When Pat Kaplan began her career at New Haven Legal Assistance Association in 1978, legal aid lawyers weren’t considered equals by their brethren in private law firms. Just over a decade earlier, the group’s first executive director, Fred Danforth, had actually been barred from bar association meetings. “He was not a real lawyer,” Kaplan said, voicing the conventional wisdom of the time.

When Kaplan later became head of the NHLAA, she made a point of becoming active in local and state bar associations.

“It took many years for legal services lawyers to be seen as equals,” she said. “[Legal aid] lawyers are much more accepted as equal, if not superior in some areas we specialize in. We are called frequently by people in the private bar for our expertise” on issues that most often affect low-income clients, such as housing law and the right to government benefits.

In September, Kaplan retired from the NHLAA, officially wrapping up a 34-year career spent helping clients who couldn’t otherwise afford an attorney. She has been praised for raising the stature for Connecticut legal aid attorneys, guiding her agency through difficult financial times and helping to push through statewide funding reforms.

Yet, Kaplan didn’t originally choose law as her career path. After graduating from Barnard College in New York, the Long Island native taught kindergarten and first grade. When her first husband, a doctor, was later stationed with the military in Japan, Kaplan became a stay-at-home mom with their two children from 1965 to 1975.

After awhile she realized, “I didn’t want to go back to teaching. I had sent my kids to alternative school in Branford. The teachers there were fantastic and so energetic. I didn’t have that kind of creativity.”

So in 1975, Kaplan enrolled at the University of Connecticut School of Law. While still a student, Kaplan decided she wanted to make a difference and did a summer internship at NHLAA. Soon after graduation, she landed a job there. “I always wanted to work at New Haven Legal Assistance and not anyplace else,” said Kaplan.

In her first big assignment, Kaplan was sent to a new satellite office called Valley Legal Assistance in Derby, where she focused primarily on family and child law. In 1982, Kaplan became head of the Derby office.

“It was a very underserved part of the community,” Kaplan said of the lower Naugatuck Valley. Despite her fond feelings toward the office and the people she was able to help, Kaplan’s first big decision when promoted to NHLAA executive director in 1991 was to close the Derby office. “I was the person who started the Valley office and I was the person who had to close the Valley office,” said Kaplan. “It was tough.”

The move came during the first of several funding crises that Kaplan and other legal aid agencies had to endure. It was an agonizing time for Katz, who had just hired seven new attorneys before the financial squeeze hit. “I learned funding goes up and down. You kind of get used to it,” she said.

In 1995, the U.S.Congress tried to get rid of the Legal Service Corporation, which then provided most of the money to operate legal aid agencies. In the end, lawmakers didn’t eliminate funding, but they did put restrictions on the cases the agencies could handle. For instance, they could no longer represent illegal immigrants or prisoners.

So the following year, Kaplan played a key role in an overhaul of legal aid services in Connecticut. Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts would become the main source of funding for groups such as NHLAA, Connecticut Legal Services and Greater Hartford Legal Aid. By cutting ties with the federal government, those agencies didn’t have to curtail any services.

Statewide Legal Services, meanwhile, was incorporated at the end of 1995. It offers consultation to low-income people over the phone, abides by the congressional restrictions and collects Connecticut’s share of federal funds. NHLAA, said Kaplan, “lost funding, but we felt it was more important to provide a full range of services to the underprivileged community.”

From that point forward, Kaplan said, the leaders of the state’s legal aid groups enjoyed a greater camaraderie, which came in handy during the most recent fiscal crisis. After the economic meltdown in 2008, IOLTA funding plummeted as interest rates dwindled and the housing market crashed. The legal aid agencies had to make hard decisions regarding staffing and services.

Kaplan weathered the storm without laying off attorneys. She cut corners elsewhere, trimming salaries, reducing support staff and leaving positions open as attrition took its toll. Again, Kaplan and fellow legal aid advocates went to the legislature seeking help. Again, they were successful, as court filing fees were increased to raise money for legal aid agencies.

The funding ebb and flow has left NHLAA a leaner operation than the one Kaplan took over in 1991, with the number of attorneys falling from 30 to 19, and support staff shrinking as well. “We call it the roller coaster of legal services,” said Kaplan. “I left [NHLAA] in a pretty stable situation, but who knows how long that will last?”

As director, Kaplan had less time for case work, but she still did her share. She remembers the small cases as much as the big ones.

“The little cases sometimes are more satisfying,” she said.

Just before Kaplan retired, she helped a 96-year-old man close his late wife’s bank account. He was having trouble filling out the necessary forms and nobody else would help him. “It was $450, which was a lot of money for him,” she said.

In a case with more wide-ranging impact, Kaplan recalled one man in the early 1980s who was accused of failing to pay child support. He did not have a lawyer and was jailed because he could not afford the bail. Normally, when charges are relatively minor, such defendants are released at some point, even if they can’t cover bail. However, this man was overlooked and remained jailed.

Kaplan caught wind of the situation and filed a class action in federal court. New law was created. Now all defendants charged with non-payment of child support in Connecticut who could potentially land in prison must have an attorney appointed to represent them. “The judge who put him in jail for contempt came up to me one day and thanked me,” said Kaplan.

Susan Nofi-Bendici has taken over for Kaplan as executive director of NHLAA. Kaplan had previously hired Nofi-Bendici twice before — one as a young lawyer and the second time, after Nofi-Bendici had worked elsewhere for several years, as the NHLAA deputy director.

“She’s a terrific mentor,” Nofi-Bendici said of Kaplan. “She makes you feel like she sees something in you and gives you the confidence to think you can do it. I’m glad I came back.”

Nofi-Bendici said Kaplan enjoys a national reputation, noting that at any conference of legal aid administrators Kaplan knows just about everyone in the room. When Nofi-Bendici took the NHLAA reins earlier this year, plenty of people told her she “has big shoes to fill” or has a “hard act to follow.”

Kaplan officially retired Sept. 4, but old habits die hard. “We referred our first pro bono case to her on Sept. 5,” Nofi-Bendici said.•