Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Maine rural lawyer bill set for public hearing

Back in November, I wrote a post on Maine's rural lawyer shortage and noted that a bill had been introduced into the Maine legislature that would provide tax credits to those who choose to practice in rural communities. This bill is set for its public hearing before the Committee on Taxation in the Maine legislature. The hearing will be held at 1 pm on January 22nd at the Maine State House in Augusta.

Before the bill goes to a hearing however, I wanted to analyze it and see how it stands up. The bill has some interesting provisions that I will analyze below:
  • The attorney must commit to five years in the underserved community. 
I am a huge proponent of this provision because it discourages turnover and encourages people to commit to and put down ties in a community. Five years is also an incredibly long time, long enough to someone to put down roots, start a family and become an integrated part of a community, as often happens in small towns. There is also tremendous value in minimizing turnover because it allows rural clients to have access to attorneys with experience, as opposed to a steady supply of novice attorneys. I am hopeful that this provision eventually leads to people remaining in their community beyond the five year required period

  • In 2024, eligibility to enroll in the tax credit will expire and a report will be commissioned on the success of the program before a renewal bill is introduced. 
I have mixed feelings about this one. I understand the need to evaluate a program's success and make sure that it is achieving its mission. I also think that the report will be a useful source of data for future research on the rural lawyer shortage. The bill does provide that based on the effectiveness of the program, the joint standing committee responsible for reviewing the report may introduce a bill that continues the program. However, I am not a fan of an automatic sunset for a program like this even with the option to renew it. My fear is that it may get lost in the legislative shuffle in 2024. 

The bill provides that attorneys can be "certified" from 2019 through 2024 to begin their five year commitment so it seems as through the final attorney to receive the credit will not be fully out of the program until 2029. I worry that the abbreviated data that would be available in 2024 will not paint a full and accurate picture of the program's success and may jeopardize its renewal. This is especially problematic since only one group of people will have gone the entire five years. 

  • There lacks an actual enforcement mechanism to ensure that an attorney honors his/her five year commitment. 
The bill does not provide any way to hold an attorney to the five year commitment that they are required to make to be eligible for the program. As the bill provides: "[t]he board shall monitor certified attorneys to ensure that they continue to be eligible for the credit under this section and shall decertify any attorney who ceases to meet the conditions of eligibility" There is no mention of the bill of any consequences of decertification, no mention of paying back the taxes saved because of the tax credit or any way to ensure that a person actually honors the commitment that the bill says that they have to make. A person is just simply "decertified" if they no longer meet the requirements of the program. 

  • There is a limit of only five attorneys per year. 
Five attorneys per year is a relatively small number and only gets you twenty-five new rural attorneys through the life cycle of the bill. Since each attorney is limited to only five years of receiving the credit, this also establishes a defacto limit of twenty-five attorneys being a recipient of the credit at any given time. Given the severity of the rural lawyer shortage, this seems like a small number. 

In South Dakota, which has also provided financial incentives to practice in rural communities, there is a limit of thirty-two attorneys being apart of that program at any given time. Unlike Maine, there does not seem to be a limit on how many you can certify per year. However, South Dakota's limit was initially sixteen and it was doubled after the program had existed for two years so it is entirely possible that the same could happen in Maine. I theorize that the low initial ask is due to political pragmatism. 


The bill, while it has its flaws, is an important step forward for addressing this critical issue. Maine seems to be leading the way, on the East Coast at least, in actually attempting addressing this. I am especially impressed by the work that Maine is doing and the work that has been put into studying this issue by entities throughout the state. I will be keeping an eye on this and will try to make sure to update you all on its progress. 

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