Marilyn Harp, L’79, has spent her career serving those in need
Kansas Legal Services Executive Director Marilyn Harp, L’79, retired in December 2022. She served as executive director since 2005 but has been a member of the Kansas Legal Services team since the beginning of her career in 1979. KU Law graduate Matthew Keenan, L’84 took the help as KLS executive director at the beginning of 2023.
“I have loved my job and being able to serve those in need,” Harp said. “This job has been varied. This job has been challenging. I have never been bored.”
During her tenure at Kansas Legal Services, Harp took the lead on building a more user-friendly website for KLS, which now gets nearly 1 million page views per year.
“I have had people who aren’t our clients come up to me and say, ‘I was having difficulty finding resources on my rights as a tenant, etc., but I went to your website and I figured it out,'” Harp said. “My part of doing that is making sure that people who can self-represent have the resources to do so and about 10,000 people a year take advantage of those forms.”
Alongside that project, Harp also had a hand in the development of two important programs: the Central Intake process and the Elder Law Hotline.
“The Elder Law Hotline is a great volunteer program because attorneys will take a four-hour shift and know if calls are coming and we’re able to forward calls from our call center to that lawyer. We’re really lucky to have some amazing elder law specialist attorneys in the state who volunteer for that so people can get some great help in that way,” Harp said.
Through all her successes, however, Harp has passed on her love of serving those in need to her staff.
“I hire people who want to say yes,” Harp said, with a smile. “And then I put them in a job where a lot of times they have to say no. They are bright and independent and have the best interests of their clients.”
Originally from Wichita, Harp first joined the KU family as an undergraduate in social work. She graduated in 1976 and started the path to her law degree the day after her undergraduate graduation.
“I grew up watching ‘Perry Mason,'” Harp said. “I always wanted to be Della Street, [the legal secretary] because that was the role women played in law firms at the time. Somewhere along the line, someone told me to think about being the lawyer and not the legal secretary.”
An opportunity to intern at Kansas Legal Services set Harp’s career in motion.
“I did an internship at the Kansas City office of Kansas Legal Services and afterward, I moved to Wichita,” Harp said. “I basically waited for weeks for this job to open up because KLS was where I wanted to work. It’s the only place I’ve ever worked.”
Being at the same company for the entirety of her career, Harp has some words of wisdom.
“Your job has to change with you as you get interested in new things,” she said. “You know, when you’re starting a new law practice or a new career the biggest problem is having enough clients, right? Kansas Legal Services does not have that problem because there’s such a need. This job has in some ways been the perfect mash-up between my social work background and my law background.”
Harp also encourages future lawyers and current law students to keep an open mind while in the classroom.
“When I was in law school, you had to take two semesters of Business Associations. At the time I knew I was going to work with poor people, so I didn’t understand why I needed this class,” Harp said. “Within literally six months I was talking to senior centers about incorporating. That’s what law does. It brings you lots of different opportunities and you can see them either as ‘I don’t know what this is so I don’t want to deal with it’ or ‘I don’t know what this is so I should go figure it out.'”
Teaching the future
On top of her legal work, creating programs that benefit those less fortunate across the country, and developing cohesive outward-facing products used by over a million people, Harp also found time to teach both at Wichita State and, later, at KU Law.
After her friend and former teacher, Carol Beier, was appointed as a Kansas Court of Appeals judge, Harp was given the opportunity to teach a new generation of students about Women in Law.
“Teaching that class was really fun. Feminist history through the eyes of the laws then is really interesting and I’m sorry that KU doesn’t offer a class like that,” Harp said. “The class teaches you about advocacy over an issue in your life.”
When the opportunity arose to continue teaching for the Elder Law Field Placement program, Harp jumped at the chance. Unfortunately for KU Law, Harp has retired from teaching as well.
“I saw [Dean] Stephen Mazza and he said, ‘You’re still going to teach, right?'” Harp said with a laugh. “But retiring is retiring.”
According to Harp, lawyers never seem to actually retire, and she is no exception.
“Being a lawyer is such an identity,” Harp said. “If you don’t have your law license, then what is your identity?”
Harp isn’t looking for a quiet retirement, instead, she’s turning her focus to legislation and what she can do to help with legislative reform.
“[Reforms] need a guide so I’m going to be a citizen lobbyist,” Harp said. “I have a badge that says, ‘citizen lobbyist’ and I’m working for nobody but myself. I’m only going to do things I’m interested in and help make those changes happen.”
She also plans to stay close to home and continue her work helping those less fortunate.
“Douglas County is about to open a help center in the courthouse and they’re looking for volunteers,” she said. “Helping a person with a legal problem get from point A to point B is still the thing I love the most about what I’ve done in my life, so I’m going to do more of that at the help center.”
And though she may be retired from Kansas Legal Services, she still plans on lending a hand to the programs she helped get started.
“I can become an emeritus attorney and take pro bono cases for KLS. I can still have that identity as a retired lawyer and help out at the Elder Hotline. I am definitely going to do some of the live expungement and driver’s license clinics we do,” Harp said.
For other lawyers similar to Harp, there are options to keep practicing even after retirement. More information about what you can do with your retired status can be found at Kansas Legal Services from Joy Springfield, director of pro bono services.
As for current KU Law students or any student in a law program, Harp has more words of advice:
“The best things that have happened to me in my career are when I took a risk,” Harp said. “The truth is, you leave law school not knowing how to do a lot of things, but you leave knowing how to figure out how to do a lot of things, so keep that going. Don’t settle for routine. Practicing law can either help you be creative or make you feel like you’re not creative at all. I’ve chosen to approach law creatively.”
— By Emma Herrman