I have a four-year-old boy living in my house, so superheroes loom large in my life. We own multiple Captain America action dolls. We have a basketball team of Iron Mans. My son has broken more than one of his sister’s Lego sets pretending to be the Hulk. I have learned about the Marvel Universe, the DC Universe, the Tobey Maguire Spider-man versus the Andrew Garfield Spider-man, and the best of the Iron Man movies (number 3, no question).

As my superhero education has expanded, I’ve grown an appreciation for the origin story. Superheroes come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have an origin story. Whether it’s Batman and his parents’ tragic death in an alley or Peter Parker and a spider bite, each one has back-story revealing how they got their powers, how they came to be who they are, and the reason they do what they do.

MSJDN has an origin story, too. The incredible power of the military spouse community is our superpower. Our origin story is an important one — it allows us to reflect and realize how we came to be and how far we’ve come. As we near our Annual Reception (buy tickets here), celebrating all our recent success, including recent victories in Michigan and Alaska, it’s worth remembering how improbable this might have seemed when we started just a few short years ago.

Special thanks to Anna Rabe, who drafted this origin story after interviewing countless members involved in the founding days of MSJDN.

In the early 2000s, Mary Reding had a thriving legal career. After graduating from the University of San Diego School of Law, she accepted a job as in-house counsel for Pebble Beach Company. Then she met her husband – a fighter pilot in the Air Force – and soon found herself living overseas. While living abroad, Mary was able to maintain her career by working as a management consultant. Then her family relocated to Dayton, Ohio, later followed by moves to Arizona and DC.

MSJDN members gather for the first time at the Old Ebbitt Grill, Washington, DC, on October 17, 2011.

Upon returning to the United States, Mary was confronted with the fact that maintaining her legal career could mean taking bar exam after bar exam if she and her children wanted to remain united with her husband as he continued to PCS for his military obligations. In addition to the daunting task of taking repeated bar exams, there was the issue of timing – Mary recalls that she quickly missed the deadline for the next Ohio bar exam and would have had to wait until the next summer to take it. Frustrated, Mary found herself venting to her husband, who (fortunately for military spouse attorneys around the world!) told her to “do something about it.” And so she did.

Some of the founding members of MSJDN’s first Board of Directors in Summer 2012. L-R: Lori Volkman, Mary Reding, Laura Dempsey, Rachel Winkler, Samantha Musso, Eleanor Vuono, Erin Wirth.

In 2009, Mary wrote a brief that was supported by the Ohio Women’s Bar Association suggesting a change to the rules governing admission to benefit military spouse attorneys. Mary found help and support in the Ohio legal community, but when asked how many people the proposed rule change would affect, Mary had to answer: “Just me. It affects me.” Mary had never met another military spouse attorney, although she reasoned that there must be others out there in the same position.

Then in 2011, Mary received a phone call from Erin Wirth – an administrative law judge in D.C. married to a Coast Guard officer and looking for other people like her. Erin had discovered the 2009 Report & Recommendation from the Ohio Women’s Bar Association and reached out to Mary. Thus, in the summer of 2011, MSJDN was born.

Lt General Richard Harding, then Air Force Judge Advocate General, and Major General Steven Lepper, then Deputy Air Force Judge Advocate General, with Mary Reding and Eleanor Vuono at the Pentagon on February 15, 2012.

Not long after that, Mary received an email from Rachel Winkler, a young lawyer who had just graduated from law school and married an active duty servicemember. Mary remembers forwarding the email to her mother, saying: “It’s happening. I found another one.” Feeding off of Rachel’s energy and driven by her own determination to connect and help other military spouse attorneys, Mary stayed up all night and built MSJDN’s first website.

Since 2011, MSJDN has grown from its two founders to identify over 1,200 military spouse attorneys. What started as an informal group advocating for support is now an official bar association with approximately 600 dues-paying members and thousands of supporters and fans around the globe.

Katie McDonough and Christine Bacon represented MSJDN at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring Our Heroes New York City Hiring Fair on June 21, 2012.

In the beginning, MSJDN was laser-focused on rule changes at the state level to accommodate military spouse attorneys and success on that front has been remarkable. In less than six years, MSJDN has seen the American Bar Association adopt a resolution encouraging bar admission authorities to accommodate the unique needs of military spouse attorneys, the Conference of Chief Justices encouraging the adoption of rules regarding admission of attorneys who are dependents of servicemembers, and an incredible twenty-four states (plus the U.S. Virgin Islands) adopt licensing accommodations for military spouse attorneys.

As the success and membership of MSJDN grew, so did MSJDN as an organization. In the early years of the organization, Mary and other leaders traveled the country at their own expense, spending thousands of their own dollars to advocate for rule changes, educate the public, and grow the network of military spouse attorneys. Since that time, MSJDN has developed into a formal organization, a Virginia corporation with 501(c)(6) nonprofit bar association status. In 2013, MSJDN formed the Military Spouse JD Network Foundation, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit arm that houses the state licensing and pro bono work. These two organizations make up what we know as MSJDN today. Funding for MSJDN now comes from numerous sources, including membership dues, grants, and donations to the tax-exempt nonprofit, rather than solely from the pockets of the leadership.

Mary Reding and Lori Volkman with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-05) at the Blue Star Families Military Lifestyle Survey Release in May 2012.

MSJDN has also developed a robust committee structure, encouraging members around the world to get involved and take on leadership roles in all aspects of the organization. Committee directors serve on the board to facilitate communication and collaboration across the leadership. Current committees include Communications, Finance, Governance, Membership, Pro Bono, and State Licensing. Through these committees and the tireless work of MSJDN volunteers, the focus of the organization has expanded beyond licensing to include:

  • Hiring initiatives – Homefront to Hired was formed in 2013 to build MSJDN’s partnerships with organizations committed to hiring military spouse attorneys. Organizations like the U.S. Army JAG, Prudential, and Hire An Esquire work with MSJDN to share job listings and match military spouse attorneys with available positions.
  • Pro bono work – In 2013, MSJDN started a Pro Bono Committee to focus on serving the legal needs of military families while also providing opportunities for military spouse attorneys to build their legal skills. Justice for Military Families (JMF), a project of the Pro Bono Committee, was established to connect Gold Star families with military spouse attorneys and their networks to fill their legal needs at no cost. MSJDN has partnered with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors to make sure the legal needs of families who have paid the ultimate price of freedom are filled by attorneys who understand the issues they face. In just a few years, JMF has served over 80 Gold Star Families and developed a comprehensive legal guide on custody for Gold Star grandparents.
  • Member programs – The website houses forums for networking, a jobs board, member discounts, resource libraries, and much more. The Membership Committee works to partner with organizations for discounts and executes free monthly webinars for members and runs our wonderful mentorship program.
  • Events – MSJDN plans two annual signature in-person events: Making the Right Moves, a day-long professional development conference for military spouse attorneys; and the Annual Reception, our yearly celebration of our success and where we honor MSJDN members and employers for excellence in support of our community.

2 Comments, RSS

  • Rachel Winkler

    says on:
    April 3, 2017 at 10:09 am

    Love this article!!!

  • Eleanor Vuono

    says on:
    April 3, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    I hope all MSJDN members, “old” and “new”, will take a few minutes to reflect on how much we’ve accomplished in just a few short years. And with an all-volunteer group of lawyers! It hasn’t been easy and we still have much to do, but it’s a great reminder of the incredible power of the military spouse community!