Former Connecticut Supreme Court Justice and DCF Commissioner Joette Katz. Former Connecticut Supreme Court Justice and DCF Commissioner Joette Katz.

One of the state’s top legal minds is taking the leap from the public sector back into private work, as former Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz has joined Hartford’s Shipman & Goodwin as a partner.

Commissioner of the state’s Department of Children and Families for the past eight years, Katz said in an interview with the Connecticut Law Tribune this week that she is excited about entering a position that is tailored to her expertise, and one with a mission that she had a hand in crafting.

“Shipman & Goodwin reached out to me several months ago,” said Katz, who announced this past November that she would be stepping down from her role at DCF. “I was thrilled as our conversations progressed that Shipman really wanted to know what I wanted to do.”

Katz recalled, as other firms courted her, a close friend said during the process, “Joette, you’re a really hard girl to shop for.”

During negotiations, Katz and Shipman developed a multipronged job description for her new partnership role. “I very much want to step into mediation, and another thing I wanted to do was appellate work,” Katz said, adding that she brings experience as a former public defender and a longtime passion for working with other practitioners on strategy and deciding what issues should be litigated at the appellate level.

Katz will oversee work in federal, state and administrative appeals, advising attorneys and clients on the appellate process. She will advise clients facing government investigations and take part in the firm’s pro bono efforts.

“Joette has had an exemplary career of public service on behalf of the state of Connecticut,” Shipman & Goodwin managing partner Alan Lieberman said. “Her experience in the judicial and executive branches of state government over a lifetime, as well as her commitment to our state, are extraordinary. We are honored that she has chosen this firm as her new professional home.”

Karen Staib, co-chairwoman of Shipman & Goodwin’s business litigation practice group, said Katz’s addition to the team is also a reunion for her. “Two decades ago, I had the good fortune to be clerking at the Connecticut Supreme Court when Joette was on the bench, and I can say with complete confidence that she has always been one of the hardest working and smartest people in the room,” Staib said. “Few people, if any, have her credentials or breadth of experience. I am thrilled to now be able to call her my partner.”

During almost 20 years on the Connecticut Supreme Court, Katz heard close to 2,500 cases and authored nearly 500 opinions. Before that, as chief of legal services for the state’s Public Defender Services, she co-authored “Connecticut Criminal Case Law Handbook: A Practitioner’s Guide,” published by The Connecticut Law Tribune. She remains a member of the publication’s editorial board and has taught at all three of the state’s law schools: Yale University School of Law, Quinnipiac University School of Law, and University of Connecticut School of Law, her alma mater.

At DCF, Katz was responsible for children in the department’s care and providing legal advice on a regular basis for the department at trial and on appeal. As commissioner at DCF, “I was sued more than anybody,” Katz said, so her experience remains well-steeped in the courtroom, but her passion has broadened to include protection of children across the state, whether they are in danger of being kidnapped and exploited by sex traffickers or abused at private schools. She said she wants to focus on investigating institutions of learning where cultures of abuse have been allowed to develop. “Clearly, we need to do a better job of educating schools about what they should be looking for,” she said.

Katz has already made strides against sex trafficking, including helping shut down online classified ads that helped perpetuate abuse. She said she hopes to continue those efforts, in light of Connecticut having more than 400 minor girls who have been domestically sex trafficked. Getting the hotel industry to increase efforts to report and shut down traffickers will be a part of the job.

“It’s like everything else. You can spend a dollar on the problem now or you can spend seven dollars cleaning it up,” Katz said, adding that she hopes her work can set precedent and have a positive impact on Connecticut law. “My eight years at DCF certainly opened my eyes,” she said.

Katz’s primary office will be at Shipman & Goodwin’s Stamford location, and while she will be working on news-making issues, she acknowledged her work will likely be less scrutinized than when she was at DCF. “I loved my time there, despite all of the heartache and being under a microscope,” she said. “There is some really wonderful work being done there that I want to stay connected to. We tell students they are comfortable in language when they start dreaming in that language, and I dream in the law.”