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August 6, 2018
Mainebiz Women to Watch 2018

Women to Watch: Joan Fortin, Bernstein Shur

PHOTo / Tim Greenway
PHOTo / Tim Greenway
Joan Fortin, shareholder, board member and director of attorney recruiting at Bernstein Shur, in the Portland office.
Photo / Tim Greenway
Joan Fortin, center, meets with Bernstein Shur colleagues, attorneys Katherine Joyce, left, and Kate Knox, in the Portland office.

Bernstein Shur

100 Middle St., Portland

Founded: 1915

Managing partner: Patrick J. Scully

Shareholder, board member and director of attorney recruiting: Joan Fortin

Attorneys: More than 110 lawyers serving clients from offices in Portland, Augusta and Manchester, N.H. It's Maine's largest law firm.

Contact: 207-774-1200 / www.bernsteinshur.com

In her own words

Did you have a mentor or role model?: My most enduring mentors/role models have been my law partner, Patricia Peard, and my mom, Rita Fortin.

What advice would you give your former self?: I did not fully appreciate the value of a liberal arts education when I went off to Colby College in 1984. My advice to my 18-year-old self would be to not worry about what my career would be after college, and instead just dive in head-first and take full advantage of every single opportunity Colby had to offer.

What are you reading this summer?: The one that I have open at the moment is "The World's Most Powerful Leadership Principle: How to Become a Servant Leader," by James C. Hunter.

Who would play you in a movie about your life?: Probably Sigourney Weaver, though think "Gorillas in the Mist" and "Avatar," not "Aliens." The characters she plays in these movies are strong women who are fearless when fighting for others, whether the others are gorillas or the fictional Na'vi people. She's an environmentalist, which we share, and people periodically tell me that I remind them of Sigourney Weaver.

Joan Fortin's Maine roots run deep in Benton, where she spent her childhood on the family dairy farm, the second-oldest of five siblings.

"I feel like I grew up in heaven," she says, recalling days of haying, milking cows, doing chores and riding bareback on a buckskin quarter horse.

There were tough times as well, like after her father survived a heart attack at age 54 and Fortin got up every day at 4:30 a.m. to help him milk the cows before heading to her internship at the U.S. District Court in Bangor for an 8 a.m. start.

Fortin's parents still live on the farm, and the 52-year-old has come to see her mother as a role model.

"I wouldn't have said that early on," she admits, "but in terms of being a strong woman with a very strong moral compass and very dedicated to family, I consider my mom a really important mentor." She also looks up to Patricia Peard, her long-time partner at Portland-based law firm Bernstein Shur, who just retired and whom Fortin calls a "lioness in the legal world."

Fortin, a Bernstein Shur shareholder, board member and director of attorney recruiting, oversees the firm's mentoring and summer associate programs. Inside and outside the firm, she's regarded as a champion for women, diversity and inclusion and a mentor who's always generous with her time and sound advice.

"Joan takes her role as a mentor quite seriously, not just in terms of your substantive legal development but also your development as a firm citizen and as a good person," says legislative and political practice group leader Kate Knox, whom Fortin encouraged to join the board eight years ago. "She guided me to a place where I'm one of the leaders of the firm," Knox says.

Joel Moser, who chairs the firm's property tax and valuation team, says that no one has impacted his professional life more than Fortin. "I want to be like Joan when I grow up," he says.

From higher education to law

Fortin studied human development with an emphasis in religion at Colby College in Waterville, only 15 minutes from home but a culture shock for someone whose parents hadn't gone to college. Embarking on her initial career path in higher-education student services, she served as head resident at an undergraduate dorm her junior and senior years.

In grad school at the University of Maine, she was a resident director before earning a master's degree in educational administration. After two years working in student services at Bowdoin College, she felt like she was already hitting the glass ceiling. To give herself other career possibilities, she decided to pursue a law degree, as the presidents of Bowdoin and Colby had at that time.

"I'm a big person for having options and back-up plans," she says.

While at Northeastern University School of Law, she had the chance to do four three-month internships, including a summer at Bernstein Shur. She decided a career in law was for her. She also met her future husband, Chet Randall, a classmate from New Hampshire.

After law school and a clerkship with Maine Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul L. Rudman in Bangor, Fortin became an associate a Bernstein Shur. A year later she joined Randall in Alaska, where he was working as a public defender. She landed at a small litigation firm in Anchorage. The following year, she convinced him to move with her to Maine. "I got out there and realized, my Maine roots are pretty deep," she says, "so we came back and here we are with two teenagers."

In 1999 she returned to Bernstein Shur, where she practices municipal, administrative and land-use law. More importantly for the firm, she oversees attorney recruiting, hiring and retention, serves on the diversity and inclusion committee that she helped set up, and oversees the summer associate and mentoring programs. Out of more than 110 attorneys with the firm today, 47 were hired by Fortin.

"She's been instrumental in hiring the highest-quality people over the last 10 years, not just law students but also many of the important lateral hires we've made," says CEO Patrick J. Scully.

Danielle Conway, dean of the University of Maine School of Law, is another fan, saying: "I include Joan Fortin in the category of one of my sisters. She has at every turn supported my vision for the law school, created opportunities for me to pursue in furtherance of that vision, and she's been a consummate go-getter for women in the legal profession … She's been able to pull off the right mixture of support, sisterhood and subject matter expertise."

Standing up for women and working parents

Besides ensuring that the firm hires the right people, Fortin works behind the scenes to make sure that job offers to women are fair and equivalent to those for men.

"I do that every single solitary time," she says.

When asked to speak at a DisruptHR conference in Portland recently on the gender pay gap, she chose to speak about #MeToo and Time's Up, comparing women's anger over sexual harassment and sexual assault to "fiery-hot" lava flowing from the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii. But she urged listeners to "embrace this opportunity and change our corporate landscapes for the better."

She's aimed to do that at Bernstein Shur through sexual harassment training for firm leaders that included mandatory discussion groups on Joanne Lipman's book "That's What She Said: What Men Need to Know (And Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together." The focus was on dynamics between men and women at work and what the firm can do to make things better.

"This is a really great place to work and a really great place for women," she says. "That doesn't mean we can't make some improvements."

Fortin was a driving force behind a groundbreaking new parental leave policy at the firm that gives 16 weeks of unpaid leave to all parents among its attorneys and staff members regardless of gender. The policy, which took effect in May, removes any distinction between primary and secondary caregivers and provides equal benefits to all new parents as a result of birth, adoption or foster care placement. It also gives parents flexibility on how to use their unpaid leave time.

Throughout her own career, Fortin has made it a priority to be very present in the lives of her own children and cheer them on at sporting events — her 16-year-old son in football, basketball and baseball and her 14-year-old daughter in soccer, basketball, swimming and track.

She also confesses that early in her career she felt overstretched and like she couldn't devote enough time to work, family or community service.

"I spent a lot of years feeling like I was failing at everything, and that's a tough way to go through your profession," she says.

For that reason, she says it's important to have conversations about flexible-work options with both men and women who plan to start families.

"We try very hard to create an environment where people don't feel like they have to pick between family and career," she says.

Asked about measuring the success of the diversity and inclusion committee she helped set up, Fortin says, "that will probably be a work-in-progress forever." She notes that there is diversity among attorney and staff in terms of people of color and sexual orientation, and gives a lot of the credit for that to the firm's human resources director, Mary Beth S. Turcotte.

Fortin's community service includes several years on the board for the Maine Women's Fund and later on its grant committee, motivated by the desire to improve economic security for women.

Next year, Fortin will chair the American Heart Association's "Go Red for Women" luncheon.

"Educating women about women's health is very important to me," she says. "I'm excited to be a part of that."

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