The University of Maine School of Law's circular building is seen on Sept. 26, 2017, in Portand, Maine. The University of Maine School of Law may leave its famously ugly building for a temporary space in downtown Portland. The Portland Press Herald reports a committee of the University of Maine System Board of Trustees recommended on Wednesday, May 5, 2021, that the board approve the move and enter into a new lease. Credit: Gregory Rec

Jonathan Burk is returning home to rural Maine to practice law after his graduation from the University of Maine School of Law on Saturday at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. 

Burk, 25, is one of 76 students who will earn a degree from Maine’s only law school. He also is one of the few graduates who will work in a part of Maine where lawyers are retiring and closing firms because they can’t find anyone to replace them.

His classmate Schadrac Joseph, 33, will work for the U.S. Air Force as a judge advocate or military lawyer. He is one of 10 students of color to graduate this year.

Burk and Joseph represent two of the priorities that Maine’s only law school has set in recent years as it seeks to encourage more graduates to work in the state’s rural communities that have few lawyers and increase the diversity of its student body.

“I believe one of the biggest barriers to new lawyers entering rural practices is a lack of awareness of the opportunities waiting for them,” Burk said.

Left to right, Jonathan Burk, 25, is one of 76 students graduating Saturday from the University of Maine School of Law. Schadrac Joseph, 33, is one of 76 students graduating Saturday from the University of Maine School of Law. Credit: Courtesy of Schadrac Joseph & Jonathan Burk

As Maine Law tries to boost the ranks of rural lawyers, Burk said he’s encouraged by the opening of a Fort Kent satellite office of the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, where legal students will intern for college credits during the school year or for a stipend during the summer months.

“I think similar initiatives that allow students to experience rural practice firsthand will benefit lawyers and clients alike,” Burk said.

Joseph, who was born in Florida and raised in Hamilton, New Jersey, has seen the law school’s efforts to increase diversity but thinks it needs to do more.

He suggested that the law school hire a full-time diversity officer

“The Maine State Bar Association should also continue expanding, mentoring, and providing support to its diversity sections,” he said.

Joseph was in the U.S. Air Force and conducted criminal investigations before deciding to attend law school. He chose the University of Maine School of Law in a predominantly white state because of its small class sizes, comparatively low tuition rate and location in Portland.

But what sealed the deal, he said, was the “warm sense of welcome based on my interactions with professors and the admissions team” that he felt after visiting the campus.

Burk, who graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 2018 with a degree in economics, was anxious to return to Maine. A native of the Oxford County town of Denmark, he graduated from Fryeburg Academy.

“I have always loved Maine, so I jumped at the opportunity to come home for law school,” Burk said. “I also knew I was interested in working in Maine after graduation, and I think there is no better place to launch a career locally.”

When Burk joins the Hastings law firm this summer, he will become the fourth member of one of the oldest law firms in Maine. Hastings Law Office turns 175 this year.

Finding young lawyers willing to live and work in rural Maine is difficult but not impossible, said David Hastings, who joined his family law firm in 1976 and is the fifth generation to serve the legal needs of residents in western Maine and eastern New Hampshire.

When a small, rural firm like Hastings’ hires a young lawyer straight out of law school, it is a big commitment.

“Students learn a lot about the law in law school but not a lot about how to practice law,” Hastings said. “There’s a lot of mentoring involved. It’s a big  investment of time and money, but we decided that we will make that investment in Jonathan.

Unlike Hastings, Burk and Joseph will be the first lawyers in their families after they pass their bar exams.