Students at the University of Maine School of Law prepare to receive their degrees Saturday at Merrill Auditorium. Credit: Leigh Doran | Maine Law

When Ryan Rutledge starts work Tuesday morning in Skowhegan, he will lower substantially the average age of the attorneys working in town.

That’s because at 28, Rutledge, who graduated from the University of Maine School of Law on Saturday, is far younger than his colleagues at Mills, Shay, Lexier & Talbot.

“All of us working here are 68 or 71,” Warren Shay said Friday. “My firm merged with Peter Mills’ firm because we had two firms of ancient people. The youngest lawyer in Skowhegan is probably 50. When I came here in 1974, there were twice as many lawyers here as there are now and that’s true in most small towns in Maine.”

That is why Maine’s only law school and the Maine State Bar Association have been working together for the past few years to encourage graduates to practice in rural Maine. There are 30 lawyers per 10,000 residents in the Pine Tree State, compared with the national average of 40 lawyers per 10,000 residents, according to the Maine School of Law. Those numbers are sharply skewed to the southern part of the state, with more than half of all Maine lawyers living or practicing in Cumberland County.

That situation is expected to worsen over the next decade because of the average age of attorneys in Maine. As of 2017, about 1,000 of the 3,700 practicing lawyers in Maine were 60 or older. In rural parts of the state, 65 percent of lawyers are older than 50.

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Concerns over access to justice as lawyers in rural Maine face retirement age prompted the law school and the bar association to create a summer fellowship program that allows students to have paid internships in rural parts of the state. This summer, law firms in Presque Isle, Camden and Damariscotta will host law school students.

Rutledge spent the summer of 2017 working in Presque Isle and last summer interning at the Skowhegan firm that has hired him.

The advantages of working in a rural firm include the opportunity to rise quickly, to begin trying cases within six months and to be involved in different types of law rather than specializing, Shay said.

Rutledge agreed.

“Most small firms in rural towns build their practices by serving the needs of the community they’re located in,” he said. “One day I could be helping a client with a family law matter and the next day I might be advising a town official on the constitutionality of a proposed ordinance, or helping someone plan their estate. That’s what makes practicing in rural areas so unique and engaging.”

Shay said that in Maine’s small counties lawyers “don’t make quite as much money as they would in Portland but it’s less stressful and you can make a good living.”

Rutledge said that he is concerned about making enough money as he begins his career to repay his student loans.

“Student loans are a major problem for most of my generation,” he said. “It was definitely something the firm and I discussed before I accepted the job, and the thought does resurface in my mind quite often. Luckily, the cost of living is much lower in rural areas, so that will help somewhat. I think, ultimately, it just comes down to hard work and discipline.”

Rutledge is one of 76 students who graduated Saturday from the Maine School of Law. Benjamin West, 29, of Strong is the only other member of the Class of 2019 so far to take a job working in a rural firm. He is joining Fowler and Harville in Kingfield. West will be working with Donald Fowler, who has been practicing in Franklin County for more than 50 years.

West, who graduated from Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, said he prefers a small town to a big city, which is one of the reasons he decided to practice in western Maine.

“I love the small town feeling where if I walk into the grocery store I know I will recognize at least a few people,” he said. “Having grown up in both Massachusetts and Maine, it is obvious that people are generally nicer and friendlier to each other in a small town setting, because there is a stronger sense of community. I also have a passion for the geographic area itself.”

West also is looking forward to the variety of legal work he’ll be able to do in Franklin County.

“As a rural practitioner you tend to need to be ready to work in several different areas of law, as opposed to working in just one,” he said. “In the cities, there are enough people and attorneys that lawyers tend to focus on just one or two areas of law and do that work for many years. This would be far too repetitive for me.”

Saturday’s commencement ceremony at Merrill Auditorium was the last to be presided over by Dean Danielle Conway. She will leave Portland next month to head Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law after four years in Maine.

Dmitry Bam, the law school’s associate dean, will serve as interim dean while a national search is conducted this summer for Conway’s replacement. Bam has served on the faculty since 2017 and was a member of the dean’s advisory committee for the past two years.

Joseph Cassidy, president of Southern Maine Community College, delivered the commencement address Saturday.

In addition to awarding 76 law degrees, the law school awarded a dozen masters of law degrees. The University of Maine School of Law presented the L. Kinvin Wroth Award to U.S. District Judge Lance Walker, who graduated from the institution in 2000.