FORT KENT, Maine — When Mainers work together, they accomplish some remarkable things.
That’s what happened when University of Maine System officials from two campuses hundreds of miles apart, bipartisan state legislators and a determined small town lawyer formed a rural practice law clinic in Fort Kent.
Modeled after Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland, the rural law clinic is a partnership between the law school and University of Maine at Fort Kent.
Maine Law established the rural practice clinic with bipartisan support from the Maine Legislature and seed money from the Office of the Maine Attorney General.
As in most professions, Maine has a severe shortage of lawyers especially who will help low income and indigent clients, a problem that is especially felt in rural areas of the state such as northern Aroostook County. The new rural legal clinic is aimed at providing services to those who are underrepresented and indigent, while simultaneously introducing students to what it is like to practice rural law.
“Maine Law takes very seriously the need for more lawyers in all of our rural areas; when you don’t have lawyers, you don’t have access to justice,” Law school President and Dean Leigh Saufley said.
The clinic will be housed in the UMFK Sport Center and staffed by two law students each semester who will earn credits toward their degrees for providing legal services to rural clients.
Under the supervision of Fort Kent lawyer Toby Jandreau, the students will provide free legal services to people of limited financial means in civil, criminal, juvenile and family law matters.
Jandreau, a Maine Law alumnus, initiated the rural clinic in response to the shortage of lawyers in rural Maine. He is one of only two general law practitioners in the St. John Valley and, although in his mid-40s, one of the youngest attorneys practicing in Aroostook County.
Jandreau shared his concerns with Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who sponsored a bill to help fund the three-year pilot project. LD 24 garnered bi-partisan support from Maine lawmakers and was signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills.
The students will benefit from the hands-on approach to practicing law, rather than just reading about it in school books, according to Maine Law Professor Sarah Branch.
“We do every single piece of learning theory while in classes but not actual practice, which is a very different concept,” Branch said. “The (students) will be able to cross-examine witnesses right in the courtroom with Toby there as training wheels.”
The law students will live in dormitory suites at UMFK, just feet from the legal clinic.
He hopes the rural law clinic experience will encourage some of the student lawyers to practice in rural areas after graduation, thereby filling some of the need in those communities.
“There’s a place for you in the community. You can start at UMFK and can come back home,” Jandreau said.
UMFK President Deb Hedeen said the program could also benefit undergraduate students at the university who may not be aware that they could attend law school.
“I also see this as a great opportunity for undergraduate students to see this pathway to Maine Law,” she said. “If the goal is to have more people practicing law, what a great opportunity to grow the program and for undergraduate students to understand a clear pathway to those credentials.”
If the pilot project proves successful, Jandreau would like to see the legal clinic become a permanent fixture, and perhaps similar programs be developed in other professions to fill more needs in rural areas.