Joan Fortin’s journey from her childhood on a Maine farm to her new role as a family-friendly CEO of one of the state’s top law firms.
On New Year’s Day, Joan Fortin will become the first woman CEO of Bernstein Shur, one of Maine’s largest law firms. She’s already created a legacy at the longtime Portland-based firm as the director of attorney recruiting, having hired nearly half of the firm’s 120 attorneys. But now she has plans for another legacy as well, one of improving performance in Maine’s legal profession through empathy and supporting work-life balance. “We need a more holistic approach to how we do business,” Fortin says.
Fortin, 53, first worked at Bernstein Shur in the 1990s as a summer associate when she was at Northeastern University School of Law. After a clerkship at the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and receiving her degree in 1996, she joined Bernstein Shur and—absent a stint practicing law in Alaska—has been with the firm since. She’s “the most prepared person we’ve ever had” step into the CEO role, says Patricia Peard, who was Fortin’s longtime mentor at the firm before retiring in 2018.
From the time she was a summer associate, Fortin’s “agile intelligence” was clear, Peard says. “The law is like a puzzle. You must fit the pieces together for each client, and Joan could do that right from the start.” Fortin took constructive criticism well, never made the same mistake twice, was a good listener and always had a great sense of humor, Peard says, and “the combination of all that is pretty outstanding.”
Another word Peard uses to describe Fortin is “empathetic,” which fits with the culture Fortin has long been trying to build at Bernstein Shur. Maine has nearly 4,000 active attorneys and when hiring, Fortin says she looks for candidates with empathy. Citing Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, specifically two chapters called “The Trouble with Geniuses,” Fortin notes that the biggest success is not always the person who is first in his or her class. “Emotional intelligence is a critical business skill, not a soft skill,” says Fortin.
Determination also is a key business skill, and Fortin has plenty of it. When she learned that the top job at Bernstein Shur was opening up she added training sessions at the Lex Mundi Institute in Monterey, California to her busy roster. She’d traveled there to take classes in the professional development program for legal professionals before, when former Bernstein Shur CEO Charlie Miller first identified her as a future leader. At that point, she hadn’t envisioned it for herself, but now she was ready to pursue the role. “I went after it with everything I had,” she says, including training, grit and a built-in sense of justice.
“Emotional intelligence is a critical business skill, not a soft skill.”
Fortin grew up in a farming family, the second oldest of five siblings. Her mother Rita and her father Jerry had moved their small farming operation to Benton in 1972 and all five kids pitched in. “We had chores every day,” Fortin says. That might include haying or milking the cows. She and her brothers and sisters swept the barn. They fed the horses and they took care of the chickens. “I hate chickens,” Fortin says, laughing. Cleaning the gutter in the barn? Not a pretty job but someone had to do it. “I didn’t mind shoveling,” Fortin says, still laughing. “I loved how I grew up.”
A high school teacher pushed her to apply to Colby College, an early instance, she says, in which she felt propelled forward by “people believing in me.” Although Colby was nearby geographically, it was, she says, a very different world. Neither of Fortin’s parents had gone to college. But they’d taught her something powerful, something that helped her in the new environment of Colby and the many others she’d go on to encounter in her career. “Farm life is very egalitarian,” she says. That ingrained sense of equality resonates, whether she’s talking to a blueberry farmer or a Supreme Court justice. “We’re all human beings equally worthy of respect as people,” she says. That belief shows in her easy, sincere style of communicating.
It took her a few years after Colby to find her way to the law. She went on to the University of Maine for a master’s degree in educational administration and worked at Bowdoin College for two years in student services. Then she enrolled at Northeastern, where she met her future husband, Chet Randall. After finishing law school in 1996, she was hired as an associate at Bernstein Shur. But she felt tugged; Randall was living in Alaska, where he was working as a public defender. She had done an internship there in during law school and relished the beauty of the place and its outdoors experiences. She joined him there for a brief stint.
Family was the driving force behind Fortin’s decision to return to Maine in 1999. She and Randall knew they wanted their own family. It was particularly important to her that her children knew their grandparents. She and her whole family had had a wakeup call in 1994 when her father had a heart attack at the age of 54.
In 1994, Fortin had gone back to Benton to help her mother and father as he recovered. She helped with the milking at 4:30 a.m. then grained the cows, showered and drove to Bangor for an 8 a.m. start at her summer internship as a law clerk for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. “It was a blessing to have that time with him,” said Fortin.
Her parents and life on the farm had a major influence on how Fortin approaches not just her own career but those of her co-workers. “I had access to my parents, and that had a huge impact on who I am today. Family was everything,” she says. It’s made her a fierce advocate for family-leave policies “that work.” Fortin encourages all employees to take advantage of Bernstein Shur’s 16-week parental leave policy, which in 2018 eliminated the distinction between primary and secondary caregivers. She’s seen attorneys of both sexes leave the firm after having children because they’re struggling to do both jobs.
But for women, who in 2019 represent 36% of the active attorneys nationally according to the American Bar Association, she acknowledges, the balance issue is often harder. She felt it herself as a young mother in a family with two working parents. (Randall is the deputy director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, an entity which provides free civil legal aid; “Our family hero,” she says.) Fortin was on a path to partnership at Bernstein Shur. But her image of what a mother should be was her own; Rita Fortin cooked all the meals, made all the costumes, living a very traditional, old-fashioned motherhood. “It just about ripped my heart out to drop my child off at daycare,” Fortin says. “I really struggled.”
Because she felt so reluctant to be away from her children when they were small, she stopped engaging in the activities she had enjoyed before she had kids, such as running, backpacking and kayaking. She’s fixing that now, but says, “If I could go back in time I would find a way not to stop exercising.” Her children are nearly grown now—Michael Randall is 18 and her daughter Lainey Randall is 16—but she remains highly attuned to how her co-workers might be struggling with such issues now. Fortin often reminds her younger colleagues that they don’t need to put the rest of their lives on hold, and her success—including making partner at Bernstein Shur while working part-time—stands as an example of that.
Nationally, that would make her an anomaly; the American Bar Association’s recent data on the status of women in the profession indicate that even with more firms allowing part-time schedules, women reported that choosing that option “posed professional risks,” including jeopardizing their prospects for promotion and falling into the trap of being paid for working part-time but working much more than that to keep up. And while women have made progress in gaining partnerships at major law firms, with an increase from 12.9% to 16.3% between 1994 and 2002, according to the association’s data, that’s still far from parity. “My generation’s job,” says Fortin, “is to continue the forward progress so that people can stay in the profession. Women tend not to stay. That’s the nut I’ve been trying to crack.”
So is the potential for burnout across gender lines throughout the legal profession. Clients often expect attorneys to be available 24/7, says Fortin, so the firm needs to push back by employing more of a “team-based approach and stop being lone wolves.” To that end, she emphasizes the need for employees to take vacation time, preferably two weeks at once. “If we don’t take care of the whole person, they won’t be here for the long haul,” she says. “A healthy person is going to perform better.” So will a person who stays connected to the people that matter to them. Fortin describes the legal career as “a marathon—not a sprint.” It’s in a firm’s best interest to retain their talent. “We have no desire to see a talented new attorney join our firm and then work so extremely hard that bad things happen (burn out, depression, illness, divorce, substance abuse, etc.). That doesn’t help us or our clients, and more important, no one wants to see that happen to a trusted colleague.”
What she wants is to foster an atmosphere that allows employees to “be their best selves.” To take care of themselves and their families and to participate in community. There, too, she leads by example, taking time to volunteer with the Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute. Her message to the high school students she encounters, many of them economically disadvantaged? “Believe you can and go forward.” And this year she chaired the American Heart Association in Maine’s Go Red for Women luncheon, a primary fundraiser for the group. Her speech there drew tears from many attendees. She focused on family, as she so often does, recounting how her father had bounced back from that heart attack in 1994. It was a bittersweet story though; her father had died just a few months before, at 79. Her message was about education and preventive self-care. “It was very important to me to share his story in a way that might help save someone else’s life and that would give someone else hope that they could recover from an early heart attack and go on to lead an active life.”
The luncheon raised a record-breaking amount of funds, $407,000, an 8.4% increase from the previous year. “The AHA could not have asked for a better chair,” says Maine’s Go Red Director Katie Rooks. “I’m part of the Joan Fortin fan club.” So is her daughter Lainey Randall, who was 12 when she accompanied her mother to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. and credits her with instilling in her a passion for issues like the environment. “She pushes me to go farther,” Randall says. “Seeing what she’s accomplished makes me feel like I can do anything.”
Angie Bryan moved to Portland in 2018 when she retired from the diplomatic service. Her writing has also appeared in The Foreign Service Journal and Maine Today. Full disclosure; she was one of 2019 spokeswomen for the American Heart Association in Maine’s Go Red for Women Campaign.