By Gabriela Nostro, Esq.
Last week, I shared the first part of this story with you, telling you about my personal transition to military life as an attorney, and some of the licensing rules, as well as the ongoing work by military spouse attorneys to address these obstacles. It’s part of my series on military spouse career licensure issues and overcoming those challenges. If you haven’t read it yet, you can do so here. In this second part of the story I will cover the different resources available to military spouse attorneys, along with some new ways to work remotely, many of which I didn’t know about prior to this research and am excited to discover along with all of you.
One attorney spouse I spoke with perfectly summarized the issue at the heart of military spouse attorney obstacles by stating, “The most damning thing in this profession is that it is built on reputation.” The more I thought about her words, the more I realized how this truly speaks to the core of our frustrations. The challenge of maintaining consistent work, combined with the difficulties of entering a new and different job market, and potentially a new area of law, can repeatedly hamper your upward, and even lateral mobility, leading to the underemployment we’ve discussed throughout this series. While I do think it is possible to build a reputation that we can carry with us, it is painfully slow in comparison to our civilian counterparts. The second part of this article is about how to find the kind of consistency that allows us to not just work, but progress professionally.
Civilian Positions in Military Installations
The experience I discussed in Part 1 of this article is why I was so intrigued to learn more about the Army’s Military Spouse Attorney Hiring Program, which maintains a list of eligible spouses in order to use non-competitive hiring for positions throughout the Army JAG Corps. The hiring may occur before the job has been posted on USAJobs.gov. Any active-duty military spouse attorney from any branch of the military and the Coast Guard can apply to be a part of the list considered for hiring. Since its inception in 2014, the program has placed more than 180 military spouse attorneys into positions. (In other words: Get on that list ASAP.)
Interestingly, the Air Force has recently followed suit and created its own Military Spouse Hiring Program. While I know of efforts the Navy and Marine Corps make at an individual level to hire spouses it would be instrumental to see these other branches follow suit (we need to make this happen!). Any attorney military spouse looking for employment should register with those programs in the event they are at or near a duty station of one of those branches.
Take it from Sarah Ford, an army spouse and attorney who told me about her difficulties finding employment at an early point in her marriage: “I finally found purpose volunteering in the legal assistance office but I could only volunteer as a paralegal and not as the attorney I had worked so hard to be. I showed up every day and learned as much as I could. Nine months later, the references I gained and the wonders of the JAG Corps’ Military Spouse Attorney Hiring Program allowed me to accept the first in a series of jobs through the Program. Over the years, I have accepted four different positions. I should note that even with solid legal experience and a comprehensive resume, I benefited from fortunate timing — a position becoming vacant just when I might need it. Almost two years ago, I competed for and accepted the position I hold now. Army life is rarely easy and the institution can be very hard to navigate. But each time we moved (every year or two) a new leader tried to find a way to incorporate me into the JAG Corps and help me pursue my own professional goals. Six months ago, my supervisor took another leap of faith and has allowed me to work remotely with occasional trips to D.C.”
Federal Remote Employment
Remote options like the one Sarah described are a little bit of good news when it comes to federal employment. While policies remain specific to each federal agency, it has become more common for a federal worker to be able to remain part of their office but work remotely. While this is not unique to attorneys, it does seem likely to heavily affect attorney military spouses seeking unique federal opportunities that would otherwise be difficult to find, or keep, while moving frequently. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for federal agencies to figure out remote work. The Office of Personnel Management reports that 86% of federal offices were able to successfully transition 80% of their workforce to maximum telework. If you are able to get employment with a federal agency, and find yourself wanting to approach your supervisor about this possibility, make sure you review the OPM’s 2021 Guide to Telework and Remote Work in the Federal Government as there are differences between telework and remote work policies. The idea of a portable federal career is remarkable and likely has a lot of us re-opening doors we had previously thought closed for our own career progression (I’ll be honest, I’m excited), but for a certain demographic of military spouses there’s… wait for it … a catch.
One of the more disappointing new policies I learned of appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to the recent increase in federal remote worker requests. The Department of State policy restricts federal employees from working in certain countries overseas at DOD installations. The truth of it is that this policy will primarily affect military spouses and cuts off this otherwise huge step forward for such professionals. The short explanation is that if you are working for the federal government you are not eligible to telework overseas unless attached to, or approved by, an embassy/consulate.
The advice I received from a fellow spouse stationed overseas is that if you get orders to a DOS duty location, reach out to the Community Liaison Officer (CLS) and inquire on the Expanded Professional Associates Program (EPAP). Consulates strongly encourage spouse employment initiatives, and this opportunity could then carry into permanent federal employment that the military spouse could continue remotely.
The most unique work set-up for military spouses that I have come across is the idea of cloud-based law firms. In particular, the Managing Partner and founder of the Parlatore Law Group, Timothy Parlatore, explained a benefit of remote work I hadn’t considered — accessibility. Not pretending to be a traditional brick-and-mortar law firm, the Parlatore group is unapologetically cloud-based and highlights the reduced costs of maintaining office space as a benefit to the client through lower costs and to the attorney through higher pay. While intrigued, I still had questions: How does licensing work? What about court appearances? The answers make me think this model is not only feasible but setting a trend (please be a trend) of business models that are more compatible with military life. Mr. Parlatore, a Veteran himself, told me that while growing the group, “I learned about a demographic I didn’t know about that is overlooked by traditional firms, but that significantly boosted our growth. Military spouses have been phenomenal.” With attorneys licensed in over 20 states, the firm has a collaborative approach between who brings the case in and who does the work, making the licensing issue easier to navigate. If a court appearance, or otherwise in-person meeting is necessary, the client flies in the attorney, allowing the firm to be full-service, with no limitation to the cases they can accept. This still results in a significantly lower cost to the client than paying for the overhead fees of a traditional law firm.
Alright fellow military spouse attorneys, it’s time to talk about something else that disproportionally affects us and that’s debt. What is that? You need something stronger than wine to keep reading? I get it. I’ll wait.
The MSJDN survey we discussed earlier states that “in terms of current debt load, about 65% of military spouse attorneys that used student loans to pay for school report that they have not yet paid their loans in full, and about a third have a balance owed of $100,000 or more.” This kind of debt would not feel as insurmountable if we could steadily work at the income level for which we are qualified. Because we often can’t work, or if we are significantly underemployed, these amounts of debt feel overwhelming. This lingering debt, combined with a lack of professional fulfillment, can lead to the feeling of quiet desperation that keeps rearing its ugly head.
The good news for military spouse attorneys is that there appears to be progress in many areas, thanks in no small part to military spouse attorneys advocating for themselves. When it comes to licensing, hiring practices, and remote work, attorney military spouses are finding ways to address some of these systemic issues. With the additional global trend towards remote work, there is now even more space to up our game.
So, dear Mr. Thoreau, while we appreciate your insights, you may have heard it’s now 2022 and the days of quiet desperation have been replaced. Maybe not with doors of opportunity just yet, but you can sure bet attorney military spouses will crawl through a cracked window of opportunity just the same (and leave it open a little wider for the next spouse along the way).
Gabriela Nostro, Esq. is an attorney licensed to practice in NY, DC, and NC and has served as Adjunct Faculty with the University of Maryland Global Campus since August 2017, both in person and online. Prior to teaching, Gabriela worked as an Assistant District Attorney for the Fourth Prosecutorial District in Jacksonville, NC. From 2009-2012 she was an attorney with the National District Attorneys Association’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse in Alexandria, VA. Gabriela also served as Director of MSJDN’s non-profit organization, Justice for Military Families, serving Gold Star families from 2015-2017. Gabriela is a 2009 graduate of the American University Washington College of Law. She currently lives with her husband and three beautiful children in Twentynine Palms, California.