Lack of lawyers in The County already impacting some cases
Four years ago, Adam Swanson hung out his shingle on Main Street in Presque Isle and opened his own criminal defense and family litigation law practice. It was not a big change for Swanson, an Aroostook County native, but legal professionals are seeing a lack of young attorneys willing to move to rural Maine.
An aging population of lawyers and the lack of new blood coming in has led in particular to a smaller pool of attorneys who are able to handle homicide and sexual assault cases for the poor.
Eighty percent of the lawyers in Maine are located in Cumberland, Kennebec, Penobscot and York counties, according to a 2016 report produced by the Board of Overseers of the Bar. There are only 75 lawyers in Aroostook County, 16 of whom are age 70 or older, and 20 of whom are between the ages of 60 and 69. Only 22 attorneys are between ages 29 and 44.
But only two are able to handle court appointed homicide cases, and just four are available to handle sex offenses, according to the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.
John Pelletier is the president of the commission, which was established by the Legislature in 2009 to provide representation to Maine citizens who are entitled to counsel at state expense under both state and federal laws, according to its website. He said that even though Aroostook County on average has no more than one or two homicides a year, the region has “barely an adequate amount of lawyers doing indigent work.”
To help deal with the problem, lawyers from central and southern Maine travel up to The County to handle some cases, Pelletier said.
“If there were three or four more seasoned lawyers up there who could help with the problem, I think that would help immensely,” he said.
Among the reasons there are few lawyers in the region to take on the serious cases, are the amount of experience it takes to defend a client accused of serious crimes and the work involved, according to Pelletier.
He said that the MCILS has standards that must be met before an attorney can be court appointed to handle a homicide case. For instance, the lawyer must have at least five years of criminal law practice experience and have tried at least five felony cases as first chair within the last ten years. At least two of those cases must have involved a serious violent felony, homicide, or Class C or higher sex offense and two also must have involved jury trials.
In order to be rostered for a sex offense case, the attorney must have had at least three years of criminal law practice experience and also must have tried at least three felony cases before a judge or jury as first chair in the last ten years. Other requirement also must be met.
“It takes time to build that experience,” Pelletier said. “And if you have your own law practice in a rural area and are handling a murder case, it ties up a great deal of your time.”
To combat the issue in Aroostook, attorneys from other parts of the state have been representing clients in homicide cases.
Jim Burke, clinical professor of law at the Maine School of Law, said that in response to the shortage, the school is trying to place more of its students in rural locations across the state.
Burke noted that the University of Maine School of Law launched the “Rural Practice Fellowship” pilot program this past summer, with two students paid by the school to work with attorneys in rural practices. One law student spent the summer at Bemis and Rossignol in Presque Isle. The program introduced students to rural areas in the hopes that they would return to pursue a career there, Burke explained. He added that they are hoping to place four students in practices next year and six students the year after that.
“Aroostook County has been very heavily involved in the program,” said Burke. “This program gives them a chance to get out of the glittering lights of Portland and they can see that they can make a great life elsewhere and make contacts and have a successful career.”
Swanson said that he does not regret the decision to practice law in rural Maine.
“You can make a very rewarding life for yourself here,” he said.