by Natalie Wilson
As military spouse attorneys, we wear many hats: military family member, attorney, wife, home front manager, and more. With the title “military spouse attorney”, we are automatically giving two of those roles a primary position in our identities. MSJDN member Arden Levy is no exception. As a veteran of the Army JAG Corps who married a fellow officer while still serving on active duty, and then later went on to private practice while her spouse remained on active duty, Arden is one of a handful of our members who has experienced military attorney life from both sides, and thrived in both those roles.
I had the opportunity to speak to Arden about some of her career highlights to date, and to gather her best advice and encouragement for fellow military attorney spouses. We ended up talking on the phone for the better part of an hour, sharing our respective stories about the wild ride we each have taken as military spouse attorneys. I’m constantly amazed at the richness of our members’ experiences, and Arden’s career steps certainly are no exception. Like so many of our members, the variety in her life as an attorney is far greater than many civilian attorneys who stay in one job, one marketplace, or one city for the duration of their careers. And while the changes that military life has presented have not always been easy, it has presented options that might not otherwise have been open to her, and Arden wanted to share her experience with MSJDN to give hope and encouragement to other military spouse attorneys.
Service in the Army JAGC
Arden knew that she wanted a career where she would be writing, speaking, and problem solving, so the law was a natural fit. Beyond that, however, her career has looked nothing like she planned. A self-described “liberal Jewish girl from New Jersey,” she did not grow up around the military, and in fact, many of the adults in her community had opposed the Vietnam War and had a general distaste for the military because it was equated with the politics of that war.
After getting her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University, Arden attended George Washington (“GW”) Law School, which, unlike her hometown, had a close affiliation with the military. When she was a 3L in the fall of 1992, the firestorm that arose following the enactment of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy meant that military recruiting was heavier on some university campuses than others, and one of those places was GW. After a disappointing 2L summer clerkship experience, Arden was feeling “lost” about the direction of her career; she only knew that she wanted to be a trial lawyer.
With no real idea of what she was getting herself into, Arden decided to try being a military lawyer for three years to gain the trial experience. As she discovered, the Army JAG Corps would provide her with the trial and litigation experience she was searching for, with the added travel and adventure she wanted as a young lawyer. Within a month into her JAG Officer Basic Course, Arden felt deeply connected to the service and its values.
Her first assignment was to Ft. Hood, Texas, where she was as a Legal Assistance Attorney. Then, as jobs attached to combat units were opening up to women, Arden had the opportunity to serve as the first female trial counsel for 2nd (“Blackjack”) Brigade in the First Cavalry Division, even deploying to Kuwait with a detachment from her brigade, which was the on-call “ready” brigade in 1995. She talked about the changes that occurred during that time. For example, during her first deployment, her Brigade Commander assigned her to bunk with the other female officers and soldiers because that’s where he thought she belonged. On her second deployment, she insisted on quartering with the rest of the Brigade HQ staff. Arden joked that she became very adept at changing in her sleeping bag, but was serious about her appreciation for how staying with all of her fellow officers fostered a sense of camaraderie.
After completing her tour at Ft. Hood, Arden was reassigned to the national Capital area, where she served first in the Army’s Defense Appellate Division, and then afterwards in the Army’s civil Litigation Division, defending the Army in litigation related to military personnel issues.
During her time at Ft. Hood, Arden jokingly explained that she had no intention of dating anyone in the military and focusing on her career. However, despite what she described as her best efforts, she fell in love with a fellow Army officer, who was branched as an Intelligence officer and then transitioned into the Army’s Acquisition Corps. They eventually married.
Arden talked about how JAG military service can be an attractive possibility to attorneys married to service members, “even if the military isn’t your first choice.” When I asked Arden what advice she would give MSJDN members who are considering applying to the JAG Corps, she said that, in addition to her joint service with her husband, a great example was set by Lieutenant General Flora Darpino, the Army’s Judge Advocate General. Darpino originally joined the JAG Corps because her husband, who had been an ROTC student and owed the Army a four-year commitment, joined the JAG, and it seemed like a convenient option for Darpino to join as well. At the time, like many MSJDN members, she was simply following her husband. However, as it turned out, Darpino flourished in the military (and has been a great supporter of military spouse attorneys). As Arden’s experience demonstrates, military service provides for great legal experience without the concerns related to state-specific licensing requirements.
In Arden’s experience, the Army JAG Corps always tried to assign spouses together when it was possible. In that vein, Arden praised the career break programs that are being tested, as well as the newly announced increase in maternity leave, calling them potential “game changers” for dual military couples. Finally, she pointed out that spouses make great officers because they already understand the military culture. Moreover, even if they decide not to continue serving later, spouses who have also served in uniform are great assets to their service member spouses, having gained an appreciation for the demands of the mission.
Arden and her husband PCS’d to the Washington, DC area, although spending most of their relationship apart with different assignments and TDY travel. When deciding to have children (they now have a daughter who is 9 and a son who is 11), Arden also decided that she didn’t want to have to leave her children for deployments or TDY assignments. Since her husband, who already had served on active duty for more than 11 years, had switched to a career niche that offered the possibility of multiple assignments in the Washington, DC metro area, they decided that he would remain on active duty while Arden moved to private practice. Thus, she left active duty after 7 years, transitioning into the Reserves where she continued to serve for another 5 years. Arden joined an AmLaw100 law firm in Washington, DC law firm, focusing her practice on corporate insurance litigation and internal investigations. After almost 11 years at the firm, Arden opened her own insurance recovery law firm for two years, and then joined her current firm, Miller Friel PLLC, a boutique insurance recovery law firm, where she has remained for over 2 years so far. While she and her husband have been very fortunate over the past 15 years in that most of her husband’s assignments have been in the DC Capital region, he often is TDY overseas and CONUS. Thus, Arden often has been on her own, effectively as a single parent, like so many MSJDN members.
Comparing her private practice experiences to practicing as a JAG, Arden noted that there are positives to each type of practice. She recounted that, in addition to the camaraderie among military attorneys, one of the best aspects of being a JAG was the “enormous independence” she had as a young attorney. She recalled that as a Captain, she managed her own criminal trial case load, and also deployed to Kuwait where she was the primary legal adviser to the command. On the other hand, she noted that in private practice, a lawyer has more time to hone his or her craft and there is usually less of a “crisis mode.” However, in private practice, you are always “on call” to clients (unlike the military where she could actually unplug from work when she was on leave, noting that this was before the smart phone era). She also explained that it was challenging to transition to serving clients when the matter wasn’t connected to a mission where soldiers and officers who were putting their lives at risk. Like many former government lawyers, she also needed to adjust to being governed by the billable hour instead of by project completion.
Regardless, Arden talked about the great skills she developed as a JAG and as a military spouse that served her well afterwards. For example, Arden was enthusiastic about the ability of a military spouse to hang his or her own shingle and run a solo practice. She explained that military spouses already use many of the skills necessary to solo practice, including management skills, being comfortable relying on yourself, and making decisions on your own.
Balancing civilian practice and family responsibilities
In leaving the military, Arden lost a sense of camaraderie, both professionally and personally. She recalled one occasion where the nanny quit on Arden’s second day back to work after returning from maternity leave and one of her matters had “blown up” with some emergency deadlines. At the same time, her husband was TDY to Iraq on a stint that was supposed to be three weeks, but turned into three months (thanks, Murphy!). While she lived on a street with very nice people, she didn’t feel like she could turn to them to help her find replacement childcare. However, the resiliency and problem-solving skills she had learned as a military spouse kicked in. She switched to a live-in au pair and an extra babysitter to cover all their childcare hours. “It can be very lonely at first,” Arden reminisced, but she adapted.
I asked Arden what strengths military spouse attorneys bring to private practice that they should highlight in their application/interview process. She highlighted maturity and problem-solving skills developed from making big life-changing decisions on your own and a list of “real life experience” that is often far superior to peers who have been in the same city for most of their 20s and early 30s. This is particularly important for people with gaps in their job history, because this is what sets military spouse candidates apart from their law school peers.
Arden had lots of great advice for positioning yourself to re-enter the legal field if you take a break because of your spouse’s service (whether voluntarily or not). First, just by being a member of MSJDN, you’re doing something right! Arden explained that if you have gaps in your employment, MSJDN and other local and national legal organizations are an incredible way for attorneys to continue to be engaged and involved. Take advantage of pro-bono opportunities that provide malpractice coverage, like Justice for Military Families or pro bono opportunities through the American Bar Association, or local bar opportunities (e.g., the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project). She also encourages members to publish substantive articles and take contract work from a former employer, whenever possible, because keeping a toe in the water makes it much easier to return to full-time work when you’re ready to do so. Alternatively, legal jobs at military installations, even if not the best career fit, can be a great option to avoid any gaps in a job history. Arden believed that the JAG tries to employ civilian lawyer spouses when it can. (NB: the Army maintains a database of military spouse attorneys for civilian attorney positions. If you’re interested in being on that list, email MSJDN Board Member Ashley Ludovicy-Donahue at Ashley.M.Ludovicy-Donahue.firstname.lastname@example.org)
Finally, Arden advised that you can never network enough, you are never too junior to start, and you can never have a network that’s too big. Invest in your network, because it’s worth it. Use social media and technology to network strategically and maintain your network.
As a virtual bar association connecting military spouse attorneys across the world, MSJDN is a perfect place to start!