The chief justice of Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court is personally appealing to the managing partners at the state’s largest law firms to help recruit more attorneys willing to defend clients who cannot afford a lawyer.

Maine State of the Judiciary

Maine Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press, file

“The need is dire,” Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill wrote this week in a letter to individuals at seven firms. “Won’t you please help?”

Maine has struggled to provide enough legal representation to indigent clients. Lawmakers nearly doubled the pay rate for private attorneys who agree to represent indigent clients.

The move initially drew some attorneys back to the state’s version of a public defender program, but the need is outpacing the attorneys available, especially in criminal and child custody cases.

Stanfill wrote in the Aug. 24 letter to partners at six law firms in Portland and one in Bangor that, despite the increase in pay from $80 an hour to $150, “the crisis is worsening.” There were 100 cases involving indigent clients who lacked an attorney last week, she wrote.

“I write generally to urge you to encourage attorneys at your firm to become rostered and take cases for which they may be qualified,” Stanfill said. “A talented trial attorney can try any kind of case.”


As of June, the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services had 212 rostered attorneys, with 165 rostered for trial work, according to the commission’s June 20 meeting minutes.

Chris Guillory, the commission’s director of training and supervision, told commissioners at their July 17 meeting that 450 full-time attorneys would be needed on the roster to meet the projected demand.

The commission also was told that the number of indigent cases has increased 23% over the previous year, from 2,535 to 3,123.

Stanfill specifically urged the law firm partners to ask attorneys who have served as law court clerks within the last five years to consider signing up for child protective appeals.

She even listed the names of 26 attorneys who she said are qualified to take on what is around 90 appeals a year, which she described in the letter as largely procedural in most cases.

“They are generally appeals from the termination of parental rights involving a review of factual findings for abuse of discretion,” she said. “Almost all are heard on the briefs, and, frankly, most result in affirmances in the memorandum of decisions.”



Stanfill said she has been in discussions with James Billings, the executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, about temporarily waiving a requirement that attorneys have experience in trying at least six child protective cases before being rostered.

The listed attorneys, she said, have each reviewed an average of five to seven appeals involving the termination of parental rights, “poring over every pleading, order and transcript” and have “identified any issues and thoroughly discussed the issues in bench memos to the court.”

“They are smart and excellent writers,” Stanfill said. “Even if they have never tried these cases, I believe they can more than competently handle appeals in these cases.”

Billings did not respond to an interview request Friday.

Maine has been identified in several reports as failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide adequate legal counsel to people who cannot afford an attorney.


The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine filed a lawsuit last year against the state based on the findings. Both sides have been negotiating a settlement for months, but neither side has commented outside of court proceedings on the status of those negotiations.

Until recently, Maine was the only state that relied on private attorneys for indigent legal services instead of having full-time public defenders and staff, but officials have since taken steps in that direction.

Last year, lawmakers approved funding to hire a handful of public defenders to offer a mobile office to serve rural parts of the state, where representation is more difficult to obtain.

This year’s budget approved by lawmakers includes 11 new public defender positions, including a deputy director and eight attorneys. Six of those attorneys are expected to staff the state’s first brick-and-mortar public defenders office, according to minutes from the commission’s July meeting.

Susan Weidner, one of the former law clerks listed in the letter, said Friday that she would look into helping with child protection appeals.

“I look forward to exploring how I can assist in fulfilling the need for representation identified by Chief Justice Stanfill,” said Weidnet, who is now an attorney at Drummond Woodsum. “I think Chief Justice Stanfill rightly points out that child protection appeals are at least one area for which former law clerks can utilize their experience to contribute to that need if they are able to do so.”


Attempts to contact other attorneys listed in the chief justice’s letter were unsuccessful. And most of the managing partners did not respond to interview requests.


David E. Barry, managing partner at Pierce Atwood in Portland, understands why Stanfill would reach out to his firm and other large law firms in the state to help with the indigent legal crisis, but he said he’s unsure what more his lawyers can do.

“The letter just came last evening, so I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to consider it within the firm,” Barry said. “I understand why she has identified the need. We would certainly communicate with our attorneys and explore their interest.”

With few criminal defense attorneys practicing at Pierce Atwood in Maine, Barry said there is little more his firm can do to help with criminal cases, though he expects some of the former law clerks identified in the letter may respond to the need for child protection representation, if the commission revises its rules.

Barry emphasized that his lawyers already contribute hundreds of hours of pro bono and indigent legal services every year through other programs, such as Court-Appointed Special Advocates, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Program, Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Legal Services for the Elderly and the Hospice of Southern Maine.


“I don’t know the particulars about what other firms are doing, but I know the other large firms in Maine, like Pierce Atwood, provide extensive support and resources in the area of pro bono and indigent legal services,” Barry said. “We view it as our obligation. We take it very seriously.

“I understand very clearly why Chief Justice Stanfill would view my firm and the other large firms as a natural resource to which she would reach out for support and assistance in the face of challenges like this. I expect the firms will take her request seriously and consider seriously what we and what they can do to help.”

David Van Slyke, managing partner at Preti Flaherty, echoed those sentiments in a written statement, pointing to the firm’s ongoing pro bono work as a consideration.

“At Preti Flaherty, we are now looking at the Chief Justice’s request as it relates to all the resources in the firm (not just those six former Maine Supreme Court law clerks that are currently at the firm), and how that request fits with our other pro bono commitments,” Van Slyke said.

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