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, the 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.

Other and far more resources are needed, however, to extend these initiatives adequately and to implement such ideas. The University of Maine School of Law must have enough funding to keep tuition affordable so its graduates’ career choices are not limited by student-debt loads. It must also have funding and technical tools to enable students to study and gain experience practicing law in communities far from Portland while receiving academic credit. For lawyers practicing in small towns to maintain crucial connections with the larger legal community, they need broadband, enabling them to conduct legal research, participate in videoconferencing, and access such other online services as the e-filing system being launched next year by the Maine Judicial Branch.

While increased funding for the law school is crucial to support some of these initiatives, three bills before the Maine Legislature this session give the state an opportunity to support other important efforts. Shortly before adjourning on March 17 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Legislature enacted L.D. 1859, “An Act To Increase Access to Justice and Maine’s Rural Lawyer Workforce by Expanding Student Attorney Practice Opportunities,” intended to increase the pool of law students who can practice law under court rules as “student attorneys,” which provides important training for new law school graduates who launch their careers in our rural communities.

Two additional bills were carried over to any special session convened by the 129th Legislature. One is L.D. 2021, “An Act To Provide Funding for Broadband Internet Infrastructure in Unserved and Underserved Areas.” Expanded broadband access would enable Maine law students working in rural communities to access distance learning. It would also make it easier to launch new law firms in rural areas and for existing firms to remain there. The other bill,  L.D. 1424, “An Act To Create an Access to Justice Income Tax Credit,” would, much like the Dental Care Access Credit now available to dentists, offer a financial incentive to attorneys to locate and practice in areas of the state where legal services are inadequate. These two bills should be given high priority for passage when the Legislature reconvenes.

Ensuring that Maine’s rural areas do not become “legal deserts” is an important obligation. Meeting it requires a collaboration of stakeholders and innovative solutions to existing problems. Local access to legal services is too important a feature, and “justice for all” is too precious a value, to let either slip away from our rural communities.

Deirdre M. Smith is professor of law and director of the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law. These are her views and do not express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine School of Law. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear here monthly.

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