When she graduated from law school in Montana in 1979, Rebecca Irving and her husband wanted to live on the ocean. The West Coast was out of the young couple’s price range.
“So, we chose a town as far up the East Coast with a courthouse that we could find,” she said. “That was Machias.”
Irving set up her law practice in the Washington County seat the next year after she passed Maine’s bar exam. She remembers being just one of two female attorneys practicing in the county.
“It was a wonderful move and a wonderful place to raise a family,” the attorney said. “I was pregnant at time and didn’t know it. My husband was one of the first stay-at-home dads in the area. And he helped out around my office.”
Since 1994, Irving has served as the tribal court judge for the Passamaquoddy Tribal Court at Pleasant Point and Indian Township. Her work with the tribe began in 1983 she was appointed prosecuting attorney and as the attorney for the Tribe’s Child Welfare Departments at the reservations.
Last year, Irving retired from her private practice, which included several high-profile cases, but continues working part-time as a judge for the tribe.
She will be honored on Friday, June 23, at the Maine State Bar Association’s 2017 summer meeting at Sugarloaf with the Caroline Duby Glassman Award, the first woman on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
The award, which is presented biennially by the bar association’s Women’s Law Section, recognizes and celebrates the accomplishments of a woman in the Maine bar who has excelled in the profession, paved the way for other female lawyers and worked to advance the position of women in the profession and the public.
Winning the award, Irving said, “Just blew me away. I didn’t purposely set out to achieve any of the goals on which it’s based. If I’ve had any success, it’s just by continuing on.”
She was nominated for the award by longtime Calais attorney Dennis Mahar, a former president of the bar association. In explaining his nomination, he said in an email that Irving “possesses the same qualities and gives the same kinds of service that Justice Glassman did for the legal profession and society in general.”
Mahar continued, “Rebecca came to practice law in Machias as a young woman, when the profession was mostly populated by men. She taught the men, including the trial justices and judges who came to Washington County, that a young woman with a growing family could be a country lawyer. Rebecca has mentored new lawyers and serves as a role model for both female and male lawyers in the integration of women into the practice of law in rural Maine.”
One of the young attorneys Irving mentored was her daughter, Sarah Irving Gilbert, who practices in Camden. She became interested in the profession just because of her mother’s career but also because for a decade her mother coached the mock trial team at Machias High School. Gilbert joined the team when she was in high school.
“As one example of the ripple effect that such enthusiasm for the law has on a young mind, the graduating class of 2002 from Machias High School (32 in total) has produced four attorneys,” she said. “I am one of those four. And if you asked the other three why they went to law school, they would tell you it was because of my mother.”
Irving, who no longer coaches the mock trial team, said she finds her work as a tribal judge rewarding and varied. She handles criminal, civil, probate and small claims cases as well as those involving children.
“I’ve seen the devastation caused over generations by the removal of children from the tribe to boarding homes far away from tribal lands,” she said referring to the now ended practice of sending Native American children to be raised away from their tribe. “That practice affected men and woman in a way we can never understand. The ripple effects of that are still apparent,” Irving said.
Meanwhile, Irving said the biggest change she’s seen in the legal profession in the past 35 or so years is that clients now expect their attorneys to be available 24/7.
“It’s so hard for lawyers now to have any free time,” she said. “I don’t see how they decompress. They are technologically trapped in a world that spins way too fast.”