It was in the spring of 1971 when 19-year-old Judith Hoberman threw down her blue jacket and walked out on her cafeteria job to support the union. The Yale undergrad was caught up in the ambient tumult of labor unrest, anti-Vietnam War sentiment and Black Panther trials. She called it a "time of activism" that helped shape her ideas about what she wanted to do with her life.
Today, Hoberman is pleased that her career has been just that – a time of activism, which for Hoberman means helping those who need her most. A partner in Shedd and Hoberman, the 61-year-old Hamden lawyer's practice focuses on elder law and her convictions focus on pro bono work.
As a result of her dedication to helping others, Hoberman was presented with the Honorable Anthony V. DeMayo Pro Bono Award at the Connecticut Bar Association's annual meeting in June.
"Judge DeMayo passed away this January, so the award was particularly meaningful," Hoberman said. "I met him when I was an intern at the public defender's office in New Haven. I had known Tony for many years. He was extremely supportive of the legal services program in Connecticut and understood the needs of their clients."
One of four attorneys honored for their pro bono efforts during the 2012-13 CBA year, Hoberman was recognized specifically for working with low-income clients and the elderly, who are often physically and financially vulnerable. Many of the cases she handles come from the New Haven Legal Assistance Association.
"The warmth, care and attention Judy gives to her elderly clients is outstanding, and her commitment to making free legal services available to the poor has never waned since her work as an [NHLAA] staff attorney," said Susan Nofi-Bendici, the agency's current executive director. "Just this week I contacted Judy because an elderly client that we are assisting with another legal matter questioned why she received a bill for a nursing home stay that had been covered by Medicare and Medicaid. I reached out to Judy for help reviewing the paperwork we received from the facility. Within an hour Judy had emailed me a complete analysis and identified an angle that might relieve the client – whose only income is Social Security – of the co-pay charges on the bill. Both Judy's knowledge and her generously sharing that knowledge to help others are exceptional."
Looking back on her college years, Hoberman said she was surrounded by history-in-the-making. Then, in her junior year, a seminar on community psychology helped cement her interest in social justice.
"I began to understand law as a tool for social justice, and at 21 I knew it was something I wanted to do and I wanted to go to law school," Hoberman said. "There were some things about the law and legal services and working with clients of lesser means that was important to me when I was applying for law school."
After graduating from Yale, Hoberman earned her law degree at the University of Connecticut. She spent 18 years as a legal aid attorney before establishing her private practice in 1996 with Lea Shedd.
Hoberman has a large elder law practice, with some clients referred by Social Security or medical care providers and others encouraged by their adult children. She works with elderly and low-income clients because "there are those values of social justice that are extremely important to me," she said. "I feel I have a social contract to live my life that way – that's what being a lawyer is about for me."
Hoberman said the scope of her pro bono work varies. Sometimes it means not charging a lower-income client for legal services. Sometimes it means offering advice to another attorney who is providing pro bono services. She said she always makes herself available to field questions and lend expertise.
In addition to elder law, Hoberman helps those without financial resources gain access to services and programs that can help them. For instance, she recently assisted a young, disabled man who was eligible to leave a health care facility, but needed home care services. This required a special trust document so the man could remain eligible for Medicaid.
One of the biggest challenges that older Americans face is aging with a certain amount of autonomy, Hoberman said. One of her goals is to help people access government programs and live in a setting that they choose — whether they are in their own homes or in a long-term care facility.
But the time will come for most people when they lose some of their physical and mental capacities. That's why it's important, said Hoberman, that they take steps such as arranging for power of attorney and issuing health care directives. In doing those things, she said, they maintain some control over the final chapter of their lives.
"There are two [major] challenges for our clients: working with people so that they can be as autonomous as possible at a time when they are incapacitated. It's a challenge when they don't have plans put in place and then the Probate Court comes in," Hoberman said. "The other challenge is economic security, especially for women, who often don't have the same pension and Social Security benefits.
"The problem often presents itself when the ill spouse needs care. It is important to me and my law partner that when trying to access care and benefits that we look at the spousal home and try to leave as much as possible with the well spouse at home and try to avoid the expense of institutions."
Hoberman and her husband, Domenic Kinsley, an editor and creative developer of educational materials, have two grown daughters: Elisabeth, 30, who is enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Northwestern University, and Johanna, 27, who works in New York City for a non-profit educational organization.
Outside of her private practice and pro bono efforts, Hoberman has been active in pushing for legislative changes on behalf of the Connecticut chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. She has retained her standing in the legal aid community by sitting on the NHLAA board for more than five years. She also presents life-planning seminars at a local Alzheimer's agency.
"I love doing this," Hoberman said. "I sink my teeth in the bigger advocacy issues, but I get the most pleasure from stepping in and fixing things for people in crisis. You can take the girl out of legal services, but you can't take legal services out of the girl."