March 01, 2018 Feature

Changing the Rules for Military Spouse Lawyers

By Ann Farmer

By the time Laura Schmiegel studied and passed her fourth state bar exam in 2001, she’d pretty much had it.

She and her Army infantry officer husband moved four times in six years—from Washington State to D.C. to Georgia to New York. Each time he was reassigned, Schmiegel (who was then Laura Dempsey) had to sit for the bar exam to secure a license to keep practicing. In addition to the effort of preparing for each exam, she was shelling out thousands of dollars for the educational materials and licenses and maintaining yearly dues on all four in case she returned to a state.

“I was really feeling frustrated,” says Schmiegel, who currently works as the military programs lead for Booz Allen Hamilton, in McLean, Virginia. Her career emphasis, then, however, was representing foster children in family court or providing legal expertise on other child and family issues. “As soon as I would sort of get my feet under me and start succeeding in the new city we were in,” she recalls, “we’d be done there and moving again.”

Her situation, it turns out, is common for lawyers married to servicemen and women. This is why the Military Spouse JD Network (MSJDN), a 700-member bar association based in Fort Myer, Virginia, lobbies states to make licensing accommodations for military spouse lawyers who must hopscotch across the country to support their spouse’s military orders. It also serves as a networking and educational tool, teaching the public, for instance, about the challenges of military families to remain upwardly mobile in the face of routine upheaval.

“It’s a tough life. There are a lot of sacrifices we make,” says Schmiegel, who served on the founding board of MSJDN, which, in the handful of years since its launch in 2011, has proven effective. Currently, 26 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands have adopted new rules to accommodate milspouses (military spouses), in many cases allowing them to become licensed without examination provided they are in good standing elsewhere and meet competency standards. (See map on page 16.)

Some states also have slashed or eliminated the cost of studying for a new license and/or reduced fees for admission-on-motion and bar exam applications. The waivers usually apply for as long as their military spouse is stationed in that state.

“And we’re going to keep on going,” says Mary Reding, who co-founded MSJDN, which aims to eventually get all 50 states on board. “We cannot wait until the day when we are no longer needed.”

Reding, who currently serves as the director of the U.S. Office of Executive Councils, began as a corporate lawyer in California. After marrying her Air Force pilot husband, he received orders to move four times in seven years. By the time they landed in Dayton, Ohio, in 2010, Reding felt discouraged at having to build her client base and legal reputation once again. “I felt really alone,” she recalls.

She had no idea how many other milspouse lawyers were facing similar issues. But with the support of an Ohio women’s lawyer association, she set out to find them. She set up a Facebook page and soon had participants sharing their stories.

“One woman had taken and passed five separate bar exams,” Reding says. “It made me so proud of the fact that they were willing to do that to support their spouse’s military career and to support our country and to maintain a legal practice.”

To better understand its constituency, MSJDN conducts an annual survey, inviting its members, plus any other military spouse lawyers, to participate. The latest 2016 survey determined that 96 percent are women. Most are married to officers. About half have moved three or more times. On average, families receive permanent change-of-station orders every two to three years, which makes it difficult to advance in the field. (See page 16 for more information from the survey.) “I am forever applying for entry-level attorney positions because I only have one to three years of experience in any given area,” a Navy spouse lawyer posted on the MSJDN website.

In the same survey, approximately 32 percent reported having to live separately to continue working as a lawyer. Katherine Goyette, who graduated from law school in 2010 and married an Army serviceman, stayed behind in Kansas for almost five years working as a lawyer for the state legislature while her husband was either deployed overseas or transferred to different duty stations in the United States. “I couldn’t follow him because those states didn’t have a milspouse rule at the time,” she explains.

While her husband was stationed at Fort Carson, however, in 2014 the Colorado Supreme Court adopted a rule that benefits milspouse lawyers. Goyette pounced. Before, it might have taken her months to study and sit for the Colorado state bar test because it’s only available twice a year, plus she would’ve chalked up additional lost time waiting for the actual license to arrive. Thanks to the exception, however, “it was a quick turnaround,” says Goyette, who received her law license just weeks after applying and subsequently landed a job as Deputy DA in Pueblo, Colorado, where she worked for the duration of their stay.

Early on, the American Bar Association (ABA) threw its support behind the MSJDN effort. In February 2012, the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and the ABA House of Delegates adopted a resolution urging state and territorial bar admission authorities to admit the lawyer spouses of military personnel to state bars without examination and to offer them reduced bar application and membership fees. Two months later, Idaho became the first state to enact a rule change.

“To have the American Bar Association and specifically the Commission on Women behind us was just a huge morale boost for all of us,” Reding says. “That we were supported by our colleagues and peers. And they recognized our sacrifice and service as well.”

The subsequent 25 states to pass licensing accommodations require different procedures to achieve the rule change. “A lot of it is networking and using real strong lobby and advocacy skills to learn the process in each individual state,” Reding notes.

To assist states in the process, MSJDN developed a template rule that is modeled on other admission-on-motion rules. “We have met the standards,” Reding says.

By enacting these rules in support of milspouse lawyers, states are also helping to strengthen and stabilize the military. Retention is a big issue. When two-income military households are forced to operate for periods of time with only one breadwinner—making it that much harder to save for retirement, send kids to college, or pay off school loans—they are more likely to consider transitioning out of the service.

“At the same time,” Schmiegel says, “you’re looking at your peers who graduated with the same degree that you did, and you see them getting ahead every year, and you’re not. So there are a lot of difficult conversations between these military families that occur about whether to stay in and serve.”

Schmiegel, in fact, did quit law to go into developing and managing military family nonprofits, starting with Blue Star Families. Currently, she manages Booz Allen Hamilton’s military nonprofit partnerships and advises on military recruiting and employee engagement. She’s proud to report that Booz Allen Hamilton recently won the USAA Military Spouse Employment and Mentoring Award from the US Chamber of Commerce.

Goyette, meanwhile, recently learned that her husband’s next change of duty is to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, which comes as a relief. Located on the border with Tennessee, Fort Campbell is in reasonable commuting distance to Nashville, where she anticipates ample lawyer job opportunities. “Tennessee has a great rule,” she says, that allows her to live on post in Kentucky and still practice in Tennessee. This way, she says, “I can support my husband and I can practice law.”

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Ann Farmer

Ann Farmer is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, New York, who primarily writes about pop culture and legal topics. A former producer for Court TV, she also spent years covering crimes and local breaking news for the New York Times.