Why young, small-town lawyers are becoming hard to find

TURNER — Taylor Kilgore and the law firm she works for in Oxford County, Boothby Perry LLC, could be a model for making sure there are lawyers serving the needs of rural Maine into the mid-21st century.

The lawyers practicing in Maine are aging, especially those who practice outside the state’s urban areas, a recent study prepared for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court found. Not enough students are graduating from law schools who want to live and work in rural Maine to replace them.

“The bar is clearly graying in rural Maine,” Clinton Boothby, a partner in the law firm, said recently in an email. “Younger attorneys are often drawn to the Portland market as it offers vibrant small city cultural activities and ambiance. The people of rural Maine deserve high quality representation and choices in who they select to represent them.

“Those of us who practice in small towns and rural settings pride ourselves in providing that representation,” Boothby, 56, of Turner added. “I think we have an obligation to encourage and mentor new attorneys so that our rural and small town citizens will have the same access to the judicial system as their suburban and urban counterparts.”

The demographics of practicing lawyers in Maine reflect the state’s aging population, the study concluded. As of Dec. 31, 2013, there were 3,945 lawyers living and working in the state. Of those, 47 percent were over the age of 55, and 23 percent were between age 45 and 54. Only 13 percent were between age 25 and 34.

“A close look at Maine’s resident lawyers who have identified themselves as private practitioners reveals that nearly all of resident lawyers under age 40 reside and/or practice in Cumberland County,” the report said. “Of the six lawyers in Piscataquis County in private practice, none are under the age of 40, and half are over the age of 55.”

The study found similar numbers in Washington, Somerset, Knox and Franklin counties.

Kilgore is the only lawyer younger than 30 practicing in Oxford County, according to the study.

“An aging bar presents both opportunities and challenges,” the study found. “As the bar ages, the senior bar will offer tremendous experience, insight and wisdom that can be shared with newer members of the bar.”

Kilgore, who graduated from the University of Maine School of Law in May 2013 and immediately went to work for Boothby Perry, said that she has learned a lot of practical things from her elders that she didn’t learn in law school.

“Working for Mr. Boothby gives me the opportunity to have mentoring moments on a regular basis,” Kilgore said in an email. “I have the ability to learn from his experiences both before I go to court and to process my own experiences after.

“For example, there is the usual research and preparation prior to a court appearance,” she said. “Mr. Boothby takes this one step further, by sharing the ‘dos and don’ts’ that only come with 15-plus years experience.”

Kilgore also has learned a lot about running a small business, another thing she didn’t learn in law school.

“Law school doesn’t prepare you to run a business,” she said. “Recently, we had a sudden turnover of our support staff. Mr. Boothby included me in the process of redefining the positions, reviewing resumes, interviewing candidates and then training our new staff.

“Prior to law school, I worked as a mental health case manager, so this was the first real time I’d been involved in this process.” Kilgore said. “I have also had the opportunity to learn bookkeeping and been included in brainstorming better, more efficient office processes.”

Perry said that to ensure access to justice in rural Maine, it is critical that older lawyers be accessible to younger ones to answer questions.

“In the past several months, I have been a resource for a new attorney preparing for a trial and also answered a number of questions related to that person’s case load,” Boothby said. “It takes time, and time is a precious commodity, but it’s time well spent to advance the cause of justice and improve the general practice of law.”

Kilgore said that practicing in rural Maine in courthouses in South Paris, Farmington and Rumford has allowed her to handle her own cases rather than do research for a mid-level or senior lawyer at a large firm in an urban area.

“Being here has allowed me to start a family and pursue a career without having to make sacrifices either,” said Kilgore, who has a 10-month-old son. “Lastly, it has allowed me to get to know the people in my community and build relationships with other attorneys with varying backgrounds and expertise.”

Of the 759 Maine lawyers who have practiced in Maine for five years or less, just 17 percent chose a rural location as Kilgore did. The study defined a rural location as an area other than Portland, Saco/Biddeford, Lewiston/Auburn, Augusta or Bangor. Slightly more than a quarter of those who chose to practice in one of those areas never seriously considered doing so.

“The most common reason given for eschewing rural practice were scarcity of professional opportunities for spouses/partners, insufficient projected income, and a desire to practice a kind of law unsuited to a small-town setting,” the study concluded. “A relative lack of social and cultural amenities compared to urban areas was another reason noted.”

Dennis Mahar, 53, has been practicing in Calais for 28 years, where the youngest lawyer in town is just over 40. He said last month that in the past year, four new lawyers have opened offices in Washington County, bringing the number of lawyers who live and work there to about 30.

“We really do need to market the rural areas,” he said. “The fact that you really can make a living and that there are social outlets available might not be known far and wide.”

Lawyers young and old agree that financial assistance or a student-loan forgiveness program would be the best way to recruit young lawyers to rural areas of the state to replace aging lawyers.

The average loan debt for students who graduated from the Maine School of Law in 2013 was $92,603, according to Derek Van Volkenburgh, director of career services.

Tuition, fees and living expenses at the UMaine law school will be nearly $38,500 per year this fall, according to information on its website. A student financing three years of law school with loans would graduate with more than $100,000 in graduate-school debt.

“Every young attorney I know has a huge amount of student loan debt,” Kilgore said. “After little to no income and significant amounts of debt for three years, young attorneys feel compelled to seek out high-paying positions.

“Practicing in a rural area requires time and patience to develop a name for one’s self in a smaller community where reputation and word-of-mouth are more important marketing tools than television ads and a fancy suit,” she continued. “Financial assistance or student loan forgiveness would allow young attorneys the financial breathing room to take this valuable time to develop themselves and establish roots.”

The 43-page report recommended that Maine consider funding such a program. Other recommendations included establishing a small town clerkship or summer internship program to give law school students a chance to try out working in a rural practice, and working with the UMaine law school and the Maine State Bar Association to teach “the nuts and bolts of establishing and running a practice” to new lawyers who start solo practices or work in small firms.

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