By Rachel Hsiao
As a military spouse, having a career is not easy. As a military spouse who is also an attorney? I am sure you are all aware of the challenges and obstacles we face. The option I am about to put forth is not original. However, it is an option that you may not have considered before. So here it is – have you considered a fellowship?
I am currently working under an Americorps grant. For those of you who may not be familiar with Americorps, it is a federally funded organization that focuses on civil service in a variety of forms. The state program is called North Carolina VetsCorps. The directive is to provide legal assistance to veterans, active duty service members, and/or their family members. Because the objective is to provide legal assistance, I am currently stationed at a Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) office in Fayetteville. As a result, that also means I need to follow LANC directives and rules. For example, if they cannot take a case due to the subject matter, then I cannot take on a case in that subject matter, as well.
How did I find this opportunity? Craigslist. Yup, that’s right. I was looking for legal positions specifically in my area and I came across this opportunity. Any service through Americorps is on a term basis. In other words, this is not permanent employment, but is equivalent to a fellowship.
Here is the basic run down: I am required to work 1700 hours for one year. I earn a monthly living stipend and receive medical coverage. At the end of my service, I receive an education award. There is a list of pros and cons. However, it varies depending on your personal circumstances. What’s the classic statement in the legal profession? “It depends.” This statement most definitely applies to a fellowship.
Factors to Consider:
1. It’s employment. I hate to start on that note, but it is the unfortunate truth. The legal profession and military lifestyle do not easily go hand in hand. Therefore, having employment (i.e.: experience) is helpful. It is also beneficial to learn a new area of law. In my situation, because of the specific population I am designated to serve, I am learning more about veteran benefits, discharge, discharge upgrades, disability issues, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, etc. I’m hopeful this experience and knowledge will parlay into a future job. Specifically, I am hoping this experience will expand my knowledge and make me eligible for a civilian JAG position in the future. At the very least, it fills what could have been a potential gap on my resume. In any career, a significant time gap on a resume can be questionable and can impact one’s career negatively. Like any job, I am also free to leave if I find another better suited position. However, be aware that this Americorps position does require me to be licensed in the state where I currently reside. Some fellowships may or may not have the same requirement, but it is an issue to take into consideration when looking at fellowships.
2. Money. In my situation, I am technically not receiving a salary. I am receiving a living stipend. Unfortunately, it does get taxed. However, I will receive an education award at the end of my term. Additionally, I may receive a tax refund given my financial situation. This education award is a lump sum payment that will go toward my student loan. The amount is around a few thousand dollars. I also do not get penalized for making additional payments and/or paying off my student loan earlier than expected. That is definitely a bonus for me. My monthly living stipend is not a large amount. I will say that it is less than what I earned as a staff attorney at my previous job. Can that be a blow to one’s ego? Yes. It’s difficult for me knowing that I am actually working and receiving less than market value. But when is life perfect? My living stipend is enough for me to put money towards retirement, which is beneficial.
Additionally, please remember that not every fellowship operates under the same terms as an Americorps fellowship. Although Americorps provides a living stipend and not a salary, there are other fellowships out there that do provide a salary. It is important to keep in mind that many fellowships do not pay the same. It all depends on the source of funding tied to the fellowship. What this also means is that any monetary compensation received is probably non-negotiable. However, because not every person/relationship/family is the same, it is important to consider the circumstances specific to you. Therefore, it is important to examine your situation and whether the parameters of a fellowship are compatible for your financial needs and requirements.
3. Insurance coverage. This may not be necessary for MSJDN members, but it can be useful to have another health insurance provider. For example, my primary health insurance provider is through my fellowship. Tricare is my secondary provider.
4. Flexibility. Under my grant, I am required to meet 1700 hours for my term of service. However, how I meet those hours is somewhat dependent on me. For example, because of the population I am designated to serve, my work takes me to court, the local Veterans Administration (VA), and the Veterans Treatment Court. I am not required to serve all my hours at the office. The hours I work at the local VA and at the 2 Veterans Treatment Courts count towards my total hour requirement. Additionally, if I take time off, I take time off. I do not have an amount of time saved up for sick leave, vacation, etc. If I am unable to work for whatever reason, then I do not accumulate hours towards my required total of 1700 hours.
As stated previously, every fellowship operates under different parameters. Some fellowships require you to serve one year and there may be rules regarding sick time, vacation, holidays, etc. The point is that all fellowships have rules, because there is a source of funding tied to the grant that specifies those rules. Before applying and/or accepting a fellowship, it is important to understand those rules to determine whether there may be any conflicts. Some things may or may not be negotiable due to funding, which is also important. While some things can be negotiated, others are not.
5. Connections. As a job within a certain profession, it allows you to meet other professionals, as well. In my case, I meet other attorneys, judges, clerks, veterans, service members, military spouses, etc. For example, the court coordinator of one the Veterans Treatment Court boards I assist is a retired Colonel. He’s a gentleman! Whenever I’ve needed accommodation or assistance from him, he’s given it. I have made a decent amount of local contacts, which help my current professional situation. Who knows whether it may help in the future. Since my husband has more PCSing in his future, that means my career will have to transition again. Therefore, my professional contacts made during this position may or may not be of assistance in my next career move. On the one hand, expanding your network of professional contacts never hurts. On the other hand, it may not necessarily assist you in the next stage of your career, especially if your military spouse has another PCS. Locals contacts generally remain local, but you never know!
At the end of the day, my suggestion is to keep an open mind. Hopefully, this article and my experience may have helped you think of and consider an opportunity you were not aware of before. Every opportunity is different. This is not a perfect situation, however, it may have benefits and can be a stop gap measure. Your individual circumstances and needs must be considered. A fellowship may not be compatible to your situation, but you never know. Every fellowship is different, which is why it is important to understand the source of funding and guidelines. Whatever it is, I hope my experience and insights have given you something different to consider when searching for employment.