Alexandra DiPentima realized in her senior year at Princeton University that she wanted to help people. What better way to do so than to be a Legal Aid lawyer?
So the Kent native took a year off after graduating with a degree in intellectual history to work at Johns Hopkins as a data collector for clinical field research. She then went on to get her law degree in 1979 from the University of Connecticut School of Law.
Her first job out of law school was her dream job. DiPentima joined Connecticut Legal Services, similar to Legal Aid, in 1979. It was a revelation, says DiPentima, now the 65-year-old chief judge of the Connecticut Appellate Court.
“It certainly opened my eyes to people who had all sorts of economic problems,” she said. “I represented a lot of low-economic individuals who were victims of domestic abuse and others who had housing issues. That work gave me an appreciation and opened my mind to people who I had not had any contact with before. These people were not so different from me. They just had unfortunate events in their lives. I continue to appreciate the need for Legal Aid, and also, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.’”
DiPentima said she thought she was set for a career as an attorney with Connecticut Legal Services, but this was the age of Ronald Reagan and that administration and the U.S. Congress cut back on funding and she got laid off after two years on the job. “I think I would have had a career in legal services, but I have no regrets on how my path turned out and where I am today,” she said.
DiPentima, the daughter of a longtime teacher at The Kent School, then went into private practice and in 1993 was appointed a Superior Court judge. Ten years later, in 2003, DiPentima was sworn in as a judge on the Connecticut Appellate Court and in 2010 became its chief judge.
Then Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase Rogers appointed DiPentima as chief judge. Rogers, now a partner at Day Pitney, has known DiPentima since 2006.
“She does not take herself too seriously, but takes the job as chief judge very seriously,” Rogers told the Connecticut Law Tribune Friday. “From my viewpoint, she is solution-oriented. I think she did an excellent job of managing the Appellate Court over the last eight years. She has a remarkable ability to deal directly with issues and work with people to solve problems in a very straightforward manner.”
One major goal: maintaining civility.
“I can make a difference in policy, and I really try to make this a collegial court, a collaborative court,” said DiPentima, who heads the Rules Advisory Committee with its co-chair, Connecticut Supreme Court Associate Justice Richard Palmer. “That means a lot to me,” she said.
That collegial tone is evident, said Connecticut Appellate Court Judge Christine Keller.
“We are the intermediate court and we really do not have inter-judge squabbles,” Keller said Friday. “We do not tend to have a high degree of personality conflicts and that’s because she sets the tone and is very measured and considerate.”
The best part of being a judge, DiPentima said, is the ability to make a difference as part of a court that hears about 70 cases a term. during each of its eight terms. While the court will hear about 70 cases a term or 500 cases in a court year, each judge in the Appellate Court will hear about 18-20 cases a term.
“There is just an unbelievable amount of diversity and issues and facts that come before us,” she said. “The fact that I can be part of deciding the best resolution in a case is so rewarding. I’m grateful.”
In 2007, the then-chief judge appointed DiPentima chairwoman of the newly formed Public Services and Trust Commission, which created a five-year strategic plan for the judicial branch. That work is ongoing and DiPentima now oversees the implementation of the plan, dealing with human capital and addressing the needs of the workforce within the judicial branch.