Sunday, November 19, 2017

Maine sees its rural lawyer shortage and sets out to fix it

The east coast of the United States is commonly associated with the bustling megalopolis that spans from Washington, DC to Boston, Massachusetts. Though there are significant pockets of rurality both north and south of that corridor, these places are often ignored in the public imagination. Yesterday, I posted a summary of a study where I were analyzed the rural lawyer shortage in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Today, I am going to analyze the rural lawyer shortage in a state that is the most rural on the east coast, when measured by population density, Maine.

Maine is a state that holds a special place in my heart. My first job after law school was doing disability rights advocacy in rural Maine and despite being "from away," I could not have encountered a more welcoming and accepting group of people. In fact, the predecessor to my work here was actually hosted by the Bangor Daily News. If not for my time in Maine, I likely would not be writing this today.  

Like much of rural America, rural Maine is currently experiencing a shortage of lawyers and this problem is exacerbated by what is essentially a crisis of demographics. As reported by the Portland Press Herald, here are three key issues that are driving the rural lawyer shortage:
  • When measured by median age, Maine is the oldest state in the country and it ranks second to Florida in percentage of residents over the age of 35.
  • According to the most recent annual report by the Maine Board of Bar Overseers, 44% of resident attorneys are over the age of 60 while just 12% are under the age of 35.
  • 51% of practicing attorneys live in Cumberland County, the home of Portland, the state's largest city. The disparity becomes even more apparent when you count lawyers from Penobscot (home of Bangor), Kennebec (home of the state capital Augusta), and York (south of Cumberland and closer to Boston). 80% of lawyers are located in just 4 of Maine's 16 counties. 
A 2014 report by the Maine Board of Bar Overseers further explains this dramatic disparity:
  • Of the six lawyers in private practice in Piscataquis County, 3 of them are 55 and older and none are under the age of 40.
  • Of the 27 lawyers in private practice in Washington County, 18 of them are 55 and older and only 4 are under the age of 40.
  • Of the 31 lawyers in private practice in Somerset County, 24 of them are 55 and older and only 4 are under the age of 40.
  • Of the 24 lawyers in private practice in Franklin County, 16 of them are 55 and older and only 2 of them are under the age of 40.
  • Of the 54 lawyers in private practice in Aroostook County, 30 of them are 55 and older and only 12 are under the age of 40. I will also add that 13 lawyers are over the age of 70. 
What is apparent is that the rural lawyer shortage in Maine is on the fast track to becoming substantially worse and the detrimental effects that this will have on access to justice in rural Maine cannot be overstated. As lawyers retire and are not replaced, obvious gaps in service will arise and be exacerbated--and people who need help will have nowhere to turn.

A bill was recently introduced in the Maine legislature to combat this problem. The bill, introduced by Rep. Donna Bailey of Saco, would create an income tax credit for those who choose to practice in rural Maine. There is also a legislative committee dedicated to studying the state's method of delivering legal services to indigent residents, a report is expected by December 6. 

The University of Maine School of Law has also piloted a program dedicated to providing funding for students to intern in rural areas, during their summers, while in law school. Since many rural lawyers operate on thin profit margins, having a school funded intern is a mutually beneficial relationship. The lawyer gains extra help and the student gains experience and exposure to rural issues. As I mentioned in this space back in July, exposing students to rural communities while in law school is crucial to developing the next generation of rural lawyers. 

While these measures are steps in the right direction, it remains to be seen whether or not they will have any impact on the supply of lawyers in the more rural parts of the state. I am optimistic that these initiatives will produce some results. Exposure to rural areas is crucial for attracting people to live and work there. With an increasingly urbanizing population, fewer people have experience in rural communities and no frame of reference for what it is like to live there. As the Bangor Daily News noted just a couple of years ago, when students are exposed to rural areas, they often end up staying there. 

However, measures should also be taken to combat the isolation of living a rural community. The aforementioned 2014 study by the Board of Bar Overseers recommended two items that I think are going to be essential for retaining people who choose to start their practice in rural communities. The first is development of central web hub for rural lawyers.  This would provide resources for practice and a list serv that provides rural lawyers a chance to interact with others and obtain answers to their questions. Leveraging the technology of the 21st century to help people feel connected to others and create a community is a great way to help people become acclimated to rural practice and feel supported as they build their practice. 

Combating the rural lawyer shortage is also going to require working with retiring attorneys to help them find successors to take over their firm and their business. A young lawyer, starting from scratch, in a rural area may find it difficult and even financially prohibitive to build his own practice. By working with an attorney who already has clients and connections in the community, a young lawyer will feel more able to jump into practice and will likely be more financially successful in doing so. It is not enough to simply attract young lawyers to rural areas, you must also set them up for success so they remain. 

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