Graduating class showcases law school efforts to recruit rural Maine lawyer and boost diversity

Jonathan Burk returns home to rural Maine to practice law after graduating from the University of Maine School of Law Saturday at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland.

Burk, 25, is one of 76 students who will graduate from Maine’s only law school. He’s also one of the few graduates to work in a part of Maine where lawyers are retiring and closing firms because they can’t find someone to replace them.

His classmate Schadrac Joseph, 33, will work for the US Air Force as a judge advocate or military attorney. He is one of 10 students of color to graduate this year.

Burk and Joseph represent two of the priorities that Maine’s only law school has set in recent years as it seeks to encourage more graduates to work in the state’s rural communities with few lawyers and to increase the diversity of its student body.

“I believe one of the biggest barriers to new lawyers entering rural practices is a lack of awareness of the opportunities that await them,” Burk said.

From left, Jonathan Burk, 25, is one of 76 students graduating Saturday from the University of Maine School of Law. Schadrac Joseph, 33, is one of 76 students graduating Saturday from the University of Maine School of Law. Credit: Courtesy of Schadrac Joseph and Jonathan Burk

As Maine Law attempts to bolster the ranks of rural attorneys, Burk said he’s encouraged by the opening of a Fort Kent satellite office of the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, where law students will perform a internship for college credit during the school year or for a stipend during the school year. summer months.

“I think similar initiatives that allow students to experience rural practice first-hand will benefit lawyers and clients alike,” Burk said.

Joseph, who was born in Florida and raised in Hamilton, New Jersey, has seen the law school’s efforts to increase diversity but thinks it needs to do more.

He suggested the law school hire a full-time diversity officer

“The Maine State Bar Association should also continue to develop, mentor and provide support for its diversity chapters,” he said.

Joseph was in the US Air Force and conducted criminal investigations before deciding to attend law school. He chose the University of Maine Law School in a predominantly white state because of its small class sizes, relatively low tuition, and location in Portland.

But what sealed the deal, he said, was the “warm sense of welcome based on my interactions with faculty and the admissions team” he felt after visiting the campus.

Burk, who graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 2018 with a degree in economics, was eager to return to Maine. Originally from the county town of Oxford in Denmark, he graduated from Fryeburg Academy.

“I’ve always loved Maine, so I jumped at the chance to come home to law school,” Burk said. “I also knew I was interested in working in Maine after graduation, and I think there’s no better place to launch a career locally.”

When Burk joins the Hastings Law Firm this summer, he will become the fourth member of one of Maine’s oldest law firms. Hastings Law Office turns 175 this year.

Finding young lawyers willing to live and work in rural Maine is difficult but not impossible, said David Hastings, who joined his family law firm in 1976 and is the fifth generation to serve the legal needs of residents. from western Maine and eastern New Hampshire.

When a small rural firm like Hastings hires a young lawyer straight out of law school, it’s a big commitment.

“Students learn a lot about law in law school, but not a lot about how to practice law,” Hastings said. “There is a lot of mentorship involved. It’s a big investment of time and money, but we decided to make this investment in Jonathan.

Unlike Hastings, Burk and Joseph will be their family’s first attorneys after passing their bar exams.

Jon J. Epps