Credit: Courtesy of University of Maine Law School | Maine Public

A review committee created by the University of Maine System is recommending an increase in investment at the state’s only law school, as well as expanded online learning and partnerships in rural parts of the state.

The report comes as the University of Maine School of Law has been struggling with its finances in recent years, forcing the university system to dedicate more money from its reserves.

The university system formed the committee in February to advise it on the future direction of the Portland-based University of Maine School of Law. Like many law schools around the country, the institution has faced financial troubles due to a declining number of applicants. In its final report, the committee recommends a series of proposals intended to bring in new students and to offer more legal services, particularly beyond the greater Portland area.

One option, says University of Maine School of Law Professor Deirdre Smith, who co-chaired the report, is online learning. She says the committee envisions several possible programs, including one in which law students could gain experience working in more rural parts of the state while taking classes remotely.

“They’re able to essentially dial in by video, to a class that’s being held in Portland at the Law School,” says Smith. “So they’re able to continue with their coursework, while also doing an internship in a rural community.”

Another goal suggested in the report is to get more lawyers into rural communities. It recommends that the law school create a formal relationship with the Maine Community Law Center, a nonprofit that brings on recent graduates in southern Maine and serves clients with limited means. The committee recommends that the center be expanded into northern Maine, which Executive Director Elizabeth Stout says is a welcome idea.

“So the need for legal assistance for folks who live in rural areas is even more extreme than it is in the Greater Portland area,” says Stout. “So I do think that that’s a critical piece.”

The report also advocates for substantial investment in the law school after years of cuts, including the addition of several new positions and cost-of-living increases for faculty, which had been suspended for five years.

University System Board Chair Jim Erwin calls the law school a “critical state asset” and acknowledges that more investment will be needed to solve some of the needs outlined by the committee. Erwin says it is too early to say which of the recommendations will be given priority, but he says the university system does have limited funds available this year to begin working on its goals for the law school.

“The board has very limited, but we do have some resources that we can put forward towards this,” Erwin says. “And we’re going to look beyond what we’re able to come up with to see how else we can get with money for this.”

Erwin says the Board of Trustees has appointed a team to review the report and make recommendations on next steps by September.