A new nonprofit hopes to fill gaps in the local legal system by providing lower-cost legal representation to clients and in-the-trenches training for new lawyers.
The Maine Community Law Center opened this fall in Portland with two lawyers who bill on a sliding fee scale. The center is designed to help people who make too much money to qualify for free legal aid but not enough to hire a lawyer at standard fees.
It will also be an “incubator” for new lawyers, part of a growing national movement that seeks to give recent law school grads a chance to cut their teeth on actual cases and gain experience outside the normal route of working as an associate at a large firm.
In the past, newly minted lawyers would work for a big law firm where they would gain experience and be mentored by a more experienced partner, said Elizabeth Stout, the executive director of the law center. But firms have been tightening belts in recent years and no longer hire as many new graduates nor can they allow the partners to spend expensive hours helping the associates.
“Those jobs are not as plentiful as they once were,” Stout said.
Stout said she began hearing about the concept of legal incubators last year and decided it sounded like a good way to help law school graduates and the public. The American Bar Association, which supports the concept, lists 51 other incubator programs in the country, which began at City University of New York School of Law in 2007.
In Maine, Stout said, about 80 percent of civil cases involve at least one party who is unrepresented in court. That not only creates an unfair situation for the person without a lawyer, she said, but it also bogs down the court system.
“For so many people, their experience in the court is disappointing,” she said.
Stout worked as a private lawyer and prosecuted cases for the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office and as a state assistant attorney general. She reopened a private practice in January and started laying the groundwork for the center. The first two lawyers, Jacqueline Moss and Elizabeth Fuller Valentine – both 2014 graduates of the University of Maine School of Law – were hired this summer and began taking on clients in September.
The plan, Stout said, is to hire two lawyers a year for two-year terms, with the goal of having six lawyers in the program within a couple of years. The center, which opened offices on Pearl Street, will hold weekly meetings on the business of law, she said. For instance, the center will offer its legal staff sessions with an accountant to discuss billing and tax issues so as the lawyers move on, they’re well-versed in what it takes if they open a practice on their own or join a small firm.
Deirdre Smith, a professor at the UMaine law school and director of its Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, said the idea of practical training for new lawyers is a natural progression from the classroom.
“This is really the next step for them,” she said.
Her clinic, Smith said, does offer some real-world experience for law students, but it has limits.
Students in the legal aid clinic, which provides free assistance to low-income Mainers, require a faculty supervisor to sign off on filings and to accompany students to court hearings, so it provides students with practical experience. However, she said, the student lawyers don’t learn the nuts and bolts of how to run a practice as a business.
The center fills that gap, Smith said.
“It’s really an important building block to learn how to launch your own business,” Smith said. “You learn how to market yourself, how to find a niche, get referrals and screen clients.”
Moss said she’s eager to get the practical experience and also said the need for affordable legal representation in Maine is acute. Low-income Mainers can get help through legal aid services such as Pine Tree Legal Assistance and the law school’s clinic, but for many middle-income Mainers, the cost of hiring an attorney – which usually starts at $200 an hour – is out of reach.
The Maine Community Law Center will charge on a sliding scale of $75 an hour to $175 an hour, based on income, Moss said.
“We start where Pine Tree typically leaves off,” she said, noting the income threshold for Pine Tree is about $30,000 a year for an individual and more for families.
Moss said she expects that most of the cases the center will handle will be family matters, along with elder law, estate planning, food law and business law.
Both Moss and Stout also said they hope to attract clients from outside Portland because rural residents often find it most difficult to get legal help.
“The state is so large and all the lawyers are in Portland,” Moss said.
Stout said that if the center is successful – the rate system is designed to make the practice self-sustaining – she hopes to see it expand to northern Maine in the future. So far, many Maine lawyers have donated to help launch the nonprofit, she said.