On a bookshelf in Joan Fortin’s office is a framed photograph of 12 smiling women, standing on the spiral staircase in Bernstein Shur’s Portland office. They were the only women among 65 or so attorneys at the firm when Fortin was new in the 1990s.

Next year, Fortin will become the firm’s first female CEO. Currently, no women hold the top job at the state’s 15 largest law firms, according to an annual survey by Mainebiz magazine. Bernstein Shur is the biggest by number of Maine-based lawyers.

“For lawyers who are entering the profession, it will be a sign of hope, to be totally honest,” Fortin said. “I just feel really strongly that the more voices we have at the table, the better our organizations are going to be. They’re going to be more humane, but they’re also going to make more money, and data shows that. And I’m excited to have the opportunity to help show that that’s true.”

Joan Fortin sits in the law library at Bernstein Shur on Friday. She will take over in January as the first female CEO of the state’s largest law firm. Press Herald photo by Brianna Soukup

Even before her election to her pioneering role earlier this week, Fortin worked to make the firm more inclusive and diverse. For example, Bernstein Shur instituted a new parental leave policy for all employees, allowing 16 weeks of paid leave for either caretaker in the event of a birth, adoption or foster care placement.

Danielle Conway, dean of the University of Maine School of Law, said those policies and other diversity initiatives are changing the field for the next generation of lawyers.

“It is a paradigm-shifting approach to professionalism,” Conway said. “It disrupts what many thought was the traditional and only way to practice law. That traditional way of practicing law reduced the bench and bar to a very homogenous state, which does not represent the society that we are supposed to serve.”

Fortin grew up on a dairy farm in Benton and attended Colby College. She got a master’s degree in educational administration and then a job at Bowdoin College. But she felt she needed another degree to go further in the field, so she decided to go to law school, as the then-presidents of Bowdoin and Colby had done.

Her experience at Northeastern University convinced her to stay in law. She joined Bernstein Shur after she graduated and worked in municipal services. She quickly took on challenging cases, including an oral argument at the Maine Supreme Judicial Court within only months of starting her job. She then moved to Alaska with her now-husband, who was a law school classmate. But she returned after a year to Maine – and Bernstein Shur.

Patrick Scully, the current CEO who will retire at the end of this year, said the firm spent that year trying to get Fortin to return.

Fortin worked in multiple practice areas over the years, specializing in tax increment financing and also handling services for Walmart, the firm’s largest client. She joined the board in 2008 and took on a new role as the director of attorney recruitment. Since then, she has hired nearly half of the attorneys at the firm of 120.

“Having someone who is good at finding and recruiting the best people makes all the difference in the world,” said Patrick Scully, the current CEO who will retire at the end of this year. “A lot of the success that we’ve had over the last 10, 11 years has been because we’ve brought in just fabulous people, and I think we’ve done a really good job of letting the law schools and the really good students at law schools and even people who are at other law firms who are making a move know what a great place this is. And that’s what she’s done.”

More than 5,300 attorneys were registered with the Maine bar in 2017, the most recent year for which data was available. Just 37 percent were women. That figure is only a slight increase since 2007, when just 32 percent of the attorneys in the state bar were women, according to the annual report from the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar.

Fortin said women are now going to law school at the same rates as men, but they are often not able to stay or advance in the profession at the same rates. Nationally, women make up nearly half of summer associates in private practice, but less than a quarter of the partners, according to the American Bar Association.

“There’s a bleeding out of women,” Fortin said. “Somewhere along the line, I started paying attention to that and really trying to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to retain women, and fortunately I was at a firm that was already committed to diversity and inclusion and retaining our people of both genders.”

While the legal community still needs to work at inclusion and diversity, Conway said Fortin will bring a different voice to that conversation than the leaders at most other firms.

“They are white men, and they have the power to determine what happens in the legal community in the state of Maine,” Conway said. “So what it means is that Joan, a white woman from rural Maine, she has a unique obligation and a responsibility because she’s at the table now. So she’s going to have to talk about these things, but it means that somebody’s at the table.”

Megan Gray can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:
[email protected]
Twitter: mainemegan

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.