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Earlier this year, Ryan Fowler was a student attorney practicing in the Aroostook County town of Fort Kent.
Some of his clients had legal troubles that could potentially cost them their driver’s license — a huge problem in an area where public transit is scarce, driving distances are long, and many folks need their license to cross the border with Canada to get to jobs.
“It’s not like Portland where they can catch a bus if they lose their license,” says Fowler.
As part of the University of Maine School of Law’s inaugural rural practice clinic, “We’re able to work with them and help them potentially negotiate with the district attorney and find alternatives that allows them to get on with their lives and keep their driving privileges,” Fowler says.
At the clinic, which launched in January, Fowler also handled a full range of general practice work: criminal law, family law, protective custody matters, civil matters, wills and probate, and everything else a practitioner might encounter in a rural area.
As a Maine Law student, he held a special student attorney license, recognized by Maine’s state and federal courts, to provide legal services to low-income clients under the supervision of fully-licensed attorney faculty members. The goal of the clinic is to help meet the immediate need for lawyers in northern Maine while also training new lawyers to serve rural communities throughout the state and beyond.
“There’s a significant need,” says Fowler, who is now the clinic’s teaching fellow. “As lawyer of the day, we can go to court and we can speak to clients and pick up cases that way. A lot of walks-ins qualify for court-appointed attorneys — and then they would qualify for our services, so we pick up some of the criminal cases that way. For other cases, the phone rings. I’ve been averaging, three phone calls a week at least lately, and there were more when we first opened and put out the flyers.”
“The establishment of this clinic meets a pressing need in our state,” says Maine Law Dean Leigh Saufley. “In addition to being one of only a few rural clinics in the country, the RPC is also a testament to the collaborative potential within the UMaine System and the role the system plays in meeting the needs of our state and its communities.”
When it comes to the number of practicing lawyers per capita, Maine lags behind New England and the nation. The national average is 40 lawyers per 10,000 residents. In Maine it’s 30 lawyers per 10,000 residents.
The problem is exacerbated by the “graying of the bar.” As of 2017, approximately 1,000 of the 3,700 practicing lawyers in Maine were 60 or older.
Although 60% of Maine’s population lives in a rural area, over half of Maine’s lawyers are in Cumberland County.
Maine Law began addressing the shortage in 2017, launching the Rural Lawyer Fellowship, a program that awards paid summer fellowships to students who work in law offices in the state's most rural counties. The goal is to expose students to rural practice and inspire them to consider pursuing careers in rural communities.
The fellowship program places law students with law firms in rural areas, where the students shadow a practitioner.
Maine Law went further this year when it established a Rural Practice Clinic on the University of Maine at Fort Kent campus.
“At the clinic, the law student actually assumes the responsibility to represent the client as counsel of record — as permitted by a court rule — with an experienced practitioner overseeing the case,” says David Soucy, the clinic’s supervising professor. “It’s very hands-on, going well beyond observation to actual assumption of responsibility for cases.”
Saufley calls the choice of Fort Kent as Maine Law’s first rural clinic’s location “a great story of Maine.” She recalls meeting with the other University of Maine System presidents to discuss initiatives.
“I mentioned the Rural Fellowship Program and my pie in the sky dream of having a clinic in one of the rural areas,” Saufley says. “Immediately the president of Fort Kent, Deb Hedeen, said to me, ‘If you can bring a rural practice clinic to Fort Kent, I can provide housing for your students because I’ve got space in the dorms.’ We started talking and voilà.”
The Office of the Maine Attorney General provided about $680,000 to establish the clinic for two years, although the money will likely cover close to three years, says Saufley.
“We will be doing everything we can to be frugal and yet positive,” Saufley says. “By the time we have three years experience in Fort Kent, I am really confident that the Legislature will determine that this is a project worth continuing.”
During the fall and spring semesters, the clinic runs as an academic program for students specially licensed as student attorneys who take the lead on cases. During the summer, students can enroll in a full-time paid fellowship, allowing fellows to sit as second chair to licensed attorneys. Up to two students can enroll per segment.
So far this year, the clinic fielded 82 cases, says Christopher Northrop, co-manager with Anna Welch of the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, under which the Rural Practice Clinic falls.
“The demand far exceeds our ability to provide services,” Northrop says.
Student attorneys do exactly what a practicing lawyer would do every day, including all aspects of legal practice — fielding telephone calls from prospective clients, meeting with clients to assess cases, preparing strategies to address the client’s legal issues, preparing and filing written submissions as necessary, including initiating or responding to court filings, appearing in court to represent the client, and counseling the client throughout the entire process.
“Practicing law in a small firm in a rural area is not different than practicing law in a small firm anywhere else, except that in an underserved area, people beat a path to your doorstep,” says Soucy. “One of the biggest challenges is managing workload.”
Soucy notes that the clinic “directly addresses the critical shortage of lawyers in rural areas by introducing new lawyers to a rural community and demonstrating to them the satisfying and rewarding work that can be done there.”
Clients must demonstrate financial need. Cases are chosen by students and staff in an effort to balance the caseload to offer as full a range of experience for the student attorney as reasonably possible.
What happens to people when they can’t find or afford legal services?
“They can try to ‘go it on their own’ facing the complexities of the legal process without help, sometimes in the face of a represented opponent,” says Soucy. “The system is not well designed to avoid bad outcomes in these types of situations. Or they can abandon their claim and live with it. Neither outcome is consistent with a well-functioning justice system.”
Practicing in a rural area was a no-brainer for Fowler. He grew up in rural communities, primarily in North Carolina, with an appreciation for small communities and a helping culture.
After a 20-year career with the U.S. Army and the Coast Guard, his final station was in Maine. Being an attorney met his community-oriented goals, so he enrolled at Maine Law.
Early on in Fort Kent, “The first client contact is a little nerve-wracking,” he says. “But I also found it exciting in the fact that I get to help someone out and potentially give them leg up or remove a burden in their life.”
Emma Pooler graduated from Maine Law this year and is now an associate with Bangor-based Eaton Peabody’s Portland office. She worked with Fowler during the clinic’s inaugural semester.
A Fort Kent native, Pooler says the clinic is great for helping other aspiring attorneys experience the rewards of living in a rural area.
“I think it’s really hard to convince law students, or any young person, to move to a rural community where they’ve never been, especially one in northern Aroostook County,” Pooler says. “A lot of people would say, ‘Why would you go to Fort Kent? Why would you move hours away from the big city?’”
But she says the clinic is a great way to immerse students not only in Aroostook County but in the legal world, in a way that gives students the opportunity to learn practical knowledge that they otherwise would not learn until after graduation — and gives them the confidence to work a full-time legal job even before graduation.
And, she adds, “It also allows the community to benefit from the knowledge that law students have that people wouldn’t otherwise benefit from until after graduation.”
Lyndsey Davolio took part in the clinic’s summer session. In Aroostook County, she found a welcoming culture not only in the community but in the legal field.
“You can be in the hallways of a courthouse and talk with an attorney who’s been trying cases for 30 years,” Davolio says. “The attorneys themselves are the resource in Aroostook County.”
Saufley says Fort Kent is one of only a few rural clinics in the country. “It is our understanding that the Rural Practice Clinic is one of the first of its kind in the country,” says Saufley.
She continues, “This model, if it works — and it gives every appearance of working really well — could be replicated throughout Maine and so many of our sister states.”
Maine Law is considering expanding the Fort Kent clinic to three students per segment and establishing another clinic in another rural county that has a University of Maine presence.
“We’re thinking about the potential for expanding to Farmington in Franklin County. We’re also looking at the potential for Machias,” Saufley says.
The combination of the rural fellowship program — now in its sixth year — and the clinic “is making it clear that rural practice is respected, needed and remunerative,” Saufley says.
It’s too early to measure the clinic’s ability to generate rural lawyers. But the fellowship program has some tangible impacts: Law firms are asking for fellows and the number of graduates going into rural practice is better than expected.
“More than 30% of the people who do these programs are finding careers in rural Maine,” says Saufley.
That could include Fowler, who says he’ll always stay in a rural practice, perhaps in Aroostook County.
“I find it fulfilling,” Fowler says. “To be a small piece of that community, to be able to help people, make their lives potentially easier, offer them more opportunities for success — you can see it and feel it.”