By Professor Deirdre Smith, Director of the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic
The Main Streets in many Maine towns look nearly deserted at times as businesses of all kinds close down. With fewer stores and services, residents of small towns in rural areas have lost some of the key features of a thriving community, such as available housing, childcare, and health care. One of the disappearing businesses, and a loss of particular concern, is the local law firm. Without a lawyer in town, it is far more difficult for residents to get the legal help they need to buy or sell a home, set up a new business, draw up a will, or retain custody of a child.
The reasons rural communities in Maine are becoming what some observers call “legal deserts” are well known. The average age of Maine’s lawyers is increasing, and many lawyers retire without anyone taking over their practice. Young lawyers anxious about repaying student-loan debt or concerned about professional isolation are more likely to seek practices in cities or larger towns where salaries are higher and professional opportunities greater. Data reviewed by Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar’s Task Force to Study Maine’s Bar Demographics show that these trends are likely to worsen without intervention, raising “access to justice concerns.” Maine is by no means unique in facing these challenges. There is a shortage of lawyers in rural communities across the country, with profound impacts on local residents who, as a recent Pew Charitable Trust article notes, “may have to travel hundreds of miles, or experience lengthy and expensive delays for routine legal work.”
To reverse the loss of legal services in its rural areas, Maine needs strategies to lower the barriers to rural law practice and attract new lawyers to replace those now retiring. Several initiatives are already underway. A Rural Fellows Project was launched in 2017 by the University of Maine School of Law with a grant from the Maine Justice Foundation, and the program will be able to continue for another three years with a grant from the Betterment Fund. In 2019, Maine Law and Colby College co-hosted a symposium that brought experts from around the country to exchange ideas about how to address the problem.