Earlier this year, Georgia’s Supreme Court overruled the state’s Board of Bar Examiners’ (BBE) denial of a military spouse’s request to waive the state bar exam and be allowed to practice law in the state.
The attorney, Harriet O’Neal, filed a petition with the Georgia BBE asking to be allowed to practice law in the state without sitting for the Georgia bar exam and without meeting the typical requirements for admission without examination. O’Neal based her request for a waiver on her status as a military spouse, as her husband had just been transferred to Georgia. According to the court, the BBE denied the request without providing a reason; accordingly, the court vacated the decision and remanded it back to the BBE.
The court noted that O’Neal, who graduated from law school, passed the Louisiana bar exam, and was admitted to practice in the state in 2014, did not meet the general requirements for admission to the Georgia bar on motion without examination under the applicable rules. Specifically, Louisiana does not offer reciprocity with Georgia or any other state, and she had not been primarily engaged in the practice of law for the prior five years. The rules, however, do allow an attorney to petition for a waiver on the basis of being a military spouse. Specifically, the rules state:
For purposes of this waiver process and policy, a military spouse petitioner is a person who is:
(a) An attorney at law who has been admitted by examination to membership in the bar of the highest court of another United States jurisdiction;
(b) The dependent spouse of an active duty member, including but not limited to members called to active duty under Title 10 of the United States Code, of the United States Uniformed Services as defined by the Department of Defense of the United States (or, for the Coast Guard, when it is not operating in the service of the Navy, by the Department of Homeland Security); and
(c) The spouse of a service active duty member who is on military orders stationed or home-ported in the State of Georgia.
Once a petition has provided documentation proving the above, the BEE will consider when determining whether or not to approve the waiver:
- The duration of the military spouse petitioner’s engagement in the active practice of law, as defined in Part C, Section 3 of the Rules;
- The military spouse petitioner’s employment history in the legal profession; and
- The career goals of the military spouse petitioner.
The court instructed the BBE to clearly apply the military waiver policy and explain why it came to its decision.
Statistically, there is a high unemployment rate among spouses of active duty service members due to the constant traveling by the family. Moreover, retention of active duty members can suffer when the families do not have enough income to repay a military spouse’s student loans. Difficulty being admitted to a state in which the military spouse was required to live due to the active service members’ orders is another hurdle for employment as an attorney. Many in the legal field support the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision because it requires the BEE to clearly explain its criteria and decisions.