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LM Feature: Military Spouse JD Network

elizabeth jamison headshotFrom the Army base at Fort Bragg to the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune—North Carolina is one of the most military friendly states in the country. North Carolina continues its tradition in supporting military families by becoming the fourth state to pass a rule modifying the requirements of comity licensure for military spouse attorneys who can prove that they reside in the state due to their spouse’s military orders.

The passing of this rule is the result of hard work on the part of the legal community and the work of the Military Spouse JD Network (MSJDN). Elizabeth Jamison is not only a military spouse, but president of the MSJDN. We had a chance to learn more about the MSJDN and the work they are doing to support military families.

LM: The Military Spouse JD Network is your “passion project.” Why is working with MSJDN so near and dear to your heart?

EJ: MSJDN is incredibly important to me because I’ve gone through career struggles due to my husband’s service. We’ve moved four times in the past six years – that’s tough on any career, but especially for attorneys who are regulated differently in each state. MSJDN was a source of great support and advice for me as I have navigated the ups and downs of my own career. I’ve dedicated my time to the organization because I want to be sure that other military spouse professionals have that same support network and source of inspiration when they face challenges during their career journeys.

LM: Can you tell us about the Military Spouse JD Network? What led founders to form the organization?

EJ: MSJDN was founded when one military spouse attorney was venting to her husband about having to take yet another bar exam after a PCS (Permanent Change of Station – military-speak for a move). He told her she should do something about it and she did! She banded together with other military spouse attorneys to ask the states to waive the bar exam and provide a temporary permit to practice for the duration of a servicemembers’ orders in a jurisdiction, as long as the military spouse was admitted and in good standing in at least one other jurisdiction. With the support of the American Bar Association and many others, Idaho became the first state to adopt a military spouse attorney licensing accommodation in 2012. Since then, 29 other jurisdictions have also adopted similar rules or policies, including North Carolina. Along the way, MSJDN expanded to do much more than licensing advocacy, also creating a pro bono program for Gold Star families, a hiring program to match supportive employers with military spouses on the job hunt, and many other resources for military families. 

LM: What have you found are some of the greatest challenges faced by other military spouses who are legal professionals?

EJ: The greatest challenge faced by military spouse attorneys is geographic instability caused by frequent moves, which typically occur every two to three years. With each state individually regulating admission to practice law, repeated relocations and re-licensing requirements wreak havoc on a career. Even in states that offer licensing reciprocity for attorneys in general, the time it takes to process a new license can be problematic given the short duration of a tour of duty.

In addition to re-licensing, with each move comes the challenge of career continuity. Not all employers are friendly to military spouses and a résumé with gaps and multiple positions is often interpreted as a red flag rather than a reflection of commitment, adaptability, and ambition.

The re-licensing issues and repeated job searches create significant challenges for career-minded military spouses. Among the spouses of active duty servicemembers in the civilian labor force, the unemployment rate is estimated as high as 25 percent. The unemployment rate for all military spouses is at least three times as high as for their civilian counterparts. 90 percent of military spouses are underemployed, meaning they possess more formal education and experience than is needed at their current position. As a result, the average military spouse earns 38 percent less than her civilian counterpart. A survey of military spouse attorneys showed that almost half had lived separately from their servicemember at some point in order to maintain a legal career. We already ask a lot of our military families and could reduce many of these challenges through common sense changes, like military spouse attorney licensing accommodations.

LM: Military spouses move around a lot. In addition to the passing of rules to modify licensure requirements, do you find that firms and legal organizations are becoming more open to having remote workers?

EJ: Yes, I do see a trend of legal employers embracing technology to retain talented attorneys. MSJDN’s annual survey shows that in 2013, only 33% of respondents reported that an employer had provided them with an opportunity to work remotely. In 2017, that number increased to 45%. I’m fortunate that my employer, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, is one of those and has allowed me to continue to work completely remotely after relocating from Washington, D.C. to San Diego, California. And it makes sense – if an employer can retain a competent attorney on their team instead of having to go through the job search again and train a new attorney, why wouldn’t they? We have so many technological tools today that allow for seamless communication, project management, and client contact. Even courts are embracing the technology and allowing for video appearances in some jurisdictions. It’s an encouraging trend that will certainly reduce barriers to sustainable careers for military spouse attorneys.

LM: What requirements do military spouses have to meet in order to practice in another state, specifically in North Carolina?

EJ: MSJDN’s Model Rule calls for a temporary permit to practice in a state for the duration of the servicemember’s tour of duty when a military spouse attorney is licensed and in good standing in another U.S. state or territory and holds a degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. Among other requirements related to character, fitness, and competency, they must not have previously failed the bar exam or been denied admission in the jurisdiction. The full text of the Model Rule can be viewed here.

North Carolina was the fourth jurisdiction to adopt a military spouse attorney licensing accommodation and has demonstrated continued commitment to supporting military families in the state, although they deviated from the MSJDN Model Rule in several ways. They provide a permanent license and require that the attorney have practiced for four out of the past eight years. The years-in-practice requirement can be problematic for military spouses who have been stationed overseas or in remote locations without substantive career opportunities. Additionally, a temporary permit is proposed in the Model Rule due to the financial burden of dues and CLE credits. For someone with multiple permanent licenses, but no longer in a jurisdiction, the costs can quickly add up; meanwhile, forfeiting a license can be seen as problematic, plus a military family never knows when they might return to a duty station! On the positive side, the North Carolina rule reduces the application fee and allows applicants to practice under supervision while waiting for approval. The rule has been a great success, with over 10 military spouse attorneys utilizing the accommodation since its enactment in 2013.

LM: What other resources are available through the MSJDN?

EJ: Beyond MSJDN’s state licensing advocacy, we also work to connect military spouse attorneys with employment opportunities. Through our Homefront to Hired program, we partner with employers committed to supporting military spouses in the workplace. At our Annual Reception this May, we recognized Bliss Lawyers, SRD Legal Group, Littler Mendelson, Hilton Hotels, the U.S. Army JAG Corps, and several other organizations for their hiring and employment practices. Members can access a jobs board and information on hiring partners on the MSJDN website. We also offer educational webinars, an annual professional development conference, local meet-ups, and other resources designed to support military spouse attorneys and law students. One of the most utilized resources is the member Facebook group, where military spouse attorneys from around the globe connect to network, share information, and support each other.

LM: Can you tell us about the Justice for Military Families initiative and how our readers can get involved?

EJ: Justice for Military Families (JMF) is a program run by the MSJDN Foundation in partnership with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) to connect Gold Star families with pro or low bono legal assistance. Families who have lost a military loved one often have various legal needs, from probate issues to landlord/tenant problems to creating a foundation to honor a fallen servicemember. Through our network of military spouse attorneys and supporters, the JMF team works to place these cases with an attorney and remove the legal stressors from these families’ lives. The program also affords military spouse attorneys an opportunity to fill a gap on a résumé and build their legal skills, while giving back to our military community. All lawyers are welcome to participate by volunteering for a case or mentoring a military spouse attorney - email jmf@msjdn.org for more information and to volunteer.

For more information visit the Military Spouse JD Network website at: https://www.msjdn.org/.

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