Maine's legal market represents a study in contrasts. The Portland area is home to young entrepreneurs, alternative energy and hotel construction amid a tourism resurgence. Demand is less robust in the outlying areas, and some towns may soon go without lawyers as the local bar ages. Maine ranks in the middle of the pack with a 6.8 percent unemployment rate — below the national average.

"The Maine economy is a funny animal," said Gloria Pinza, managing partner of Pierce Atwood's Portland headquarters. "We're not a hotbed of public companies, but we have a very strong middle-market business sector. Typically, when the economy suffers, we don't suffer as much, and when it booms, we don't gain as much. But it's nice to see [construction] cranes around Portland again."

Pinza points to the "reasonably priced cost structure" that's bringing in work from out of state. Other brights spots are an energy pipeline from Canada, natural gas exploration and an uptick in intellectual property work. But overall, demand remains "pretty static," she said. It's mostly small and midsize firms in the state. Large out-of-state firms include Bingham McCutchen and Fisher & Phillips.

A grimmer outlook was offered by Maine State Bar president Bill Robitzek, who summed up the situation as "desperate." He complained of an "enormous unmet need in an economy that has gotten worse," pointing to an explosion of pro se litigants. They represent 75 percent of litigants in family court cases — in fact, half of the state's family law cases feature unrepresented litigants on both sides.

"The number of people who can't afford lawyers is increasing and, in the vast geographical area north of Portland, the number of lawyers is declining and not being replaced," he said. Meanwhile, the ranks of unemployed and underemployed lawyers are growing, suggesting a need for a "matchmaking service" pairing recent law school graduates with older lawyers in rural counties, Robitzek said. The situation is made worse by a "Home Depot" mentality of "people thinking they can do it themselves when they really can't."

Traditional bread-and-butter practices such as family and criminal law are lacking, buffeted by budget cuts for legal services for the poor. The slack has been picked up by an increase in pro bono participation.

K.C. Jones, managing partner of Verrill Dana in Portland, said Maine tends to come out of recessions more slowly than do other areas. Verrill recently completed a merger with Friedman Gaythwaite Wolf, an 11-attorney firm in Portland. Verrill has 20 lawyers in Boston, which "appears to be coming back more strongly," Jones said.