License to Practice

Erin Masson Wirth ’90 untangles problems for military-spouse attorneys

by Christina Barber-Just

Attorney Erin Masson Wirth ’90 is married to a Coast Guard commander. As a military spouse, she has logged seven moves since graduating from law school in 1995. Such frequent relocations would be challenging under any circumstances, but they present a particular problem for Wirth and other military spouses with legal careers, who need to become relicensed whenever they settle in a new state. “You always know you may be looking for another job or doing another bar application,” she says.Erin Mason Wirth and her husband
State licensing requirements for lawyers vary, but most involve taking a bar exam—an expensive process that can take up to a year to complete, only to be repeated the next time the family pulls up stakes. In fact, fewer than half of military spouses and partners with juris-doctor degrees have full-time law jobs. So last year Wirth teamed up with another lawyer—an Air Force wife—to start an organization called the Military Spouse JD Network. Here, Wirth describes how the network tries to smooth the road for lawyers like her.

The 99 percent When we first started talking about this issue, people really didn’t understand what military families go through. We’d hear things like, “You don’t really have to move’” or, “You don’t move that often.” Once I talked to people more, they understood our situation. Only 1 percent of Americans serve on active duty at any given time. The other 99 percent aren’t always familiar with the challenges we’re facing.
Bar none A change in the licensing rule would make it faster and more efficient for military-spouse attorneys to obtain their licenses and begin work. We have the support of the American Bar Association, and now we have teams working in different states to pass a rule change allowing licensed military spouse attorneys to practice law without having to take yet another bar exam. Idaho has already adopted a rule, so we’re thrilled with that. We’ve got one state down, and we’re working very hard on the other forty-nine.

Lawyers for hire We’re working to improve hiring opportunities for military spouse attorneys. We have all of these gaps in our résumés, periods where we’re not working between jobs, and for many employers that raises red flags. A big part of our mission is educating employers that these frequent changes should not be seen as suspicious. They’re really very admirable. They show dedication, adaptability, and flexibility.
Lean on me Creating a network of military spouses based on their professional interests was a whole new concept. When I was a new lawyer and a new military spouse I didn’t have any mentors or anyone to talk to who really understood all the things I was going through. Our members have been a tremendous support for each other. It’s so reassuring and powerful to know there are other people in your situation who can encourage you through the process.
Peripatetically speaking I’ve been very lucky because my husband’s in the Coast Guard and we’ve never been stationed overseas. He’s never been sent to a war zone, and we’ve never been in a place for less than a year. As I talk to people in the other branches of the military, that’s all very unusual. Being a military spouse is always an adventure. Although it may be unsettling, it can also be very rewarding.
SAQ Winter 2012-13