To ease a shortage of lawyers in rural Maine, a proposal would help more law students train there
More than half of Maine's lawyers are located in just one county: Cumberland. That means that finding a lawyer in more rural areas, like Aroostook County, is a lot harder. But lawmakers hope that a new bill could start to address the issue by bringing in law students to help fill in the gaps.
Lawyer Toby Jandreau didn't quite realize the extent of the need for legal help in Fort Kent until he moved back to the area, about 12 years ago.
"I had the Ryder truck in the driveway, we were unpacking it. And my dad pulls in the driveway. And he says, 'I got a call this morning. Somebody's wondering when you're opening, where your office is going to be. Because they need help.'" Jandreau said. "I didn't even have my bed unpacked yet. And they knew that I was coming. And they needed help."
At the time, Jandreau said, there was just one general practice lawyer in the town, covering cases from divorces to protection orders. He said the situation in Aroostook County isn't much better today.
"Our roster's really, really short. A lot of us are just getting burnt out. I mean, I stopped taking court appointments, because it just became unmanageable," Jandreau said.
Local court clerks said fewer than two dozen lawyers are available to take indigent legal defense cases. For certain kinds of cases, it's far less. That means that attorneys from other areas are routinely brought in, either driving hours to the courthouse or communicating through phone or Zoom.
Francine Garland Stark, the executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, used to head the Hope & Justice Project, an Aroostook County domestic violence resource center. Stark said the group serves up to 500 people a year who need legal aid, but she estimates that less than a quarter received adequate help.
"Right now, really skilled advocates trained by programs are doing the best they can with as much of that as they can. And in rare, rare circumstances, they're also getting some actual legal representation in court," Stark said.
Now, lawmakers are looking at how to help. After hearing concerns from his own constituents, Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash has introduced a bill that would bring practicing law students into Aroostook County to help fill the gap.
"Too many people leave our area, to practice or try and become a practicing attorney," Jackson said. "And oftentimes, they don't come back. And I just thought that if there's a way to actually do some of the training in Aroostook County, we might be able to actually draw some people."
Under the three-year pilot program, students at the University of Maine School of Law would still spend the first half of their education on the school's campus in Portland. But after their first few semesters, two or three students at a time would head to Fort Kent.
They would work under the supervision of a professor in a satellite office of the school's student legal aid clinic, and be housed at the dorms of the University of Maine at Fort Kent. Clients would primarily be those with low incomes, who can't afford to hire an attorney of their own.
Law School Dean Leigh Saufley said the program would provide valuable skills, plus experience and connections in rural Maine that could eventually lead some to return after graduation.
"When law students get into the rural communities in Maine and see what it's like to practice law, which can be very remunerative in rural counties, and also see what it's like to be part of a community, and be part of these beautiful places in the state of Maine, they're excited. They want to be there," Saufley said. "But if they're just reading about it, the same connection doesn't get made."
In Fort Kent, Jandreau sees the proposal as a good step in tackling the lack of access to justice. But he said the challenges in Maine's rural counties are vast.
"If you make life better for one person, that's fantastic. If you make life better for 10 people, it's even better," Jandreau said. "But we haven't solved the state's problem. We've solved the problem for some people. And that's worth it. But it doesn't fix it."
Jandreau said he would like to see the program in other Maine counties, and potentially be used as a model to attract other kinds of students, too — such as those studying social work or the skilled trades.
The Aroostook County bill is still winding its way through the state legislature, but it did receive unanimous bipartisan support from one committee. And both lawmakers and university officials are hopeful that if it does succeed in Fort Kent, more legal aid clinics could eventually expand to other rural pockets of the state.