Unlike most attorneys, military spouse attorneys straddle the divide between military and civilian life. While building meaningful careers, they face challenges unique to military life, including lengthy separations, geographic insecurity, and assignments to remote locations. Frequent moves across the country have a particularly negative effect on military spouse attorneys, for whom state licensing requirements create daunting obstacles to practice. This has a disparate impact on women in our profession, as over 90 percent of military spouse attorneys are women.
My own military spouse journey involved four moves to different states in the last six years. Although I am licensed in California and Washington, the Navy took us to Florida, Rhode Island, and Virginia, before we returned to San Diego last year. Each move came with new career challenges, including licensing decisions and job hunts. After three moves, I was fortunate enough to find a legal position that allows for remote work and does not require state-specific licensing. This job relieves many stressors that come with military life. But for military spouse attorneys working in roles requiring a state license, the time and expense of re-licensing with each move is a significant career disruptor. Almost 50 percent of military spouse attorneys report living apart from their service member in order to maintain a legal career. Military spouses shouldn’t have to choose between their jobs and their service members’ jobs.
With these challenges in mind, I’m happy to report that on February 22nd, the California Supreme Court approved amendments to the Rules of Court, including the adoption of Rule 9.41.1, which creates a new special admissions category specific to military spouse attorneys, which went into effect on March 1, 2019. This move by the Supreme Court recognizes the unique mobility requirements of military families by granting a pathway to employment for attorney spouses of uniformed service members while on orders to our state.
As I summarized for the Military Spouse J.D. Network, a specialty bar association supporting military spouse attorneys and law students, to be eligible for special admission under Rule 9.41.1, a military spouse applicant must reside in California with their active duty service member on orders and be supervised by a member of the California bar who has actively practiced for the last two years. The supervising attorney must submit a declaration to the State Bar assuming professional responsibility for the work performed by the military spouse attorney. A military spouse may practice for five years under Rule 9.41.1. The full text of the rule can be found here.
While we applaud the progress demonstrated by the passage of Rule 9.41.1, our advocacy will continue for a rule that truly addresses the unique concerns of military spouses in the workplace. Some concerns highlighted by the Military Spouse J.D. Network and shared by Lawyers Club include:
1) Overly burdensome supervision requirement undermines the rule: Supervision requirements stigmatize military spouses already facing an estimated 28 percent unemployment rate. For example, under the current version of Rule 9.41.1, “any documents” submitted by a military spouse attorney to another party must first be read and approved by the supervising attorney. While pleadings and briefs fall under this provision, it’s unclear whether this includes even emails. This unnecessarily broad oversight reduces military spouse attorneys to a status on par with interns, regardless of actual experience. The supervision requirements in Rule 9.41.1 should be rewritten to be less burdensome so that employers are encouraged, rather than deterred, from hiring military spouses.
2) Job hunting without an approved license puts military spouse attorneys in an untenable position: Under Rule 9.41.1, a military spouse attorney must obtain a declaration from a supervising attorney in order to register for admission. This creates a logistical roadblock for military spouses on the job hunt who already face an uphill battle to find employment in a new state without an established network. Having to explain to a potential employer that they are not eligible to practice until going through a registration process after being hired means that, in reality, they are likely to be passed over for someone with a license already in hand. A better approach is to allow a military spouse to pre-register prior to the job search in order to approach potential employers with licensure established. A subsequent declaration from a supervising attorney can then be submitted once employment is secured.
Thank you to Lawyers Club for advocating on behalf of provisional licensing for military spouses without these conditions. And, we remain optimistic that these burdensome requirements could be changed in the future. The State Bar of California expressed its intent to review the implementation of Rule 9.41.1 and the impact of supervision in the next three years. Lawyers Club will continue to monitor the impact of this rule and advocate for a change that reflects appropriate public safety measures without overly burdening our military spouse colleagues in career pursuits.
Libby Jamison is an attorney, a Navy spouse, the Immediate Past President of Military Spouse J.D. Network, and works at the Department of Veterans Affairs.