February 22, 2018

Country, Commitment, and a JD Career

Kaitlin Dean

When you are a military spouse attorney, achieving work-life balance can seem nearly impossible. The combination of deployments, unpredictable schedules, and frequent relocations to sometimes extremely isolated military bases shifts the focus of a military spouse attorney from maintaining and growing a career in law to the mere ability to find stable employment. The ongoing battle of finding work-life balance as an attorney often takes a backseat to the actual battles your significant other is engaged in across the world.

Beginning and maintaining a legal career while supporting your spouse’s military commitment creates incredible barriers. Many military spouse attorneys move every two to three years, sometimes on short notice. If an attorney is relatively new to the practice of law, as I was when I married my servicemember, and has not been in practice long enough to gain reciprocity, that attorney is faced with many daunting fears: Does this move coincide with the bar application deadline? Am I going to be able to find and convince an employer to hire me, knowing that I may have to move at any moment? Do I really have to pay to take another bar exam? How do I explain my employment gaps? Should I keep my bar license active in this state? Will I even get past the bar application process in time to find a job before we change duty stations again?

Luckily, in 2011, two military spouses frustrated with the challenges of maintaining a legal career seemingly incompatible with the military lifestyle formed the Military Spouse JD Network (MSJDN). MSJDN has been instrumental in advocating for licensing accommodations for military spouse attorneys, removing employment barriers and providing a supportive network for attorneys married to servicemembers.

MSJDN, recognizing each state supreme court holds unique rules regarding the admission to practice law, took a state-by-state approach, drafting a Model Rule to assist each jurisdiction in writing their own rule to support military spouse attorneys. In February 2012, the ABA House of Delegates adopted a resolution supporting state licensing accommodations for military spouse attorneys, and in April 2012 Idaho became the first state to approve such accommodation.

While there has been a dramatic increase in support efforts to reduce employment barriers for military spouses in the legal profession, numerous issues continue to confront military spouse attorneys. Many of the rules enacted by state licensing authorities are significant and potentially career-debilitating. Some rules require the spouse attorney to maintain an active license in one state to gain temporary licensure in another, meaning the military spouse attorney must maintain multiple bar dues and continuing education requirements. Other states mandate the immediate loss of the ability to practice law in a jurisdiction if your servicemember is discharged, separates, or retires from active duty service, or even more frightening, when your servicemember unexpectedly receives notice of a permanent change of duty station. Some rules even state that if the attorney ceases to be classified as a “dependent” on the spouse’s official military orders, the attorney can no longer practice in the jurisdiction under the rule.

Military life is not for everyone, but having a successful career as an attorney and being a military spouse should not be mutually exclusive. Even in states that have passed their own versions of MSJDN’s Model Rule, military spouse attorneys will be significantly disadvantaged against most civilian attorneys. For example, a military spouse attorney who has not been in “active practice” long enough to meet reciprocity requirements must consider that they may immediately lose the ability to practice law in their current jurisdiction because of a personal family situation, such as a divorce or spouse’s separation from service.

When I started law school I had no idea I was going to end up married to the military. I began working with MSJDN in January 2012, just prior to the ABA House of Delegates adopting the resolution supporting changes for state licensing for military spouses. My husband was about to deploy to Afghanistan, I was a 2L, and I had no idea where the military would take us.

Since that time, my husband has served on three separate deployments. After taking my first bar exam, I found a job working at a law firm in a small town with a population of 5,753. Nine months later, we received notice that we would be moving again. A military move is called a “permanent change of station” (PCS), and my husband was again deployed with his new unit before we could even pack. I moved our belongings to a new state, far from family and friends, and prepared to take another bar exam two weeks later.

While potential employers are not legally allowed to inquire about marital status in a job interview, it is understandable that they would be curious as to what prompted my recent move to the area, especially because I did not know any local practicing attorneys. I decided to present my position as a proud military spouse attorney as a positive attribute, one which had given me an extremely diverse legal background, practicing various areas of law across numerous jurisdictions.

Our last PCS did not take us to a state that had a rule providing accommodations for military spouse attorneys, and I was thrilled to find that other military spouse attorneys had already begun such efforts. In June 2015, I addressed the Kentucky Supreme Court during an open hearing on the proposed rule during the Kentucky Bar Association Annual Meeting. Effective January 1, 2016, the Kentucky Supreme Court enacted Rule 2.113, making Kentucky the 15th state to adopt a rule removing licensure barriers for military spouse attorneys. Currently, 26 states and the US Virgin Islands have military spouse attorney licensing accommodations, and efforts are underway in 17 other states. It is my hope that state supreme courts, bar associations, and the military and legal communities continue to recognize and support military spouse attorneys and their commitment to our armed forces, as well as their careers in the legal profession.

Kaitlin Dean

Kaitlin Dean practices in the areas of criminal defense and family law at the Law Office of Kaitlin Smith Dean in Louisville, Kentucky.