Many States Adapt Licensing Requirements for Attorneys who are Military Spouses

Frequent moves take a toll on military families, particularly on spouses trying to pursue careers while moving from state to state every three or four years.  The burden is heightened in fields with state-specific licensing requirements. In the past few years, most states have decided to honor professional licenses from other states for military spouses in many fields, but teaching and law are generally excluded. The daunting prospect of taking multiple bar exams is enough to convince some lawyers who are married to the military to leave the legal profession, take work that does not use their full qualifications, or live apart from their families.

Catherine Baylin Duryea
Catherine Baylin Duryea

In the past four years, fifteen states and territories have taken steps to ease the burden, primarily by allowing lawyers who move into the state because of their spouse’s military orders to practice law without taking another bar exam. The following jurisdictions have some type of licensing accommodation: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The precise accommodations and requirements vary by state.  Colorado, for example, permits lawyers whose spouses are stationed in the state to practice law without taking the Colorado state bar exam as long as they are admitted to practice in another jurisdiction, meet Colorado’s character and fitness standards, and fulfill various other procedural requirements. Other states, like New York and Massachusetts, do not have a clear rule but encourage military spouses to seek individual waivers. The Military Spouse J.D. Network (MSJDN), which advocates for licensing accommodations for military spouses, maintains a complete and updated list of state policies on its website.

States with a JD licensing accommodation for military spouses.
States with JD licensing accommodations for military spouses.

Josie Beets, President-Elect and State Licensing Director of MSJDN, notes that the legal community is often unaware of the challenges facing military families and specifically how those affect military spouses who are lawyers. “There is a misconception about what it means to be a military family in the legal community,” she says.

In a survey of 225 of MSJDN members, 82% reported that their status as a military spouse has negatively impacted their ability to work in the legal field. About half of the respondents reported living apart from their family in order to maintain their legal career.

Opponents to accommodations sometimes raise concerns about special treatment or lowered standards. “I can understand where the legal community is coming from,” says Beets, “but at the same time, it just shows a deep misunderstanding of the challenges faced by military families and especially military spouse attorneys. Moving every two or three years is brutal to a legal career.”

States often allow attorneys to practice in various circumstances without sitting for the bar exam. For example, many states allow attorneys licensed in other jurisdictions to be admitted without sitting for the bar exam if they have actively practiced law for a certain number of years, either cumulatively or within a fixed timeframe. Many military spouses cannot take advantage of these reciprocity provisions because they have not been attorneys long enough or they have not been able to practice for enough consecutive years due to frequent moves.  California, which has the most active duty military personnel of any state, notably does not have any reciprocity provisions or accommodations for military spouses.

Military Spouse JD Network

MSJDN knows of 17 attorneys taking advantage of the accommodations as of May 2015, though this may not represent the full national total. The number is relatively small, but the effect on military families is huge.

Jake Klonoski, SLS  ’13, plans to take advantage of Colorado’s licensing accommodation later this year. His wife, Katie Potter, is a Judge Advocate General stationed at Buckley Air Force base.  “[Colorado’s licensing accommodation] allows me to have a career,” Klonoski says. “Otherwise, basically it’s always the traditional choice in the military that one spouse has a career and the other has jobs that support the career. In legal work, that’s especially difficult because you need continuity and so many certifications. I know people whose spouses had to give up their career because they moved around too much. This allows us both to have careers and support one another.”

Klonoski, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, recalls the career sacrifices his wife made when she accompanied him on an assignment to Italy after her graduation from law school.  She was unable to practice for two years. “My military service definitely impacted her career,” he says. Licensing accommodations may make it possible for him to avoid those kinds of gaps. “I hope it takes hold everywhere. It’s a win for everybody. It’s such an easy policy to implement and to see the benefit of.”

Catherine Baylin Duryea (Stanford BA ’06, JD ’14, PhD ’17) is a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern history. She and her husband, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, currently live in Rabat, Morocco, where she is researching Arab human rights organizations.