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After the Bar

Career Resources

Bar Reciprocity for Military Spouses

Eric Cervone

Bar Reciprocity for Military Spouses
SDI Productions via iStock

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Being a military spouse comes with its own set of unique challenges. Having to move every several years to a new state (or country), dealing with deployments and extended time apart from your spouse, and raising a family through such instability are all prodigious challenges. Add to that trying to manage a legal career of your own, and the responsibilities can seem overwhelming.

Thankfully, there is support out there for military spouses in the legal field. For example, the Military Spouse JD Network (MSJDN) was formed in 2011 to help military spouses maintain and thrive in their legal careers. Perhaps most significantly, MSJDN has worked to improve licensing accommodations for military spouses. So far, 40 states have adopted military-spouse attorney licensing accommodations, with five additional states planning to consider such a rule. According to MSJDN, their licensing accommodation efforts are supported by the American Bar Association, the Conference of Chief Justices, US Chamber of Commerce, the Military Officers Association of America, and the National Military Family Association, among other organizations.

What These Accommodations Look Like

SJDN drafted a model rule that allows military-spouse attorneys to practice in a jurisdiction if “they are in good standing in another jurisdiction and in the state due to military orders.” Most states with military spouse accommodations have adopted rules that mirror the MSJDN model rule. Generally, so long as the attorney-spouse can pass a character and fitness test and is not subject to any disciplinary measures, a military spouse may obtain a license to practice law in a participating jurisdiction without taking the bar exam in that jurisdiction. The attorney may have to take a jurisdiction-specific continuing legal education (CLE) course within a specified period.

Such accommodations have proven invaluable for military spouses with JDs, with spouses saying that these new rules allow them to have careers in a way that they otherwise would be unable to. These licensing accommodations are relatively new, and many military spouses may not even be aware that this option exists. Idaho was the first state to adopt an accommodation in 2012, and Rhode Island was the most recent state to adopt, in October 2020.

Moving to a State with an Accommodation Rule

If you’re a military spouse who will be moving to a state that has an accommodation rule, be sure to check the specifics of your new state’s rule, as the details can vary by jurisdiction. But the primary benefit of an accommodation rule is the same in every state: you’ll have to take and pass the bar exam just one time to be eligible to practice in any state in which your spouse’s military career might take you, so long as that state has adopted an accommodation rule.

Moving to a State without an Accommodation Rule

For attorneys moving to a jurisdiction that has not adopted military spouse accommodations, there are still options to avoid having to sit for the bar exam in your new jurisdiction. You may still be able to waive into the bar—and skip the exam—through traditional reciprocity. If you are moving from one Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) jurisdiction to another, you’ll likely be able to transfer your score to your new jurisdiction. You may also want to consider roles that don’t require state licensure, such as working for the federal government, as in-house counsel, or as a legal writer.

The service and sacrifices of military families often go unrecognized in discussions about military policy. Thanks to organizations like the MSJDN, however, military spouses can at least be confident that they can grow their legal careers in many parts of the country.