Growing up in Shapleigh, a southwestern Maine town of 2,300 people, Kevin Decker didn't exactly know what he wanted to do with himself when he graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College in 2008.
He went to work for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp., which supports and funds programs that provide low-income people with legal information, advice and representation.
"I got to meet a lot of lawyers, and it seemed like the law was an area that would play to my strengths," Decker says. "So I decided to look into going to law school."
He had options, being accepted into one of the nation's top law schools as one of them. He chose the University of Maine School of Law in Portland.
"I had the opportunity to talk with students and faculty there, and I liked what they had to say," he says. "I liked the small size and communal feeling. The students worked hard but weren't paranoid about competing with everyone else. The professors seemed like they had a lot to share, and I was pleased to hear about the school's clinical programs. The location was great. I love Portland, and I knew I'd want to practice here afterward. And Maine Law lived up to its billing — I had a great time there and learned a lot."
Small size, communal feeling, excellent faculty, real-world experience and location about sum up the primary reasons cited for choosing Maine Law. Add to that annual in-state tuition ($22,390 this year) that's about half the national average. For Decker — who graduated summa cum laude in 2014, clerked for Judge William J. Kayatta Jr., of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and recently joined the Bernstein Shur law firm in Portland as an associate attorney — this was a consideration.
"Many other people have gigantic student loans," he says. "For me, it's made a huge difference."
As Maine's public and only law school, Maine Law, founded in 1962, has more than 3,500 alumni throughout the United States and abroad. They include judges, elected officials, lawyers, CEOs, authors and entrepreneurs. For fall 2015, 259 students are enrolled: 196 (76%) are from Maine. Although first-year enrollment declined in recent years, from 91 in 2011 to 79 in 2015, the school remains within range of its targeted class size of 80 to 90 students.
According to the most recent data, most of the class of 2014's 95 graduates work in various fields.
From the class of 2014, two-thirds are employed in Maine. Of the graduates who replied to a survey, 24 are in firms with fewer than a dozen lawyers; seven are in larger firms; and four are in solo practice. Six work in public interest law, 11 are in judicial clerkships, 13 are in business and industry and 11 are in government.
Average salaries range from $52,273 to $55,078, depending on whether a JD was directly required or not. Five others are enrolled in further graduate studies; a few are unemployed or did not reply to the survey.
After graduation, Lindsey Partridge went to work as an associate in Boston for PricewaterhouseCoopers, specializing in cybersecurity, privacy and IT risk.
A Wisconsin native with an undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota, she landed at Maine Law as the fiscally conservative choice, she says. She was also attracted to the school's Center for Law + Innovation, which connects students to courses and career opportunities in intellectual property and information privacy law, in partnership with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Networking through IAPP helped Partridge obtain her current position.
"It was a great decision," Partridge says. "It enabled me to network into the privacy profession. Maine Law is such a small community, and the Maine bar is so small, that as you make your way into the field and go through courses, you meet great lawyers who help to guide you in your career."
The hiring climate for law school graduates in general, including Maine Law graduates, has been difficult since the recession.
"That being said, we have an excellent network in Maine in terms of employment opportunities," says Maine Law Dean Danielle Conway, who started July 1 and is the seventh dean since the school's founding in 1962. "We've been able to maintain steady levels of employment because of our small size. We did not do what other law schools did, which was to admit more and more students. We stayed at a reasonable level, so we're not filling the market with graduates."
Many graduates took an entrepreneurial approach.
"While the majority of our students are going into the public sector, the private sector of large, medium or small firms, or judicial clerkships, there's a cohort of students going into entrepreneurial endeavors — opening solo practices or other businesses," says Conway. "We have food-and-beverage entrepreneurs and energy entrepreneurs. We have students who decided to run for office, so we have municipal [officials] and state legislators."
Maine Law embodies a network that originates beyond the school — law firms, in-house legal departments, corporations, public interest organizations and state and local government — and that connects graduates with law firms in Maine and beyond, says Conway. Hiring has picked up since 2010, with opportunities primarily driven by medium and small firms.
"We're seeing signs of improvement and, in the past three years, we've seen growth, albeit slight," Conway says.
Conway, a Philadelphia native, came to Maine Law after 14 years at the William S. Richardson School of Law on the campus of the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, where she was the Michael J. Marks Distinguished Professor of Business Law and director of Hawai'i Procurement Institute. She has more than 20 years of active and reserve duty in the U.S. Army. She was attracted to Maine Law for its role as the state's sole public law school and its role in government and the private sector.
"I've taught at other law schools," she says. "There's something distinct about Maine Law. We truly embody the ethos of a student-focused program of legal education. In everything we do — from promoting our program to prospective law students, to orientation, to first-year immersion in the traditional courses, through to our clinics and our externships and our internships, all the way up through graduation and post-graduation — our focus is on our students."
Real-world experience gained through the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic — one of the specialty clinics that operates within the school's larger Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic — helped 2014 graduate Katie Narbus, born and raised in the Moosehead Lake area, decide on a career.
"I became interested in law because I wanted to do something where I was going to be challenged every day," she says. The clinic brought her direct interaction with clients. For example, Narbus was part of a team that helped a man from Djibouti, Africa, receive asylum in the United States.
"I'm drawn to helping people who can't help themselves, and it's interesting to work with people from other countries," Narbus says.
Her practical experience continued through a Maine Law fellowship for a summer internship in Kampala, Uganda, with a private human rights organization. After graduation, Narbus was hired through RefugePoint, a Boston nonprofit, to work with the United Nations' High Commission for Refugees as a resettlement consultant in Nairobi, South Africa and Ethiopia. Most refugees were trying to escape harrowing circumstances. It was her job to determine credibility and advocate for resettlement. Recently returned, she's heading to New Orleans, to work for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as an asylum officer.
For Conway, the independent paths forged by graduates are part of the school's narrative of what it means to be a lawyer and the importance of jurisprudence for the community. To accomplish that, affordability is key. Maine Law keeps tuition down through strategic hiring of a small faculty and adjunct professors. Administratively, the school is a "lean machine," with staff cross-trained to handle various duties.
Conway is expanding the school's reach to students from other countries. Traditionally, Maine Law enrolled three to five foreign students. She'd like to double that number.
"As a newcomer to Maine myself, I noticed there are many other newcomers," she says. "This population will grow. Students from other countries can make our understanding of issues around immigration and economic development much more vibrant. And we want to show them everything that's wonderful about Maine and about the American legal system, and take that back to their country and be ambassadors for Maine Law and for the state of Maine."