by Anna DesLauriers,
Deborah Firestone is a hardworking business owner — and my mom. We met at her office. This space has changed quite a lot over my relatively short lifetime. When my parents first moved into their home, they had a gutted carriage house on their property that used to belong to the mansion in the lot behind their house. They ended up with this old building, which is a piece of history in the Deering Center neighborhood. It dates back to the days of having a stone turntable in the center of the floor, so you could always have your carriage facing out to the doors, ready to go.
When my dad redid the building, he created an office space. When I was in elementary school, I would go out to the office on layout and editing days, and be a part of the whirlwind of the paper. They had desks lining all four walls of the office, with what used to be top of the line computers, as well as a large layout table in the center. They had a large format printer and a light table for laying out articles, and creating what would be turned into the publication.
In the more recent years, the space has become less and less used. Once the internet became better, layout programs were invented, and everyone started having computers in their own homes, the office became a relic. These days, all of the writers do their work from home, email their articles to the layout designer, and she emails the finished publication to my mom to do the final edits. The office has become a shell of its former glory. Now, it is just an almost empty space, with empty desks and a single exercise bike in the corner. The office has always been my space for thought, and even though I’ve been out of the house for 11 years, I still go there several times a week to get my class work done in a comfortable space that reminds me of years past.
When we got together we discussed the history of the newspaper, the way things are going in the industry, what it’s like to be a female business owner, as well as gender bias in the fields of newspaper and law.
A: Can you elaborate on the business that you own, and how it got started?
D: Maine Lawyers Review is a newspaper specifically for Maine lawyers. In the early 1990s, I was writing two newsletters weekly. Then these two couples from Massachusetts, who are all lawyers, decided they wanted to move to Maine and start a newspaper. They bought my business, and asked me to join them because I was publishing what they wanted to publish, and did not want to duplicate, and I already had a solid subscription list.
A: At what point did you start the newsletters?
D: I started in probably 1990. Maybe 1988, actually; then the newspaper was started in May 1993.
A: When it originally turned into a newspaper, were you an owner at the time?
D: Yes. When those two couples decided to move here and started the newspaper, they made me an offer to join them as a co-owner.
A: How did you find your employees?
D: We didn’t have any employees at first. Eventually, after Diane, one of the co-owners, got sick, we had to hire somebody to take her place. We advertised writing positions in our own paper each time we needed to add a writer. When we needed a new advertising manager, we advertised in the regular newspaper. That was before the advent of Indeed and other kinds of online employment websites.
A: How has the newspaper industry changed? We all know it has changed, even for SMCC it’s changed since I started in the club in 2018. How is it changed from 1993 to now?
D: Well, most things are shifting to be online, and content is going online to newspaper websites. This is what I am in the process of trying to accomplish with my new partner. I had a partner who wanted to retire, and I just bought out. He started in 2000, after those two original couples sold me the paper. After 20 years he decided he wanted to retire. Now one of my current writers has bought the other half of the business. We are hoping to take it online, because print newspapers are going by way of the horse and buggy, supposedly, although most of the lawyers I know still want to get a newspaper in their office in their hands. But the younger ones don’t feel that way.
A: Do you think your specific newspaper sales have dropped that much, compared to, for example, big newspapers?
D: It’s definitely dropped, but I think we have such a niche publication that we’ve been able to hold on longer. There’s no other Maine lawyer publication that is doing the same thing as we are doing. We have been able to last, but the writing is on the wall, so we are looking to go online, but we’re still getting advertisers for the print publication.
A: I’m sure promoting a print newspaper these days is difficult, can you tell me how you market your business?
D: Well, my partner who retired was supposed to be the marketing person, but neither of us did much to promote the paper for the past ten years. It was more just maintaining what we had. We both ended up getting other side jobs to better support ourselves in 2009, so it was like a vicious circle. You don’t have enough time to do the work that you should be doing on the paper, but you have to get another job so you can make more money. So, we haven’t marketed ourselves much. We had a great marketing person back in the 1990s, but we haven’t really had remarkable people since then. However, it’s mostly marketing by word of mouth because we’ve been around for so long, so people know who we are.
A: Is it mostly law offices that subscribe to your paper, or do individual people receive copies as well?
D: We have law offices and we have solo practitioners. I think we will easily get more people once my new partner comes on board. He is planning to do a lot more of the marketing. He is a solo attorney who also leads kayak trips, is a stand-up comic, and does a lot of other side jobs like a lot of people in Maine do.
Women in Business
A: Do you think that your partner being male makes it so you get more recognition? Do you think that you get pushed aside and they talk to him instead? Do you think anything about gender bias is really relevant to you?
D: I do not think that anything about gender bias is relevant to me, because I am who I am, which is a strong independent person. For one thing, my former partner who just left was not an attorney, and his name wasn’t really known amongst Maine attorneys. My name is known in the Maine legal world. My other job was administering the bar exam in Maine, so I was also known that way. Maine is a small state. I am pretty well known in the legal community after all these years, my partner was not, nor is my new partner really. He hasn’t been in Maine that long yet. I do think that gender bias happens in Maine, especially back in the 1980s. But personality wise, I’ve often thought I was more like a man than a woman in a lot of ways, though not physically. I don’t take crap from men.
A: What is the proportion of male to female lawyers, since you’ve been seeing the incoming lawyers for a while. Has it increased one way or the other?
D: I graduated from law school in 1981, and my class was one third woman. That had changed radically in just a couple of years before I started, probably three years before that it was 10%. I don’t think it was even 25%. In those few years, late 70s early 80s, it jumped like crazy. Nowadays it’s more like 50/50. In fact, I think there are now more women than men in law school. The only disparity remaining nowadays is not so much in the numbers, but among the people in charge. The senior partners at firms for example, but that’s changing as the women who went to law school with me are becoming older and in more positions of power. At one point recently, until our Chief Justice retired to become Dean of the Maine Law School, we had the following women in power in Maine: Governor (formerly our first female Maine Attorney General), Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Court, one of our two US Senators, one of our US Representatives, and many state court judges. One of my many theories is that law will end up like banking. In the old days, all bank tellers were men. Now, I think a vast majority are women. I think that same thing is gonna happen with lawyers, and partly it’s because I think women are more counselor types. That is what a lawyer is; a counselor. So, my unscientific prediction is that soon lawyers will be three quarters women, and one quarter men. At least.
A: Do you think that more women will be in power? Or will just be the old white man until they die?
D: It’ll probably be the old white men until they die. The other thing is, because, especially in the 1980s and 90s, women who were having babies either decided they didn’t want to go for partnership in a law firm, or they weren’t allowed to. One of my friends, Alison, is in a law firm with all women. They took the firm over from men in the late 1980s. They were all mothers, most of them single mothers, and men didn’t want to work with single mothers as lawyers who weren’t putting in insane amount of hours at work, although they still “worked” an insane amount of hours during each day. They just weren’t “billable” hours.
Gender Bias in Law
A: We already talked about the future of women in the business. And we’ve also sort of talked about the future of your business. Do you think your business is gender neutral?
D: All my writers used to be women lawyers, and now I have more men, but really it just goes back and forth. I think it really is a general gender neutral business, though. My production manager is also female.
A: Well, historically, newspapers have been mostly men, at least 100 years ago, or 80 years ago. Do you think it’s getting more even now?
D: I don’t know about newspapers, but my legal newspaper. I mean it’s like the bar exam world. When I started in 2009 as a bar administrator giving the bar exam, there were still some male administrators left. But by the time I left in late 2018, there were few men left. And I think, you know, probably 10 years before that it was mostly men. A lot of them are lawyers, but not all. You didn’t used to have to be a lawyer to do that job and now you do, but still many more of them are women, I don’t know, I think just because the non-traditional lawyer jobs are taken by women.
A: So, what do you think, for the next five years, or until you retire, are your future business plans? How are they going to change?
D: I hope my new partner and I can get a great online presence, come into the modern world. And then he buys me out. And I retire. I mean I could keep working — this job is not exactly strenuous, I could work for 10 more years or more. Depends how much I like it. And also what happens with my other job (working for an exam software business), with the pandemic.
A: What other position in the paper do you have besides owner?
D: Executive Editor. I edit the whole thing. Right now I’m doing everything, including all the ads and billing, until my new partner comes on. And my other job, which I do not own, is selling software. In that company, I work remotely with eight men and one other woman, all around the country. That is definitely a man’s field. However, one of my two bosses is now transitioning to be a woman so she’s joining our side. Now we’ll be six men and three women instead of seven and two. But I have to say that this group of people are extremely equality-minded, and not all that young! Let’s just say that I could not work with men who don’t consider me an equal. I ain’t got time for that. No one got time for that.