Chief Justice Leigh Saufley delivers her annual state of the judiciary address to a joint convention of the Legislature, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

As chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, Leigh I. Saufley was used to asking the questions. But when she interviewed for the job of dean of the University of Maine School of Law in Portland, she was the one being questioned and not just by the search committee.

Saufley, 65, of Portland spent three days on campus in early March being peppered with questions from faculty, staff and students.

“It was quite a bit different than what I’m used to,” she said in an online interview Wednesday, her first day on the job.

News of Saufley’s transition leaked out last week after she sent a mass email to the 517 employees of the court system telling them she was stepping down after 30 years on the bench. By making the move, Saufley will receive a considerable increase in pay. As dean, she will make $240,000 a year compared to the $164,424 she made in 2019 as chief justice.

Saufley was introduced officially as the new dean early Wednesday morning in a video streamed live on the University of Maine System’s Facebook page.

Portland lawyer James Erwin, who is chairman of the system’s Board of Trustees, said she was the right person to lead the state’s only law school.

Erwin told Saufley Wednesday morning that as a lawyer, he welcomed her transition from the bench to the law school.

“Having been at the other end of your probing questions during oral arguments, I’m not all sorry to see you step aside,” he said with a smile.

Saufley is taking over the reins of the law school as it faces several challenges — increasing enrollment, stabilizing its finances, broadening its donor base, expanding scholarship opportunities and becoming part of the University of Maine Graduate and Professional Center.

The center includes the masters of business administration programs at the University of Maine and University of Southern Maine, the Maine Law School and the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service graduate programs and its Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy.

Saufley graduated from the law school in 1980.

“I am so excited to become a part of the law school that I love,” she said on the Facebook video. “When I graduated in 1980, I never envisioned the doors that would open for me as a graduate of this law school.”

Saufley said that her decision to apply for the job seemed “exactly right during this time of change.”

Changing trends in legal education, including more law schools that offer classes online, expertise in business and intellectual property laws, were addressed in a July report. Some of its recommendations have been addressed, including hiring a new dean, more faculty and making the school independent of the University of Southern Maine. Saufley reports directly to Chancellor Dannel Malloy, a lawyer himself.

“I think this is the perfect time to lead the law school,” she said Wednesday. “The world needs great lawyers.”

Saufley said that Maine’s law school could benefit by creating a consortium amongst law schools in northern New England that could offer online classes to each other’s students in specialized areas such as coastal law, offered at Maine’s law school, and environmental law, offered by Vermont’s, to supplement courses taught in Portland.

Another program Saufley hopes to expand in Maine is the law school’s summer rural fellowship program and opportunities for graduates to practice in rural Maine where lawyers are in short supply. Saufley’s first job out of law school was working at the law firm Silsby and Silsby in Ellsworth.

“Starting a career in a rural practice is an incredible launching pad,” she said. “You get to know everyone in the bar. The bar and the bench are close. You get to handle a wide range of cases. It’s a great starting point.”

Saufley also will be recruiting students in Maine and throughout the country. She said Wednesday that no goal has been set for how much enrollment needs to increase.

Peter Mills, brother of Gov. Janet Mills, former state legislator and head of the Maine Turnpike Authority who served on the search committee, saw Saufley’s ability to inspire others as one of her greatest strengths.

“She is exactly the kind of person the law school needs right now,” he said. “Everybody knows her. She’s going to be a star at attracting top-notch students. And, she’s going to inspire people to go to this law school.”

Enrollment last fall was at 257 students, up from 253 the previous year and up from 241 in 2017. That increase appears to be part of a national trend. Applications and admissions to law school have been increasing since the election of President Donald Trump, according to Mills.

As dean, Saufley will ask for more money from the Legislature, a role she became adept at while serving as chief justice. The law school’s budget for the fiscal year that ends this June $5.693 million. It was $5.699 million the previous fiscal year.

For the Graduate and Professional Center, as proposed, to become a reality, a new building and increased funding will be needed, but so far there’s no final price tag on it or the cost of implementing all the recommendations in last year’s report.

The new dean also said that no one knows yet how the current pandemic will impact the state’s finances and its ability to fund higher education going forward.

Saufley declined to discuss who should replace her as chief justice or to weigh in on her legacy as head of Maine’s judiciary.

Andrew Mead, 68, of Bangor is serving as acting chief justice until Gov. Mills nominates Saufley’s successor. That process likely will be delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Members of Maine’s legal community on Wednesday heaped praise on Saufley. Daniel Wathen of Portland, her predecessor as chief justice, said her years as the top administrator of the court system made her a good choice to lead the law school.

“During her years on the supreme court, Leigh has demonstrated her ability to resolve complex legal issues, to oversee the management of a large organization, and to serve as an effective spokesperson to the rest of state government, the people of Maine and the legal community,” Wathen said. “Her broad judicial and administrative experience make her an exceptional person to lead the University of Maine School of Law in these times.”

Saufley replaces Danielle Conway, who left in June to head Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, after four years in Portland. Dmitry Bam, the law school’s associate dean, has served as interim dean since July 1, 2019.

Saufley, who grew up in South Portland, worked in the Maine Attorney General’s Office for 10 years before being appointed a District Court judge in 1990 by Gov. John McKernan. Three years later, he elevated her to the Superior Court bench.

As governor, Angus King appointed Saufley to the state’s high court in 1997. On Dec. 6, 2001, she was sworn in as Maine’s first female chief justice after Daniel Wathen resigned to run for governor. She was renominated to subsequent terms by governors John Baldacci and Paul LePage.