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The long road from Houlton to Presque Isle goes past wind turbines atop Mars Hill and potato farms, eerily quiet in late October with unattended roadside huts peddling you-weigh, you-pay Aroostook County spuds and other produce.
Driving from Portland, it's the last stretch of a four-and-a-half hour journey that might take you to Canada if you're not paying attention. Arriving into Presque Isle feels like coming into the big city. Main Street is home to a few eateries and shops, a cinema and most of its lawyers — there are just 17 in this city of 9,171. Many work on their own or with associates, but nothing like the big city firms.
Among the latest to join their ranks is Cassie Rodgers at Swanson Law PA, a 28-year-old Presque Isle native who returned home to practice law after graduating from the University of Maine School of Law in 2016. Although she enjoyed her time in Portland where she often visits family and friends on weekends, she says she never considered staying in southern Maine or working for a big firm.
“The large firm life just never seemed like it would jibe with my personality,” she says, her Yorkshire terrier Teddy curiously nipping at this reporter's bag before finding his favorite hedgehog squeaky toy. “It's not an environment that I felt I would be comfortable in or that would work for me.” Rodgers has come to value the collegiality of working in a small town, the variety of cases and areas of law from criminal defense to family law and cultivating client relationships in a way that's not spelled out in legal textbooks. “I like opportunities when I'm able to resolve a matter by way of making it human. That's my style, it's my personality, that's how I advocate,” she says.
Maine's rural communities could use more lawyers like Rodgers, and more lawyers of her generation overall, amid a looming shortage prompted by an aging out of the profession. It's much like what's happening in rural health care. Around the state, sole practitioners approaching retirement age are having an especially hard time finding young talent to work with and eventually take over a practice.
“I'm 70 and I really need to be retiring,” says Paul Dumas, by phone from Oxford County, in western Maine. Unfortunately, he adds, “I can't get any young lawyer interested in coming here to Mexico, Maine. They all want to be in Portland.”
Data from the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar backs that up. It found in a 2014 demographics report that, outside of Cumberland County, just 10% of lawyers in private practice are younger than 35, while more than 65% are 50 or older. Data in the same report on recent Maine Law grads paint a similar picture, with more than two-thirds living in southern Maine nine months after graduating.
The report identified concerns about a “significant reduction” in lawyer numbers over the next decade and an increasingly small, and older, group of lawyers serving rural communities. It recommended eight ways to address the problem, including student “road trips” to rural communities and regular visits to the law school by jurists from areas where there's an existing or threatened shortage of lawyers. Since then the board of overseers has followed up on several fronts from educating the bar about succession planning to a rule that took effect in July 2015 requiring private practitioners to designate a proxy for when they are unable to carry on with their duties.
Improving access to justice for the entire state has been a passion of Maine Law Dean Danielle M. Conway since taking the reins in 2015. While the possibility of sending students to rural areas had been discussed well before her arrival, she crafted a concrete plan to make that happen: A three-year Rural Lawyer Pilot Project launched this summer with funding from the Maine Justice Foundation.
“Everybody knows the problem, the question is, 'How do you build solutions?'” she says, adding that the program is “just one opportunity to test a solution” and will take a while to solve. “Part of the access to justice is to break down the walls between community members and the legal profession … It's not just, 'Oh, I'm showing up.' You have to be part of the community and commit to the community so that individuals in that community will trust you.”
Cameron Goodwin and Ryan Rutledge did just that over the summer in Presque Isle, as the first students to participate in the Rural Lawyer Pilot Project, which Conway wants to see permanently endowed.
Goodwin, 23, is a Westbrook native who has spent his whole life in Maine, but had barely gotten further north than Bangor until the summer. His first impression of Aroostook County?
“It was vast,” he says, laughing. “You get off the highway in Houlton, and you still have an hour to go.”
Over the next 10 weeks, he and Rutledge would do a lot of long drives to different courthouses, part of daily life for area lawyers — Houlton to the south, Caribou about 20 minutes north, and Fort Kent and Madawaska over an hour to the north. “I heard a few stories about people who forgot to go to the right place,” Goodwin says.
Rutledge, 26 years old and originally from Savannah, Ga., also had long weekend drives to see his wife, who was working in Freeport. During the week, the students shared a furnished rental on Main Street near each of their offices, Goodwin at Smith and Associates Law Office and Rutledge at Bemis & Rossignol LLC.
After spending his first morning reading up on evidence and criminal procedure which he hadn't yet taken in law school, Goodwin spent the afternoon at the Houlton jail meeting with clients, including a defendant in a murder case. He worked mainly on criminal cases as well as civil matters including child-protective cases and deeds and trusts.
Rutledge was also busy from the start — “It was like drinking from a fire hose” — with three research projects and writing memos, and later meeting with clients. Like his classmate, he had the opportunity to shadow different attorneys not only in interactions with clients but also with opposing counsel and judges in their chambers.
“I don't think I could have learned by sitting in the classroom,” he says. “That's so valuable to me now.” He also helped out on a boundary dispute that went to trial and is now helping with the appeal.
“He does good work,” says Frank Bemis, who continues to mentor Rutledge and as well as send research projects his way on a paid basis. “It's really helpful for me because we could use another [lawyer] here ourselves.”
The Presque Isle native, who returned home from Washington, D.C., in 1993, says it's hard to recruit lawyers from away with no understanding of or connection to the area, if they are loaded with student debt or if they have a spouse unwilling to relocate.
But for someone willing and able to try, without expectations of becoming super wealthy, Bemis says: “You can have a lucrative career here.”
As a general practitioner, he represents clients from farmers to companies and generations of families on a myriad of matters, and finds it interesting to solve problems for them. “I don't do patent law,” he says, “but I serve the area's needs.”
In the next block, at Smith and Associates, Christine Smith also finds it rewarding to represent clients over the longer term on a broad mix of cases. “We have repeat clients,” she explains,” so we might meet someone because their son had a criminal matter you assisted with, but now they've got a house they want to sell, and later they may have a family member who's passed away and they've got a will to probate. Because there are so few of us, and because we handle so many things, you really develop those kinds of relationships with people because you help them in many different aspects … That's nice.”
Less nice is the challenge of recruiting attorneys to the firm, ideally a Maine Law alum, though so far without any success. As Smith keeps trying, she's also reached out to a few other law schools to see if any of their students would consider relocating to Maine and practicing in a rural area. “We want people to succeed, we will be supportive,” she says, “and they can get a wealth of experience in a very short amount of time.”
That was definitely the case for Rutledge and Goodwin, now in their second year at Maine Law, where they've been telling classmates about their experience.
As vice president of the school's new Finch Society (named for Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird”), Rutledge is also helping to promote rural practice opportunities. He and his fellow officers got things off to a quick start by drafting a bill that would give an income tax credit to lawyers who begin and practice full-time for at least five years in underserved areas of the state, similar to the existing one for dentists. Much to their surprise and delight, the bill, which is being sponsored by state Rep. Donna Bailey, D-Saco, got the green light from the Legislative Council to be introduced in the next session.
“It's insanely exciting,” says second-year law student Amanda Silverman, president of the Finch Society. Bailey says she hopes to get bipartisan support for the measure, adding: “We need to do whatever we can to foster economic development in rural Maine, and that's what this really is.”