BIG WIN FOR MILITARY SPOUSE ATTORNEYS
There aren’t many military spouses who chose to practice law. Living in one location long enough to complete law school is difficult enough, but getting a new license for each move makes it arduous and costly. The bar exam costs thousands of dollars and takes many months to complete. Add in time spent looking for a job with every move, and you’re more likely to see the next set of orders before you see your own bar exam results. Many spouses give up on their dreams of pursuing legal careers.
But not Erin Wirth, a Coast Guard spouse and Administrative Law Judge. In order to keep her fifteen year career afloat she had to constantly change her practice areas, pass up longevity promotions, take multiple bar exams, and live apart from her husband – even when he wasn’t deployed. Likewise, National Guard Spouse Mary Reding persevered while her husband was on Active Duty to raise two children and keep her law practice afloat despite living in seven houses, three countries, and two states in seven years. “Sometimes we felt like we had to choose between our spouses and our careers,” admitted Wirth.
When the two women met online in June 2011, they lamented that law wasn’t a more portable career choice for them. Then they wondered: why shouldn’t it be? So they founded a military spouse bar association known as the Military Spouse JD Network (MSJDN) to share their ideas about making law and the military a more compatible combination. They quickly started tightening unemployment gaps by persuading states to accept their existing licenses.
But not all states were receptive to the idea. There were concerns over preferential treatment, maintaining professionalism, and contrasting state standards. Some states recognize special rules for servicemembers, but not spouses.
And once again they wondered, “why shouldn’t they?”
State by state they enlisted volunteers across the country, but movement was slow until the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession agreed to sponsor a resolution that would urge states to adopt rules accommodating the difficulties faced by military spouse attorneys. At their delegation the first week in February, the ABA unanimously passed just such a resolution, putting a national spotlight on the unique challenges military spouses face in making legal career choices.
As if support from the largest and most influential professional organization for lawyers was not enough, the White House also released a report this week urging states to ensure licensing requirements for military spouses are reasonable. At the Pentagon Ms. Obama, an attorney herself, presented the report which urged all 50 states to pass legislation clearing the way for military spouse licensing no later than 2014. MSJDN co-founders Reding and Wirth were at the Pentagon for the announcement, and were honored that the legal profession and the MSJDN were specifically mentioned by the First Lady as a leader in military spouse licensing.
The day after the ABA vote, Idaho became the first state to approve a specific measure regarding military spouse attorney licensing. MSJDN is taking advantage of their cadre of attorney volunteers, and rule change petitions from their members are now being presented in Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, California, and New York, with additional proposals set to go out to as many as 20 more states in the upcoming months.
Wirth and Reding are optimistic that the states will respond positively, now. As Reding points out, “This benefits everyone. The military is fortified with strong family support, and service members are more likely to stay in the military if their spouse is happy with the lifestyle. And spouses are particularly dedicated to serving the needs of military families and vets at a time when these services are in great demand.”
Lori Volkman is a deputy prosecuting attorney in Washington State, the spouse of a Navy reservist, a writer, and a member of the MSJDN. The MSJDN includes spouses from all branches of the United States Military and is open to spouses of active duty, retired, and reserve service members, as well as other attorneys and community members who support their mission of eliminating barriers to the practice of law and making it a viable career option for military spouses. You can find more information at www.militaryspousejdnetwork.org
Photo: co-founders Hon. Erin Wirth and Mary Reding taken in New Orleans when Resolution 108 unanimously passed at the American Bar