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Lower the Licensing Barriers So We May Serve

Eleanor Magers Vuono '95

By Eleanor Magers Vuono ’95

When I think of military spouses, these words come to mind: strong, adaptable, heroic, passionate, and committed. When I think of military spouses who are trying to maintain careers and professions while packing and moving to a new state every two or three years, different words come to mind: stymied, challenged, frustrated, and often under-employed. As we head into our second decade fighting the nation’s wars, it is time to address these employment challenges for military spouses with simple fixes to state licensing and employment rules. The ability to find rewarding work makes sense for everyone: the military benefits when there is strong family support, the service member is more likely to stay in if the spouse is happy with the lifestyle, and the spouse is able to contribute his or her unique talents to the communities where they live.

I have known many military spouses, because I have been in the military – in one role or another -- since I was born in a military hospital in Germany in 1970. My father was an Army lawyer and we moved routinely, so I attended four different high schools in four years. I attended Princeton University on an Army ROTC scholarship, then the Law School. After clerking for a federal judge for one year, I served on active duty as an Army lawyer. I left active duty service after I fell in love in with an Army officer in the halls of the Pentagon, married him, and became an Army wife.

Now, I am in a unique position: I am a military spouse attorney, desiring to work in my chosen profession, all the while facing a new state licensing process each time my husband receives his next assignment. The challenges of being a lawyer married to the military are formidable and the exercise is expensive. My story is typical, but worth sharing. I passed the Virginia bar exam after graduating from law school. I quickly waived in to the District of Columbia bar, because its rules were accommodating. When I left active duty military service, I moved to Fort Hood, Tex., with my husband. I was able to waive in to the Texas bar because I just met the rule requiring legal practice for five out of seven years. However, I was required to take the multi-state ethics exam again. The timing was challenging. We had two children under the age of three, and my husband was deploying to Iraq. I also was serving as the battalion’s family readiness group advisor at the time.

In 2008 my husband took command of a brigade at Fort Jackson, S.C. I learned of his orders too late that year to take the February exam, and we moved in the midst of the July exam. It was not worth the time or expense to take the following year’s exam, knowing that we would be leaving in another 16 months. Columbia, S.C. has an active legal community that is very welcoming and supportive of military families. Like most states, South Carolina also has a tremendous need for attorneys who are willing to serve the legal needs of military families and veterans. I very much would have liked to join that bar, but as the rules currently exist, it simply was not feasible.

Although military spouses serve willingly, we also sacrifice greatly in our chosen role. Each state bar examination often costs between $4,000 and $5,000 for preparation materials and fees. Licensing may take up to a year for the application process, the character review, the two- to three-day examination and waiting for the results. I have given up working as a lawyer at times, because the licensing barriers have been too high. At other times, I have worked behind the scenes, or been underpaid, or worked for free. At all times, I have the continued expense of maintaining annual bar fees in the several states where I am licensed, so that I do not lose my status in the event the military sends us back to one of those locations.

Military spouses are simply asking for state licensing rules that minimize the inherent burdens that come with our military service. As we seek to balance support for our spouse’s career with our personal and professional goals, there are many simple solutions that would make our jobs easier. One simple fix would be the ability to waive into a state bar if we already are licensed and in good standing elsewhere. Another easy solution would be reduced bar fees for military spouses who maintain multiple licenses. Many states offer a reduced rate for lawyers who serve in the judiciary. It would be a simple matter to expand that category to include military spouses. Military spouse attorneys are a talented bunch. Our legal skills can make a positive difference in the communities where we live, particularly in the unique world of military families and veterans. We just need the opportunity to serve. 

I am optimistic that change is on the horizon. Recent White House initiatives led by Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the Vice President, have brought much-needed attention to the employment challenges facing military spouses. The Military Spouse JD Network (“MSJDN”) formed last summer to help military spouse attorneys network with and support one another. In February the American Bar Association House of Delegates passed Resolution 108 at the midyear meeting in New Orleans. Resolution 108 encourages state bar authorities to adopt rules that accommodate the unique needs of military spouse attorneys who move frequently in the nation’s defense. Idaho became the first state in the nation to adopt a rule change allowing qualified military spouses to practice law without the burden of an additional bar license. MSJDN has submitted rule change proposals in Virginia, California, Ohio, Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, and New York.

Every day, I am grateful for my husband, for his service, and for this country that I love. It seems appropriate that we also acknowledge the hard-working military spouses who sacrifice as well. But more than just saying “thank you,” it is time to take the simple steps to lower licensing barriers and to improve access to employment opportunities for our military spouses.

Eleanor Magers Vuono currently is an adjunct professor at Catholic Law School in Washington D.C., while her husband, Col. Tim Vuono, works on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon. She also works as a freelance writer for small law firms, handling trial and appellate briefs. She is an active member of the MSJDN.