On September 10, 2018, the Georgia Supreme Court issued an order in the Matter of Harriet O’Neal. The order vacated the Board of Bar Examiner’s decision denying Harriet’s admission to the Georgia Bar and remanded her petition back to the Board with instructions to clearly apply the military spouse waiver policy and provide a written explanation in the event of a denial.

The Military Spouse J.D. Network (MSJDN) applauds the Court’s recognition that Harriet, a military spouse attorney, failed to receive due process when her application was denied without any explanation. In light of the Court’s decision and the inherent uncertainty in Georgia’s current policy, MSJDN calls upon the Georgia legal community to adopt the Model Rule for Admission of Military Spouse Attorneys to efficiently and effectively support military spouses in the profession with a clearly defined licensing accommodation.

In 2016, Georgia adopted a policy and process for military spouse attorneys to petition for a waiver of the existing rules for admission. Harriet, a MSJDN member living in Georgia due to her husband’s military assignment, was denied admission to the bar without explanation under this policy in early 2018. Harriet fought back, appealing the denial to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Harriet is a licensed attorney in good standing in Louisiana, with three years of law practice. Upon arrival to Fort Benning, she began volunteering with the Army Legal Assistance Division on post. Her supervisor later submitted an affidavit in conjunction with the appeal, indicating that Harriet has no trouble understanding Georgia law and is capable of preparing well-reasoned work product.

MSJDN is hopeful that, upon remand, the Board will apply the letter and the spirit of the waiver in Harriet’s favor and grant her admission to the Georgia Bar. There is no doubt that she is more capable than a typical first-year attorney who has only recently passed the bar exam. Harriet deserves the opportunity to advance her career, earn an income, and support Georgia clients in need for the time she has remaining in the jurisdiction.

Harriet’s story highlights a scenario that is unfortunately all too familiar to military spouses in the legal profession. Even when qualified for a waiver of a bar exam, the process of obtaining a new license can consume months of precious time for a military spouse with a limited period between relocations. MSJDN members are often left with volunteer work as their only means of professional development in the absence of a license to practice in a new jurisdiction. Each day, week, and month without the ability to work creates a larger gap on the resumè which must then be accounted for on every future job search, along with an increased financial burden on the military family.

Fortunately, there is a solution. The Model Rule provides jurisdictions with a military spouse attorney licensing accommodation that does not lower the standard for character and fitness examination or set different requirements for adherence to the rules of professional conduct. The Model Rule reflects an appropriate balance of the need to maintain the highest professional standards for the bar and the important public policy interest in supporting military families. To date, 32 jurisdictions have adopted licensing accommodations for military spouse attorneys, a movement endorsed by the American Bar Association. Under the Model Rule, Colorado and other jurisdictions efficiently process military spouse licenses, in some cases as quickly as seven days, utilizing clear-cut requirements.

Georgia’s current policy lacks clarity and definition, leaving military families in limbo as they apply and wait to see if the military spouse attorney qualifies under the waiver policy. As noted by the Court in its September 10th order, “The benchmarks employed by the Board to assess the waiver request of a military spouse are uncertain.” MSJDN calls upon the Georgia legal community to support Harriet today by acknowledging her competence as an attorney and allowing her to practice in Georgia, and support military families tomorrow by adopting the Model Rule.

Questions about MSJDN’s State Licensing efforts? Email statelicensing@msjdn.org.

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