For many military spouse attorneys, pursuing traditional legal careers while their partner is on active duty can be like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. In response to the challenges of balancing a legal career against the demands of life as a military family, many MSJDN members have decided to forge their own paths. They have pursued a variety of non-traditional careers, sometimes leaving behind the traditional practice of law permanently, sometimes only for as long as necessary. Their experiences show that there are a number of ways a milspouse attorney can sustain career momentum over the course of his or her partner’s military career.
Remote Legal Work
For milspouse attorneys who want to keep practicing law in the traditional sense, being able to work remotely is a major boon to career continuity and progression.
MSJDN Membership Chair Lindsey Savage has worked remotely in the past, and plans to do so again when her family relocates to Japan next year. Her advice to other milspouses negotiating remote work with their current firms is “ to know what kind of support (especially, administrative support) you will have and if the answer is none, make sure they will pay you for all your time, not just the billable hours.” In order to make the transition to remote work smooth, she recommends working through technical details at the outset — ensuring that you have the appropriate and necessary technology to facilitate remote work, clarifying how and when you will get assignments, deciding whether you will be an independent contractor or an employee (important for tax purposes). To make the relationship sustainable, she suggests making expectations and boundaries very clear before you being working remotely. To keep everyone’s expectations realistic, you should discuss minimum and maximum number of hours you plan to work, agree on specific hours you will be “on the clock” and available for phone calls and real time responding to emails, so that you don’t have to stress about the time difference or be glued to your smartphone. Once those guidelines are established, stick to them so that the remote work relationship works as well for you as it does for your employer.
Another way to make your career portable is to open a virtual office, which is what MSJDN’s Communications Director Libby Jamison has done. Having a virtual law office has allowed Libby to maintain a California-based practice even as she and her husband have been stationed on the East Coast. Libby’s keys to success include building relationships before you leave the area, staying in touch with your contacts and clients, and figuring out the logistics early. Several months before PCS-ing, Libby started doing contract work for other attorney who have now become her source of business and referrals. Although Libby does not travel to California for hearings, others practicing virtually could choose to do so or to appear remotely where the court allows it. Whenever Libby is in the area for vacation or to visit family, she makes it a point to arrange for face-to-face meetings with her clients and contracting attorneys. Having a virtual office requires special logistics — invest in a good scanner so you can easily transmit client documents and consider a system that allows you to send encrypted files.
Several MSJDN members have married their legal education to other passions and started their own businesses.
Rachel Brenke is a milspouse attorney, work at home mother of five, and owner of multiple businesses. She has joined her passions for photography and the law at one of those businesses — The Law Tog — where she helps photographers set up and protect their businesses. From choosing the right type of entity to drafting clear, enforceable contracts, Rachel’s legal expertise has made her an indispensable resource for creative professionals. Rachel’s own success in the blogosphere inspired her to create another website — BlogLegally — where she provides business advice and legal support (like contract templates) to help bloggers avoid legal pitfalls while they grow and protect their own businesses. One of Rachel’s most important tools for success? Outsourcing. Even if you’re working from home, you have to treat your business just like an office job. Outsource childcare and housecleaning so you can focus on your work. As your business grows, hire someone to attend to some of the more routine tasks or use ghostwriters/guest writers to help you create content. Although it can be difficult to release control over the business you’ve worked so hard to build, at some point, it will grow too big for you to do it all yourself (hopefully)!
MSJDN’s first Communications Director Lori Volkman left a 13-year career as a prosecutor to start Trajectory Communications, a strategic messaging firm aimed at military audiences. Lori’s work with MSJDN fed her desire to bridge the military-civilian divide, an effort she continued as she worked with corporations to create veteran’s hiring initiatives. “The day I realized I was employing both spouses and veterans was the day I realized I needed to bring our families to the corporate world as well,” says Lori.
MSJDN’s current online-content editor, Leigha Landry Wanczowski, determined that starting her own portable public relations and digital media business was the best way to sustain her career. Relying on her journalism education and experience working as a digital media strategist, she created PR Gypsy, a consulting firm that specializes in helping clients create and implement effective online marketing and public relations strategies. (Remember Rachel’s advice to outsource? Leigha is the person who would fill that role!) Leigha said although she’s not working as a lawyer, her law degree has been very beneficial. The education helps her design intricate strategies for businesses and assure clients they aren’t violating their industry’s ethical standards. She’s even been hired to make sure contest components of publicity campaigns meet rule requirements. “Digital marketing is a scary venture for some professionals. Doctors, lawyers and many others involved in more conservative professions are concerned about ethical standards, confidentiality and maintaining a professional image,” she said. “A website is standard. But many of these professionals are now seeing value in maintaining digital profiles, including social media accounts. Whether the accounts are for themselves or their businesses, they want to reach a larger audience but keep a level of professionalism they are concerned will be muddled through social media.”
According to Leigha, one of the struggles is turning paid work into a career. She stressed goals and future plans as part of the solution: “Long term, I’d like to help businesses write social media policies that protect the business, legally and ethically, while also enabling their employees to be brand advocates. I have unique positioning as a professional with experience in both the legal and marketing areas that need to be integrated to avoid pitfalls with company social media policies. It’s taken some creativity to find that particular niche, but it’s one that satisfies my desire for a career and incorporates my education.”
Lawyers are natural educators — educating clients about the law and advantages and risks of different strategies and educating opposing counsel and courts about the application of law to the particular facts of a given case. So, teaching is a natural venture for many lawyers, especially military spouse attorneys who find themselves at duty stations where traditional legal work is unavailable.
MSJDN memebr Susan O’Donnell taught Aviation Law and Aviation Legislation at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University at RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom and says that it was”one of the most rewarding things” she has done. At first, she was nervous because she didn’t have experience in aviation law, but she quickly adapted to the subject matter with some help from her pilot-husband. Susan’s students were undergraduates, most of whom worked full-time in addition to taking classes. She remembers that they were very appreciative of her experience in the real world and attentiveness to their progress and learning. Their appreciation made the job especially rewarding. Despite her initial nerves, Susan became such an excellent instructor that she was asked to be the Center Academic Advisor for the RAF Lakenheath campus which entailed reviewing evaluations and syllabi for other instructors. Far from feeling like teaching was a gap-filler, Susan was sad when her family PCS’d from the UK and she had to leave her teaching position.
Teaching while stationed overseas can be an educational experience for military spouses. MSJDN member Amanda Frizelle is teaching American Government for University of Maryland University College in Vilseck, Germany. One of the most interesting aspects of teaching this course is the diversity of her students, who are a mix of active duty soldiers , spouses, children, and veterans. Adding to the richness of the experience, her students hail from around the globe, including Costa Rica, Germany, and Austria.
All military spouses have to be flexible, creative, and resourceful in order to withstand the curveballs thrown by military life, none more so than professionals who find that frequent moves make maintaining a career difficult. These pioneering MSJDN members show that it is possible to forge exciting, sustainable careers by thinking outside the box about what one can do with a law degree.
Have you parlayed your law degree into a non-traditional career? Share your experience in the comments!