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November 13, 2017
Focus: Law

Legal eagles: Young lawyers finding Maine's quality of life is a compelling reason to stay here

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Joan Fortin, director of attorney recruiting at Bernstein Shur, in Portland. Because many recent law grads face student debt, the conversation about salary levels in Maine is broached much earlier than in the past.
Photo / Tim Greenway
Jeff Talbert, an attorney at Preti Flaherty, at the law firm's Portland office.

Lindsay Milne landed her dream job when she graduated from Fordham University law school in 2010, at Akin Gump in New York City.

"I wanted to work for a big firm, and I wanted to work in private practice," she says. The 800-lawyer international firm provided the kind of experience she was looking for.

The Long Island, N.Y., native also loved living and working in midtown Manhattan.

But when she got married, she and her husband decided they wanted another kind of life.

Milne, 31, has been at Maine's largest law firm, Bernstein Shur in Portland, since April 2015. With 99 attorneys, it's the state's largest law firm, but the move still meant a large decrease in salary.

Despite lower pay, Milne is happy to be in Maine — and she isn't alone.

Maine's largest law firms say that while they can't compete with larger out-of-state firms in terms of compensation, they are still able to hire quality lawyers who are willing to work for less to live in Maine.

Following a dream

The number of lawyers who have worked in larger markets before they were hired at Pierce Atwood, the state's third-largest law firm, is "significant," says Katy Rand, chair of the firm's recruiting committee.

She says those lawyers "decided they were ready to follow their dream and relocate to Maine."

Joan Fortin, director of attorney recruiting at Bernstein Shur, says, "People are really interested in being here."

But there is often a gap between the dream of living in Maine and the reality.

Fortin used to tell promising job candidates from larger markets what their salary would be during the third or fourth interview. "Their eyes would pop open and they'd say, 'I can't live on that.'

"I've learned through experience that if I'm interviewing a lawyer from a larger market, to talk about salary in the first interview."

Fortin says "crippling" law school debt makes it difficult for many recent graduates to work in Maine.

"They make a rational decision to take that job at a bigger firm," she says. "And that's what it is, a rational decision."

While Milne was able to pay down her debt at Akin Gump, the Portland salary still took her aback.

"I hadn't had my expectations aligned for the decrease in compensation," she says.

'We should consider Portland'

Milne and her husband, Jordan, met at Dartmouth College, and they knew when they left New York City, it would be for somewhere in New England.

Jordan Milne, who worked in finance, planned to open a distillery, and they wanted a good fit.

They also wanted to start a family and spend more time with their extended families. They wanted a dog, and a yard for the dog to run in.

Portland wasn't on their radar until Hurricane Sandy knocked out their power in October 2012, prompting them to visit Lindsay's brother, who worked at Bath Iron Works.

That was their introduction to Portland. "And we said, huh, maybe we should consider Portland," she says.

Milne researched the legal landscape, whether she could practice the kind of law she'd been practicing in New York, the business culture, the real estate market. The more they looked at Maine, the more they liked it.

"It just really felt like a place where we wanted to live," she says.

When she was offered a job, the compensation was an eye-opener.

"It meant we had to adjust what houses we were looking at buying, where we wanted to live." But it didn't change their minds about Maine.

Ties to Maine

The state's largest law firms have found that those who, like Milne, are willing to sacrifice top salaries to be in Maine are an asset.

"We like to see lawyers with roots and ties in Maine, who have gone off and had a lot of experience and bring that back to Maine," says Jeff Talbert, who leads recruiting at Preti Flaherty, Maine's fourth-largest law firm.

The firm gets resumes from all over the country from lawyers who want to come to Maine, from those who are familiar with the state and those who have never been here.

"Within that pool, there are a lot of good people who understand the quality of life here," he says.

Pierce Atwood's Rand says the lawyers who are here because they want to work in Maine are some of the firm's "most successful and valuable lateral hires.

"They have received excellent training and we know they are committed to practicing long term in Maine," she says. "If an associate is prepared to take a substantial cut in pay to move to a smaller market like Maine, you can generally be assured they are doing so because they are looking at the long-term benefits of practicing here."

She says, too, that private practice in Maine isn't as all-consuming as it is in New York, or other large markets. She says few Maine lawyers work 18-hour days. "We believe our lawyers do higher quality work and live a more satisfying life if the demand on their time is rigorous, but not extreme."

Law firms also do what they can to make the smaller compensation sting less.

Michele Pattenaude, director of human resources at Verrill Dana, Maine's second-largest law firm, says that firm also has "big law refugees" who were looking for a better work-life balance.

"Incoming attorneys are looking for creative benefits programs that allow them to live a full personal and professional life," she says. "We design our benefits and policies to allow for this greater need for flexibility, while still maintaining quality service."

The firms do hire graduates — usually ones who have had success in the summer program during a student's second and third year of law school and are familiar with what the firm has to offer.

Another resource is the University of Maine School of Law. A vast majority of graduates stay in Maine to work, says Derek Van Volkenburgh, director of career services.

"Most attend Maine Law because they want to be in Maine," he says, adding that many have the grades to have gone wherever they wanted.

The school's graduates can be found in public and private practice across the state, as well as government, nonprofits and businesses.

"I don't think people realize the contribution [the law school] makes to the state," he says.

The school asked law firms a few years ago what they looked for when hiring, whether it was expertise, or certain courses they'd taken. He says the answer is a good fit for Maine Law's graduates.

"They said they're looking for people who have the potential to be good lawyers," he says. "People who write well, speak well, have analytical minds, are able to do the work that lawyers do."

'Exactly what we were looking for'

Milne loved working at Akin Gump, where she had cases and experiences that helped mold her career, and met people she will stay connected to for life.

"It was a great way to learn the profession," she says.

But she's also happy with their decision to move to Maine. "It's exactly what we were looking for when we first started looking," she says.

Two of her siblings now live here and her parents just closed on a house in Freeport.

Her husband's distillery, Hardshore, celebrated its first anniversary Oct. 27, just days after it was named the nation's "Best Craft Gin Distillery" by USA Today.

The couple have a newborn. They don't live on the coast, as they once imagined they would, but their house in Windham has a pond, a favorite play place for their black Lab, Hudson.

The lower cost of living makes up to some extent for the lower wage, but Milne says there also are benefits worth more than money.

As much as she loved her job in New York City, there's an anxiety that comes with working long hours and looking out a window at pavement, rather than grass and trees. "It takes a toll."

While law firms in Maine don't pay that premium for being available around the clock, the upside is, "You don't have to be available around the clock."

She says she can still provide a premium service, and has found most of the clients understand the value of having a quality life outside of work.

"I wouldn't give up the time [spent at Akin Gump]," she says. "But I was looking for not only a geographic change, but a way to change my life."

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