The experience offered Fritzsche one of his earliest looks into the needs of vulnerable communities in Maine.

His first job after law school was as a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project in Atlanta. Fritzsche also was a teaching fellow at the Cardozo School of Law’s Immigration Justice Clinic in New York City.

“He has a lot of experience in a lot of areas,” said Dan Emery, president of the board that oversees Pine Tree Legal Assistance. Emery noted Fritzsche’s “tremendous” work in ensuring human rights and improving conditions for farm workers, but also his “broad” experience in working with the types of clients that need Pine Tree’s help the most.

“He’s really dedicated his life to working with underprivileged, low-income people,” Emery said.

Pine Tree Legal Assistance was formed in the late 1960s, when it was one of the nation’s first statewide civil legal aid organizations.

Heald took over Pine Tree in 1990 after working there for about five years on correcting the exclusion of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs from the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, a change that was eventually achieved through federal legislation. The Smith College and George Washington University graduate grew up in Oquossoc, in Maine’s western mountains.

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As executive director, Heald moved the organization into the age of technology by helping create a website that featured self-help resources in 1996 – the first online self-help guides produced by a legal aid organization in the country.

Heald saw the formation of several new legal aid programs, including those for children, low-income veterans, and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Heald was honored in 2011 at the White House as a “Champion of Change” for her work on justice issues. In a 2017 editorial for the Press Herald during the nonprofit’s 50-year anniversary, Heald advocated for increased funding and support for legal aid organizations around the state.

“When we say the Pledge of Allegiance, we close with “justice for all’,” Heald wrote in the co-authored piece. “We need civil legal aid programs like Pine Tree Legal Assistance to ensure that Maine is providing justice for all, and not just to those who can afford it.”

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