By Sarah Ford
In a household that functions under a norm of constant change, it has been the ultimate obstacle to become a strong attorney. The successful practice of law appears to demand the status quo and an unbreakable consistency. Therefore, it would seem to follow that the successful practice of law as a military spouse attorney is impossible. Somewhere, in all of the PCS moves, all of the changes in areas of expertise, and all of the uncertainty of what the next summer will bring, I have become a professional lawyer—maybe even a successful one.
At some point during my day, I begin an email with: I am Sarah Ford, and I am the labor law attorney at XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg. There are two dozen reasons that I never would have believed those words two years ago. Two years ago, I was volunteering three to four full days a week at the front desk of Fort Campbell Client Services Division. My tasks ranged from pure clerical, to paralegal, to research so other attorneys could advise on the information I had found. I felt unbelievably thankful for the opportunity but highly unsettled. I wondered if this would be my life.
In August 2014 and newly married, I moved from Texas to Clarksville, Tennessee with the naïve conviction that my two years as a prestigious Equal Justice Works Fellow would guarantee my employment as an attorney. I felt lost, angry, and hopeless most days. About this time in 2015, an amazing community of military spouse attorneys changed my life.
Recognizing my struggles, my neighbor, Josie Beets, suggested that I email my resume to Ashley Ludovicy-Donahue at the Army’s Office of The Judge Advocate General, who is a military spouse attorney herself. She explained that Ashley, the Assistant Chief of Career Program 56, was the guardian of a military spouse attorney database that was used to fill Army civilian attorney vacancies by noncompetitively appointing military spouse attorneys into positions. I immediately emailed Ashley my resume. Not only did Ashley happily take my resume for her database, she offered to help edit my resume and maximize my job search for other federal jobs. Her input and advice was invaluable. In February 2015, Ashley posted on the MSJDN Facebook page, asking if anyone was moving near Fort Lee. Still a relatively new Army spouse, I googled to find out if Fort Lee fell anywhere near Charlottesville, our prospective next duty station. With my husband set to spend a year in Charlottesville, the one-year position at Fort Lee was ideal. Of course, the position was that of a Claims attorney.
Just like every other 1L, I had suffered through Torts; however, in no way did I feel as though that qualified me to practice the Federal Tort Claims Act every day. I emailed Ashley my concerns, and her words were comforting. She even offered to provide advice throughout my tenure, as she had also been a Claims attorney. Thus, Ashley had permission to send my resume to Fort Lee. About two months later, I received a call from Lieutenant Colonel Kelli Petersen interviewing me for the position of Chief of Claims at Fort Lee. Several weeks later, I received an unofficial offer. While driving home from a Nashville Women’s Bar Association luncheon with another military spouse attorney, Alexis Wright Conniff, I accepted the job at Fort Lee. I had spent the car ride to the luncheon voicing my concerns to Alexis about finding a job in Virginia.
My job at Fort Lee was not always easy. I never fell in love with the area of law, but I came to relish the strides I made—as a supervisor and as a lawyer with diverse skills. When the area of claims did not bring the fulfillment that my non-profit work had previously given me, I turned to MSJDN’s pro bono program, Justice for Military Families (JMF). JMF seeks to find legal assistance for Gold Star families on a pro bono and lo bono basis. Our fearless Director, Gabriela Nostro, pushed the program to grow and flourish. The program under her leadership gave me an outlet to find the fulfillment and feel as though I was making a difference. The military spouse attorneys on our JMF team inspire me.
In January 2016, my husband texted me: It looks like we are going to Fort Bragg. I quickly learned that the North Carolina military spouse rule would not likely be able to benefit me. Frustrated and convinced that I was destined to repeat my time in Tennessee, I started applying to any and all jobs that did not require a license in North Carolina. One afternoon, I received an email from the Chief of Administrative Law at XVIII Airborne Corps, asking if I might be interested in working there. Now, I work as the Labor Counselor. I probably should have taken more time to sound less desperate when I replied empathically that I definitely was interested.
At a reception for the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to meet Lieutenant General Flora Darpino, The Judge Advocate General for the Army. State Licensing Director, Karen Scanlan, boldly stated that my employment at Fort Bragg was a product of the Army’s military spouse attorney placement program. With her interest piqued, I told LTG Darpino my story. She expressed her pleasure that the program had been able to transfer my position as my husband moved. She told me that this was the original intent of the program and was thrilled with the change it was affecting in the lives of military spouses.
Moving every one to two years is not always easy, but I am thrilled that I have found a place for my professional self, separate from that of my husband. I go to work each day and feel excited, challenged, and engaged. My co-worker is also a military spouse attorney, and the support and bond we have has been immeasurable. Luck and good fortune has dictated much of my success, because I have had a military spouse attorney at every step–supporting me, building me up, and pushing me. I might have found success on my own. However, I strongly believe that we are better together, as a community of military spouse attorneys who want to work for the common success of us all. I think our community recognizes that we are better together and that the successes of each individual is a success for us all.