February 5, 2013

Maine Voices: Half a century on, Maine Law reflects on past, prepares for future

The school addresses the profession's challenges by focusing on practical skills and globally relevant issues.

By PETER PITEGOFF Special to the Press Herald

PORTLAND - If you're driving around Portland, head down to the waterfront and make your way up High Street. You'll see on your left a renovated apartment building with restored brickwork and Grecian columns, freshly painted white.

Fifty years ago, behind its windows, the first courses were taught at the University of Maine School of Law, under the guidance of founding Dean Ed Godfrey.

It was a new school, born of several predecessor institutions dating back to 1898. And it was the start of one of our state's most important institutions, whose graduates over the decades would include two governors, six state attorneys general, entrepreneurs and CEOs, human rights champions, government and civic leaders and justices of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Maine Law has since moved to its current location, on Deering Avenue in Portland. But 50 years into this journey, we carry on the original mission: to provide a high-quality legal education at a reasonable cost, preparing the next generation of lawyers and leaders for Maine and beyond. As Maine's public and only law school, we value our role in promoting justice and the rule of law and contributing to the intellectual capital of Maine's people.

It is gratifying to be part of a law school that is so closely connected with the past, present and future leadership of Maine. Our graduates serve as a critical resource to drive economic and policy development statewide. As educators, the thought that future governors, judges, business and financial leaders, trial lawyers and public interest advocates are walking our halls heightens our sense of responsibility and drive for excellence.

This academic year brings us an opportunity to honor the 50th anniversary and our shared successes. It also is a time to say thank you to the people who make it possible -- our hardworking staff, faculty and students, of course, as well as our alumni, friends and donors. Committed volunteers serving in the University of Maine School of Law Foundation, the Maine Law Alumni Association and our Board of Visitors deserve special note.

But as we reflect on Maine Law's impressive history, we put our full attention to the task at hand: the future success in our next 50 years. We must continue to evolve as a dynamic law school, and we must sustain our impact on Maine's economic and social well-being.

The challenges are undeniable. The lingering economic downturn and dramatic changes in the legal profession have reduced the availability of law firm jobs and public-sector positions. Fewer people nationwide are applying to law schools.

Maine Law is navigating this terrain effectively. As one of the country's smallest law schools, we have the flexibility to respond to these changes and the marketplace's new demands. The school has always emphasized diverse career paths and practical skills training. We are more committed than ever to providing real-world education, including clinical programs where students practice law under faculty supervision in areas ranging from juvenile justice and family law to patents, trademarks and copyright law.

Our rapidly growing Externship Program matches students with working lawyers in more than 30 field placements for course credit, from the Conservation Law Foundation to the Maine Attorney General's Office. Maine Law has increased summer public interest fellowships and has expanded the number and value of student scholarships.

While building on our long tradition of serving the people of Maine, we also strive to connect Maine with the rest of the world, opening up new opportunities in an era of global legal and business entrepreneurship.

In addition to our core J.D. degree program, Maine Law offers a new post-professional LL.M. degree for foreign-trained lawyers. This year, we launched a Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, in which faculty-supervised student attorneys represent clients in immigration matters. And the new Justice for Women Lecture Series brings important global conversations here to Portland. On March 20, we are honored to welcome Leymah Gbowee, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her role in ending civil war in Liberia.

The true story of any law school is ultimately told by its graduates, and we could not be more proud of them. They have found traditional and creative ways to use their skills and make an impact in their communities, in their careers and as civic leaders.

Whether clerking for a federal appeals court in Washington or a state court in Maine or Alaska; lawyering in the expanding arena of data privacy; managing a lobster export business or a nonprofit enterprise; serving in a government agency or the Legislature; working in a law firm, a legal services office, or simply hanging out a shingle -- our recent graduates are contributing to a rich history of innovation at Maine Law.

Peter Pitegoff is dean of the University of Maine School of Law in Portland.

 

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