NORWAY — Jeff Wilson’s reasons for settling his family and law firm in Oxford County are the same that prompt others to leave.
The 33-year-old lawyer who moved to Norway last summer after leaving a major law firm in Portland has gratefully traded the hustle and bustle of city living for nature, a close-knit community and a slower life.
The three-minute commute to work’s not bad, either.
Wilson, the county’s newest general-practice attorney, is also one of its youngest, and is much needed as a generation of rural lawyers is coming to retirement age. At the same time his wife, a doctor, was hired at Stephens Memorial Hospital, he began reading news stories that the state had an age gap among passionate, young public defenders.
“There needs to be a new wave into the area of young attorneys hanging up their own shingle in rural Maine,” Wilson said.
Of course, there’s an upside to overlapping experienced trial attorneys.
“Their knowledge base is unmatched. They’re a great resource,” he said.
A study released last June by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court found by the end of 2013, 47 percent of the 3,945 lawyers in the state were over the age of 55. Just 13 percent were between age 25 and 34. In Oxford County, only two lawyers were younger than 34. About 70 percent were older than 50.
Rather than specializing, establishing a business in a rural county often requires branching into several avenues of law, the study found. Key to that is name recognition — defendants who regularly find themselves in court are often heard asking for a lawyer they’ve had in the past — and Wilson, who has eight years of experience, says he’s working hard to get himself out there and is willing to travel if necessary. Already, one established attorney looking to retire in several years has said they hope to turn their practice over to him.
After graduating from Boston College’s law program and working in the city, Wilson and his wife moved to Burlington, Vt., where he handled the wide range of topics required of a general, rural practice. However, his true calling has always been a criminal attorney, often for those who are too poor to afford representation.
“You’re the last line of defense against jail or losing a livelihood,” he said. “Anyone who’s charged is assumed to be innocent, and these poor people who can’t afford a defense, that’s what drew me to law.”
After moving from Vermont in 2010 and working several years for an insurance company, then a workers’ compensation law firm, Wilson opened his own business on Main Street in May, where he practices everything from criminal to real estate law.
There’s been an early learning curve on the differences in criminal law — Vermont, he said, is a little stricter on protecting suspects — and figuring out the the daily logistics of paperwork, scheduling and appearances across three counties.
There are other differences too. After growing up in Massachusetts, he was struck by strangers saying “hello” on the street, saying he’d felt welcome from the get-go. He joined Kiwanis — another way to give back — and enjoys Norway’s eco-consciousness.
“In Portland, we knew we’d get the call of the woods again,” he said.