Maine's Former Chief Justice: Law School Changes 'Key To Economic Improvement' In Maine

Apr 27, 2020

After more than two decades as a Maine Supreme Court justice, Leigh Saufley is embarking on a new phase of her legal career as the dean of the University of Maine School of Law. Saufley rose to the top of a national search to head the law school that's fought in recent years to maintain healthy enrollment and finances. Saufley spoke with Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about where the law school will be headed under her leadership, and what she got from serving as the state's top jurist for almost 20 years.

SAUFLEY:  I got everything, professionally, from my time on the court. So we set about during that 18-year period to improve the infrastructure of the court. We had members of the public going into buildings on the worst days of their lives when the buildings were moldy, dark, dangerous, not physically accessible. And I think what it said to them, because the infrastructure had really been allowed to fail over time, was that people in government did not care about what was going on in their lives. And the reality is that both the Legislature and the governors did care.

GRATZ:  In your video introduction to the law school students and the faculty, one of the things you said was that your education at Maine Law opened lots of doors for you. Can the school still do that in the modern legal environment?
 
Oh, absolutely. And I think in the modern legal environment, law school opens even more doors. If you think about the world today, and the last three months is a perfect example, the need for lawyers across all disciplines has become even stronger. Right now, if you think about the tragedies that are happening in the midst of this pandemic, more than ever people need lawyers who are able to help them, either for no cost or low cost. We're going to have housing issues, health care issues. We know that domestic violence is something we absolutely must pay attention to in the midst of all of this. All of those areas need lawyers. And I think it's never been a better time to go to law school.

Okay, but of course now they're going to be going to law school at a time when there's been a significant disruption, because of coronavirus, that may linger. Have you had a chance to kind of delve into how that's going to affect the mechanics of law schools, say over the next six months to a year?

If there's any silver lining to the horror of the pandemic, it is that it has catapulted us into the new world of technology, distance learning, classes that can be held across the country. I actually think for a state like Maine, where we have such distances, this is going to open opportunities for people who would not have had them previously.

Beyond the technical, are there any other changes that you'd like to see in the way that Maine Law prepares its students?

Oh, one of the things that Maine Law actually does really well, that I hope to expand upon, is the clinic program. It actually prepares students for leaving law school and going right into courtrooms throughout the state - actually into federal courtrooms. So the immigration clinics, the juvenile justice clinics, the domestic violence clinics - all of those clinics help students prepare for really getting into the world. And we are hoping to expand those clinics.

Is there any thought about replacing or improving the building that you're in?

So, the facility that's planned will be a facility that does both law school education, and Master's in business, and connects with all of the Muskie [School of Public Service] programs. The building we were envisioning six months ago is no longer the building that we will be creating, because we now know, from these last several months, that the building has to accommodate a whole new level of technology to allow the University of Maine School of Law to have a presence throughout the state of Maine and New England and nationally.

Are you still optimistic about the ability to generate the funds that's going to be necessary to create this collaborative center?

I am very optimistic about it because it holds the key to economic improvement for the entire state of Maine. And I think everyone involved with it understands that. So until the pandemic arrived, I would have said that this is going to go great guns, that we are going to create the graduate professional center right away, and that it is going to fuel the economic engine for the entire state. I still believe that's true, but as with every other aspect of government and institutions that have been affected by the economic disaster caused by the pandemic, we'll be six months, maybe even a year, behind where we hoped we would be. But we are not pausing at all.

Former Maine Chief Justice Lee Saufley, now dean of the University of Maine School of Law, thank you for your time. I appreciate it.

Thanks, Irwin. Great to talk to you.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.