By Tara Gaston • February 03, 2013•Writers in Residence
Moving back to the United States after living overseas with her service member husband, Mary Reding Smith was confronted by the fact that practicing law could mean taking a number of bar exams if she traveled with her spouse as he fulfilled his military commitment. Once in Ohio, Smith wrote a brief, supported by the Ohio Women’s Rule, suggesting an admission rule change to benefit military spouse attorneys. Shortly thereafter, Smith co-founded the Military Spouse JD Network in order to “give isolated people a sense of community.” As the current president of MSJDN, Smith recently sat down to talk about her work, MSJDN, and the challenges of work as a military spouse attorney.
What are some of the challenges of practicing as a military spouse attorney?
The precise challenges of military spouses depend on the exact community and position of the service member, but in general military spouse attorneys are much more likely to move frequently, and face the licensing issues that accompany such a move. Whereas many professions allow employees to have a say in their job location, the military is the only career where the employee (or service member) cannot say “no” to a move and can be punished for doing so. While the service member’s family cannot also be ordered to move, the Department of Defense has conducted studies that indicated that the military, as a whole and in its component parts, benefits from keeping the family together; therefore, the DOD considers family togetherness important for national security.
Additionally, it is often difficult for military spouse attorneys to maintain connections developed through networking, because of the frequent moves, and each move can often require a fresh start. The frequent moves can also make it difficult to create a book of work, or to engage in a lateral transfer, due to practice variation around the country.
What is the purpose of the Military Spouse JD Network?
MSJDN has been laser-focused from the start on rule changes at the state level that would recognize the experiences and sacrifices of military spouse attorneys while maintaining high standards for admission. Military spouse attorneys deal not only with issues particular to the legal profession, but also the intricacies of war and the military profession itself. Thus, MSJDN is also there to provide a community of support amongst like-situated individuals, and assist in providing military spouse attorneys with the same sort of networking available in more geographically limited bar associations.
Who are the members of the Military Spouse JD Network?
There are currently over 700 military spouse attorney members of MSJDN, who are significant others to active-duty, guard, and reserve members. Members of MSJDN practice both in the United States and overseas, although precise geographical breakdowns are difficult to determine because of the frequency of moves. MSJDN is approximately 10% male, and welcomes men as well as same-sex partners of service members. In fact, the MSJDN model rule (.doc) for licensing changes has reflected the varied composition of military families from the beginning.
What are some of the major activities and achievements of the Military Spouse JD Network?
The major activity of MSJDN is petitioning for rule changes to facilitate military spouse attorney admission. The goal of the rule changes is to allow the spouse attorneys to obtain at least provisional admission in a state, without having taken the state’s bar exam, so long as the spouse attorney is in good standing in another jurisdiction and is present in the state due to military orders. MSJDN has provided a model rule (.doc) for jurisdictions to use in crafting their own rule changes. Thus far, Idaho and Arizona have passed such rule changes, and there are groups working on changes in twenty-five more states.
What advice do you have for the new (or old!) military spouse attorney?
The first piece of advice would be to make connections, including by joining the Military Spouse JD Network, in order to meet others dealing with many of the same personal and professional issues. It is also important to get connected at your local and state level; remain connected and engaged at the local bar, not only for professional reasons, but also to tell your story and get the word out about military spouse attorneys. It is important to emphasize that, while military spouse attorneys may only be in a place for a short while, they are hard-working and dedicated, and that the partner’s career should not have to be a hindrance to their own career. It is also important to maintain your skill set, no matter where you are. Take contract work, keep up on skills, and attend continuing legal education seminars and webinars so as not to lose skills in transitions. Finally, it is imperative that military spouse attorneys make their career a part of the permanent change of station (PCS) checklist: not only wrapping up business in the “old” location, but also joining the new location’s local bar should be high on the list of things to do.
There are benefits, however, to practicing as a military spouse attorney. Opportunities, such as practicing overseas or with the military itself, may arise unexpectedly. Additionally, the military spouse attorney, due to experiences both military and legal, can bring in a number of different perspectives that add value to any practice.
What is ahead for the Military Spouse JD Network?
MSJDN is growing by leaps and bounds, and the state-level groups are working very hard to help enact rule changes on that level. The organization is also looking to strengthen ties with the ABA and local bar associations, as well as continuing networking among military spouse attorneys. Recognizing that there is no need to “reinvent the wheel,” MSJDN is attempting to integrate the knowledge and expertise of military spouse attorneys into the established networks and partnerships of the legal profession, expanding awareness and support.
As such, MSJDN is working on a conference day to be held in May, where military spouse attorneys will be provided with a one-day “on-ramp” program for those re-entering the legal profession and to network with other military spouse attorneys. Follow MSJDN on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn for the latest news, information, and events.
NB: This article was compiled from quotes and information from Mary Reding Smith and the Military Spouse JD Network and do not necessarily reflect the order of the statements made, or direct quotes. The author regrets any mistakes, which are her own.