Military spouse denied waiver for bar admission gets another chance to make her case

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The Georgia Supreme Court has vacated a decision that denied bar admission to a lawyer seeking to practice in the state under a waiver program for military spouses.

The court sent the case back to Georgia’s Board of Bar Examiners, directing it to clearly apply the state’s military waiver policy and explain in writing why Harriet O’Neal did or did not meet the requirements for a waiver of the bar exam.The Sept. 10 opinion is here.

The ABA had filed an amicus brief in the case that said the Georgia Board of Bar Examiners may have violated O’Neal’s procedural due process rights when it offered no explanation for the denial of her application for bar admission in January 2018.

The ABA adopted policy in 2012 that urges state bars to accommodate lawyers in good standing who move frequently because they are married to service members. Georgia is among 30 jurisdictions that have adopted regulations consistent with the ABA policy, the amicus brief said.

The Georgia Supreme Court acknowledged in its opinion that Georgia has unclear benchmarks for deciding whether a military spouse who is licensed to practice in another state is eligible for bar admission without taking the bar exam.

The military spouse rule says admission standards can be waived “for good cause shown by clear and convincing evidence.” Factors to be considered include the duration of the military spouse’s law practice, employment history and career goals.

At first glance, those factors would appear to be the only standards to be applied, the court said. But the policy also requires military spouses applying to admission to review additional documents, one of which references Georgia’s general rule for bar admission by lawyers licensed in other states. The reference to the general waiver rule “appears to at least imply that the military spouse is governed by at least some of those requirements as well,” the state supreme court said.

Among other things, the general rule requires graduation from an ABA-approved law school, admission in a state that has reciprocity for bar admissions with Georgia, and engagement in the active practice of law for five of the last seven years. O’Neal didn’t meet the general standard because she was licensed in Louisiana—a state that doesn’t offer reciprocity with any other state—and she was a lawyer for only three years when she applied for Georgia bar admission.

The Georgia Board of Bar Examiners had not provided any specific reasons when it denied O’Neal a waiver. On appeal, the board listed these reasons: O’Neal had previously taken only the Louisiana bar exam, which covers the state’s civil law and not common law; O’Neal had limited experience, working in three different legal jobs in Louisiana since her admission to practice in 2014; and O’Neal had low law school grades.

Former ABA President Linda Klein, who completed a one-year term in August 2017, said in a statement that the Georgia Supreme Court decision recognizes the importance of the military spouse waiver program.

According to Klein, O’Neal’s competence to practice law in Georgia is demonstrated in the affidavit of an attorney who supervised her work, now part of the record.

“We are very proud of Harriet and her courage to assure that the rules will be clear for all the military spouses who will come to Georgia in the future,” Klein said in the statement.

“Initiatives such as the military spouse waiver program are important because the unemployment rate among spouses of active duty service members is four times greater than among civilians,” Klein said. “Easing the process for attorneys who are military spouses allows them to continue their careers in the legal profession and shows support for members of our military and their families.”

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