Editor’s note: Reprinted with permission from the November 2014 edition of Bar Briefs (a monthly publication of the Louisville Bar Association). For information contact Jenny Bencomo at 502.583.5314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JonVieve Hill
As a student at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law, I naturally planned to take the Kentucky Bar Exam following graduation. Like many other anxious 3Ls, as I entered my last semester of law school, I began to make preparations for the exam. However, the more research I did, the more apparent it became that I needed to rethink some of my plans. As the spouse of an active duty Army officer, I had prepared myself for some of the challenges that I may face, namely frequent moves and long separations during deployments. It did not take long as a military spouse to figure out that many big choices in life, such as where we would live, weren’t actually our choices at all. Realizing that many things were out of our control, we became accustomed to being flexible and adapting to change. I never worried a great deal about where I would take the bar exam. My first hurdle had always been getting through law school, hopefully before my husband’s next transfer.
I met my husband, Captain Charles Hill, when we were both undergraduates attending the University of Georgia. I was a pre-law student and Charley was on his way to becoming an Army officer through the ROTC program. We married after graduation and moved to our first duty station at Fort Knox where we have remained for the past five years. Although most officers receive orders to move to a new base every two to three years, Charley volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan for a second time to stretch his time with the unit at Fort Knox just long enough for me to finish up school. For my part, I took summer classes my first two years and a full load of classes every semester so that I could finish in two and a half years. Therefore, we were thrilled when we found out that the transfer to our next base at Fort Lee in Virginia would occur just a couple of weeks after my graduation date.
Not having done my due diligence, I always assumed that once I passed the bar exam in one state, reciprocity rules would allow me to waive into a state where my husband and I were stationed. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Much to my dismay, I found out that many states have practice requirements that make reciprocity rules inapplicable to a new attorney or someone who moves frequently. I suddenly realized that I would be in the position of having to choose between living apart from my husband to pursue my career in one state, or having to take a bar exam in a new state every two to three years while he remained on active duty. I did not even recognize the gravity of this problem affecting military spouse attorneys until it became an issue for me. Although this may not affect the majority of practicing attorneys, for those it does impact, a disproportionate amount being female practitioners, it is a significant barrier to their ability to practice law.
Fortunately, I found the Military Spouse JD Network (MSJDN), an association formed in 2011 by two military spouses who were frustrated with the difficulties of maintaining a law career given the unique demands of the military lifestyle. This organization supports military spouses in many ways, but focuses on advocating for licensing accommodations for military spouse attorneys.
In order to fully understand the importance and need for this change to the bar admission rules, one must first fully grasp this problem and its implications. Active duty military personnel receive orders to move to a new base on average every two to three years. These moves are based entirely on the needs of the government and are not optional for the service-member. Although the military spouse and children are not required to move, military families—who already experience long periods of separation due to out-of-state training exercises and lengthy deployments overseas—often don’t see “not moving” as a viable option. Compounding the issue is the fact that in today’s economy, many military families feel pressure for the military spouse to bring in income to supplement the service-member’s salary. Yet the frequent moving around makes it difficult for the military spouse to have the opportunity to cultivate a career or to even just sustain steady employment.
Although it is easy to recognize how being a military spouse alone stacks the cards against being able to maintain a profession, for a military spouse who desires to become an attorney, the issues become even more complicated. Attorneys must become licensed in each state in which they practice, and licensing requirements vary from state to state across our country. Typically, preparation for a bar exam requires months of studying, a lengthy application process, and payment of substantial application fees. In addition, applicants are required to register months in advance for a bar exam which is only offered twice per year. For military spouses—who are oftentimes given only a couple of months advance notice of a move—this results in having to choose between paying hefty late application fees or waiting several months until the next scheduled exam.
Once a military spouse attorney finally gets licensed, he or she faces the unpleasant prospect of repeating the entire process over again in a new state within a couple of years. As mentioned earlier, states have reciprocity rules that allow previously licensed attorneys to waive into the state without taking an exam; however, most reciprocity rules have previous practice requirements, typically necessitating that an attorney have practiced the last five out of seven years, which are unattainable for military spouses whose careers are frequently disrupted due to continuous moves.
In addition to reciprocity rules, many jurisdictions also have exceptions to bar admission rules that allow in-house counsel, public defenders and non-profit legal service providers to become licensed without taking a bar exam or meeting the previous practice requirements. For a military spouse attorney who faces unique obstacles, an exception should be granted as well. While this licensing impediment creates obvious hardships for military families, it also has an impact on both the military and legal communities as a whole. Often times the military family in this quandary is forced into choosing between the service-member’s military career or the military spouse’s law profession. Either the military loses a service-member in whom our government has invested time and money in training, or the legal community loses an attorney who has a unique perspective as a military spouse and has devoted years and countless dollars preparing for a career in law.
Fortunately, through the efforts of the MSJDN, states across our nation are beginning to recognize a need for accommodations in bar admission rules for our military spouses. Thus far there are 11 states with special licensing provisions for military spouses, including Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia. The states differ in their approaches to the accommodations that they afford to military spouse attorneys and requirements necessary to qualify for these accommodations. However, the purpose of each rule is to make the relocation to a new base a smoother transition for military families by supporting employment opportunities for military spouses.
Kentucky, which is home to both Fort Knox and Fort Campbell and houses over 40,000 active duty military members, needs to become a part of the movement in making licensing accommodations for its military spouse attorneys. Even if these accommodations would only benefit a small number of military spouses each year, it would have a large impact on those who make daily sacrifices for our country as members of military families. Although service members and their families serve their country proudly, it often comes at the expense of losing the opportunity to spend precious moments in life together. Therefore, our state should make a meaningful change to its bar admission rules that could help reduce the hardships already faced by our military families.
In Kentucky, the process for achieving a change or amendment to the bar admission rules can be lengthy. The rule must first be proposed to the Rules Committee, and from there it has to survive a series of reviews at different levels before even being considered by the Supreme Court. I am working with other stakeholders on drafting a proposal for Kentucky as part of an independent study for school. The proposal will likely be modeled after the rule supported by the American Bar Association and that drafted in other states such as New Jersey, Virginia and North Carolina. The rule change should allow a previously licensed attorney who is married to a military member and is transferred to Kentucky on active duty orders to become licensed here without having to take the bar exam. This type of rule would enable military spouse attorneys to have a temporary license to practice that would expire as soon as the orders change or the service member and spouse are no longer married.
Although I may no longer be located here if and when this proposal makes it before the Supreme Court, I will continue to advocate for this important change for the military spouse attorneys who will reside in Kentucky in the future. In the coming months an online petition will be made available for those who support this type of reform in Kentucky to sign and become a part of this important change for our local military families. Please contact JonVieve Hill at email@example.com if you would like to be sent a link to the petition or would like more information.