Logan Perkins graduated from law school knowing she wanted to represent the state’s poorest defendants. She wanted to be on her feet and in the courtroom. She wanted to work directly with people and defend their rights.

She wanted to stand beside David in front of Goliath.

And she did, for a decade, until she burned out.

Perkins is one of dozens of Maine attorneys who stopped taking new appointments to represent indigent people – some temporarily, some for the indefinite future.

She is shutting down her solo practice in Belfast and starting a job at a local nonprofit. Others are scaling back their caseloads or taking themselves off the lists of lawyers available for certain courts.

In interviews, they talked about their passion for their clients and the challenges in their field. As the state moves slowly toward potential dramatic reforms to indigent legal services, they said they struggle with low morale and low pay that does not afford them the same resources as the prosecutors they face in court.


“You feel like, how much of this am I supposed to take?” Perkins said. “What is my professional identity?”

Maine guarantees attorneys to adults and juveniles who are facing potential jail time in criminal cases, as well as parents in child protective cases and people who are facing involuntary commitment in a psychiatric hospital. It is the only state that provides those legal services solely with private attorneys, instead of public defenders who are government employees. The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services oversees that system and reimburses the participating lawyers.

Right now, approximately 280 attorneys are available statewide to take all types of cases for indigent clients. In December 2020, that number was 430.

Justin Andrus, the commission’s executive director, sees multiple reasons for the exodus. Some attorneys cannot afford to keep taking cases at the $80 hourly rate, half of what their counterparts in the federal public defender system make. Some are leaving because of rule changes, such as more onerous billing and reporting requirements, as the commission responds to watchdog agencies that identified operational and constitutional deficiencies. And some are frustrated by the courts themselves, where the pandemic has created a massive backlog and a myriad of scheduling conflicts on their cases.

“Today we have an adequate attorney base to staff all our cases,” Andrus said. “My concern is that without continuing to support counsel in a reasonable practice, a point will come when we’re not able to do that. We are only a few losses away from being imperiled in that function.”

That possibility is even more acute in the wake of a lawsuit filed against the commission last week. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine sued the commission, saying it has failed to guarantee effective representation in adult criminal cases. The complaint cites the dwindling attorney roster as one point of concern.


“The shortage of qualified and rostered defense attorneys is particularly acute in rural areas, forcing judges and MCILS to appoint attorneys from other counties despite the significant travel this requires,” it says.

Defense attorneys described their work as a good fight.

Harry Center said that when he was hired by a big firm early in his career, his bosses told him to take his name off the list for appointments. A judge caught wind and called the firm to say it had an obligation to do its part for indigent clients, and Center got to keep his name on the roster. He went on to work in municipal law, civil litigation and private criminal defense. But he usually took on a small number of appointments out of that sense of duty, until recently.

“In the last 15 years, some of my more rewarding results have been on cases where I was appointed,” Center said. “I received a card from one guy that said, ‘Nobody’s ever pushed this hard for me before.'”

Maurice Porter has a solo practice in Norway. He has currently paused new appointments, but the bulk of his work for 20 years has been with indigent clients.

“Everybody has the right to an adequate defense,” Porter said. “These are people in the worst moments of their lives up against the state a giant, well greased and well funded.”


Attorney Taylor Kilgore at her home in Turner. She represents parents in child protective matters, a little known but highly specialized sector of indigent legal services. “Where else do they have to turn?” she asks. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Taylor Kilgore represents parents in child protective matters, a little known but highly specialized sector of indigent legal services. She has stayed in touch with clients for years after their cases ended because they want her to know how well they and their children are doing. Even though she has scaled back her practice, she said the reason she keeps taking these cases is because of the parents who do the hard work of getting the help they need to reunite their families.

“I’ve had clients repeatedly over the last year that grew up in the foster care system, and now their children are in the foster care system,” she said. “Where else do they have to turn? Nobody helped them with their trauma.”

But attorneys said the work takes an emotional toll. The stakes are incredibly high as their clients face criminal convictions that could have negative consequences on their jobs or housing, incarceration that could traumatize them, even the permanent loss of their parental rights. They are often struggling with substance use and mental illness, stuck in jail when they need treatment. Their lawyers often bear the brunt of their frustrations and fears.

Perkins said the number of cases she needed to carry in order to cover the costs at her practice left her no time to decompress.

“If you show up to do indigent criminal defense with compassion and empathy and a willingness to prioritize and recognize the dignity of your clients, there is an incredible level of vicarious trauma,” she said. “If I only had 10 clients at a time, I would maybe be better able to process that vicarious trauma, to do the self care that I need to do. But to financially survive in the business, you can’t have 10 clients. You have to have 80 or 100 clients. That means you never get a break from it.”

The commission has been making changes in response to critics, and lawmakers have been talking about setting up a hybrid system made up of a mix of public defenders and appointed private lawyers. They are also considering increases to the lawyers’ hourly rate and the commission’s budget to conduct paid training.


In recent presentations to lawmakers, Andrus has emphasized the disparity in pay and resources between appointed defense attorneys and state prosecutors in Maine.

Prosecutors are government employees with salaries, paid time off and benefits. They have offices and support staff. They get paid when they are in training. After a number of years on the job, they can qualify for public service loan forgiveness. They earn between $58,800 and $128,200.

For years, the state paid attorneys $60 an hour to represent indigent clients. Last year, the Legislature raised the rate to $80. That figure seems high, but it has to cover all costs, from health insurance and student loan payments to office supplies. Attorneys who focus on indigent clients said they cannot afford to hire support staff to help run their offices or even pay for legal research tools. They can bill the state only for hours worked on their cases, not for training or administrative tasks. Perkins took on an associate because she wanted to mentor a younger attorney in indigent criminal defense, but she stayed less than a year in part because Perkins could not afford to pay her more.

The Sixth Amendment Center, a watchdog group that issued a scathing report about Maine’s system in 2019, recommended a raise for appointed lawyers to at least $100 an hour. People who take court appointments in federal cases earn $158 an hour.

Tina Heather Nadeau is a Portland defense attorney who represents indigent clients and also is the executive director of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She said she wants to see changes that will draw young attorneys into the field and provide them with mentors, and finding a way for attorneys who take these cases to access student loan forgiveness programs would be a huge benefit. A recent survey by the commission found that some attorneys were paying hundreds of dollars a month on their loans but still accruing debt through interest.

“There’s a new generation of law students who are coming up who are really concerned with issues of social and racial and economic justice,” Nadeau said. “It can be really rewarding from that angle. You can’t save the world by doing indigent defense, but you can certainly provide people with great representation.”


Kilgore, who bases her practice in Turner, used to devote as much as 80 percent of her time working on child protective cases. She decided to take herself off some rosters last year because she was working 12 hours a day, six days a week to keep up with the caseload and make ends meet for her family of five. She broke down crying and decided to make a change. In 2021, child protective cases were only 20 percent of her workload. She took on more work as a guardian ad litem, the court-appointed person who represents a child’s interests in family matters and child protective cases, because she can charge $150 an hour for that work. She still hears from clerks on a weekly basis, asking if she will take cases again.

“It was what I needed and what was better for my clients,” she said of her decision to take fewer appointments.

The pandemic increased the number of pending criminal cases in Maine and the strain on rostered attorneys. Until a few years ago, Porter said his practice was usually 75 percent appointed cases and 25 percent private clients, but the income from each group was roughly equal.

He stopped accepting appointments in April 2021 because his caseload had piled up. The clerical work needed to maintain more than 100 open case files was competing too much with the lawyering itself. Porter thought he would have the breathing room to get back on the roster in a few months, but nearly a year has passed.

“Once I get these numbers back down below 100, closer to 70, I will be taking appointed cases,” Porter said. “I don’t know when that’s going to be. It might be sooner if the pay was substantially increased.”

Cory McKenna, an attorney who represents indigent clients in criminal and child protective matters, stands outside his office on Pearl Street in Portland. He says 90 percent of his caseload is court-appointed. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services has been intensely criticized – and now, sued – for not doing more oversight of its attorneys. But for some, recent efforts to address those problems are misplaced. Center, who works for a Biddeford firm, said he stopped accepting cases in part because he felt the reforms were placing too much of an administrative burden on the attorneys.


“You’ve got a lot of hardworking attorneys who are doing a good job,” Center said. “They’ve had a lot of good results. They protect a lot of people’s rights. Less time should be spent monitoring the bureaucracy of them doing their jobs.”

The criticism of the commission isn’t helping morale either. When the ACLU of Maine filed its lawsuit last week, Andrus emphasized that the lawyers themselves were not to blame, but the attorneys said they still feel beaten down by negative press.

Cory McKenna is a Portland attorney who takes criminal and child protective cases. Ninety percent of his caseload is appointed. He’s taken himself off the roster in some courts and stopped serving as the “lawyer of the day” for initial appearances because he was feeling burnt out. He said he wishes people knew more about the successes he and his colleagues experience on the job – the charges dismissed, the defendants acquitted, the jail time avoided, the families reunited.

“It’s just incredibly stressful to see a field that you’ve dedicated your career and a large part of your life to is constantly being brought up in a negative light,” McKenna said. “That’s the type of stuff to make people quit.”

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