By Lisa Daniel
WASHINGTON, June 27, 2012 - Lori Volkman was in college when she confronted what some would approach as an either-or situation: marry the Navy pilot she'd fallen in love with, or head for law school for the career she was passionate about.
Volkman had grown up in a Navy family and she knew she couldn't have it both ways – at least not at the same time. "I knew exactly what was involved in that," she told me when we spoke on June 25, 2012.
Not only would frequent relocations prevent her from practicing law, "I didn't even know if we'd be anywhere long enough for me to finish law school," she said. "I knew as Navy brat that there was a very real possibility of having only two-year duty stations."
So Volkman and her husband came to an agreement: he would leave active duty for the Navy reserves, and she would go to law school.
Volkman, the deputy prosecuting attorney for Clark County in Washington state, says she is both fortunate and atypical of military spouse lawyers. "I'm one of the few who have enjoyed working in the same place for 12 years," she said.
Just over a year ago, Volkman signed on to helping other military spouses pursue their careers in law after Erin Wirth, a federal administrative law judge and Coast Guard wife, asked her to join her and Mary Reding, another military spouse attorney, in starting The Military Spouse JD Network. Wirth had moved seven times in 15 years, and sometimes did not relocate with her husband, to maintain her law career even when it meant taking jobs below her experience level, Volkman said.
Wirth and Reding had "met" online, Volkman said, when "neither one knew another military spouse attorney. They simply put their contact information out there, and now we know of hundreds more just one year later."
"We don't know how many there are and that's exactly why we started this organization," Volkman said, to both identify military spouses who are attorneys and help them maintain their law careers.
In the year that the network has been in existence, it has promoted the need for military spouse attorney licensing reform – with progress in 15 states -- with the support of the American Bar Association, the National Conference of Women's Bar Associations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Military Family Association, and the Military Officers Association of America, Volkman said.
MSJDN also has been recognized by "Joining Forces," the program First Lady Michelle Obama – also an attorney -- and Dr. Jill Biden started to support military families, and the need for military spouse licensing reform was the subject of a joint report issued by the departments of Defense and Treasury in February, she said.
Specifically, the network encourages Bar Associations to petition state supreme courts and state appeals courts to waive rules for military spouses, such as taking multiple bar exams, or those that require multiple consecutive years of practice in one state. Law licenses are not covered under an ongoing effort by "Joining Forces" and the Defense Department to petition state legislatures to ease occupational license transfers between states for military spouses.
The request is not without precedent, Volkman said, many states recognize "reciprocity" with neighboring states to waive bar exams and have other special considerations for groups of lawyers, such as military judge advocate generals.
Law licenses "can be more portable if we give military spouses the same benefits as other categories of lawyers," she said. "We are just asking states to recognize that our moves are often cross-country" and that military spouse relocations are not voluntary.
And, Volkman added, all of the network's proposed rule changes require the same of military spouse attorneys as other attorneys, such as maintaining the education credits specific to each state, and understanding that a state law license will not transfer with them.
"Our main focus is the rule changes in every state to make law a more portable career option," she said. "It's a great profession. I feel like it gives military spouses the opportunity to have a professional career, instead of whatever job they can get at their duty station."
The network, Volkman said, is important to connect spouses who often feel alone in their efforts to pursue a law career. "One of the things we found out about military spouses is that, as attorneys, a lot of them are working fulltime and are not connected to the military spouse community because they're so busy. The thing that surprises me is every attorney I meet through this network says, 'I thought I was the only one.'"
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