by Jasmine Green McNamara
Choosing where to take the bar exam is the easiest part of becoming a lawyer for most law graduates. For military spouse lawyers, it’s one of the most difficult and frequent issues we face in our professional lives.
Many military spouses’ stories begin as mine did:
My first year of law school went as expected. I was born and raised in Alabama, completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Alabama, and went on to law school at, you guessed it, the University of Alabama. Trust me, I am an Alabama girl. I never imagined that I would take a bar exam outside of the state of Alabama.
As luck would have it, this Alabama girl met my now husband, Brian, during my first year of law school. At the time, Brian was an active duty Navy pilot completing his flight training on the T-45 not far from the University of Alabama. We dated for a while and were engaged not long after. I had no prior experience with the military, and I was unable to fully comprehend how the next step in Brian’s career would clash with the next step in my own.
At the end of my second year of law school, Brian’s winging ceremony was held, and we were to find out where his next duty station would be. At his winging, Brian selected jets and received orders to Virginia. I still remember the exact moment we found out and how I felt about the professional challenges ahead. I had my entire life planned out – I was practically already an Alabama lawyer! This was completely unfair! Thus, I was presented with my first challenge as a military spouse and a military spouse attorney: Where to take the bar exam.
Should I take it where I grew up, went to law school, and knew I wanted to live after my husband’s service? Or should I take it in our new state, where I planned to search for a job during our time there? Or both?
The answer seems easy, I know. Just take both! But it truly is not that easy. I knew that I wanted to take Alabama because I grew up there, went to school there, and would eventually live there again. The problem with taking the Virginia bar exam for me was timing. We only had 2 years left on our orders to Virginia and the next bar exam was several months away. By the time I got my bar results, I would only be able to practice for one year, max, before it was time for our next orders. And possibly another bar exam.
Luckily, I was connected with the Military Spouse J.D. Network. Through this network of military spouse attorneys, I was introduced to other men and women in the same or similar circumstances as my own, and the resource has been invaluable. Together with help from other MSJDN members, I’ve compiled a useful list of factors to consider when deciding where to take the bar exam:
Where are you from? Do you plan on returning?
If you’re like me and plan on returning to your home state, it might be smart to knock that bar exam out of the way early so it’s smooth sailing to practice there later in your career.
Where do you envision your future?
If you know where you will eventually reside, it’s not a bad idea to consider taking the bar exam for that state while you’re in the habit of studying.
Where did you go to law school?
Sometimes it’s smart to take the bar exam where you went to law school. You’ve likely had some sort of intro to that state’s law during the course of your law degree that could prove useful on the bar exam for that state.
How long until your next set of orders? Frequency of moves? How many years remaining in military service?
Similar to my story, sometimes it doesn’t make sense to take a bar exam in a state with no reciprocity (to be discussed) if you have only a short time left in that state or a short time left in the military, and you do not plan to return.
Are you taking the UBE/MBE?
The #1 factor leading the discussion in our MSJDN group was reciprocity. If all else fails and none of these factors apply, it’s always a good idea to pick a state that has a bar exam that reciprocates with several other states, even if it means only showing up for essay day.
Are you applying for jobs? Do you have a job offer?
If you have a job offer or are searching for a job in a particular state, it might be good idea to take that state’s bar exam.
Does your law firm practice in multiple states?
Some law firms practice equally in multiple states for various reasons and may look favorably upon, or even require, multiple licensures.
What area of law do you want to practice?
Not all areas of law require a particular state’s bar exam. For example, if you plan to practice in-house or work on document review, you may only need to be licensed in any one (1) U.S. jurisdiction. In this case, I’d go with a UBE state, just in case.
What is the cost of bar dues and CLEs?
Bar dues and CLEs really add up when you’re licensed in multiple jurisdictions. It’s worth your time to research the expense involved.
Does the state offer reduced fees/CLE hours for inactive members?
States that offer reduced fees/CLE hours for inactive members are appealing for military spouses because we may acquire multiple licensures that we don’t necessarily need long-term.
Will your law firm pay for exam prep and bar exam expenses?
Sitting for a state’s bar exam is less burdensome if your firm is willing to pay for your exam prep and bar exam expenses.
Military Spouse Licensing Exceptions
Does the state have a military spouse exception to its licensing requirements?
One of the most important factors on this list is the availability of a military spouse licensing exception. Be sure to actively research and read about each state’s requirements for an exceptional or provisional admission before deciding where to take the bar exam.
This list contains only a few of the factors that are relevant when deciding where to take the bar exam, but I hope they are a helpful starting point. As always, MSJDN is a powerful resource for the military spouse J.D. community. You can find more information online at https://www.msjdn.org/.