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No Va. bar needed: Rule eased for military spouses

Beginning July 1, lawyers who relocate to Virginia with their military spouses will be allowed to practice here without passing the state bar exam.

The Virginia Supreme Court adopted the rule this month. It applies to lawyers whose spouses receive military orders to Virginia or the Washington, D.C., region, so long as they work under the supervision of a Virginia lawyer. They must also have passed a bar exam and be an active member of the bar in good standing in at least one state.

The change was proposed by the Military Spouse JD Network, a group that formed three years ago to push for easier licensing for lawyers who are military spouses.

Six other states have adopted similar rules: Idaho, Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois and South Dakota.

Samantha Musso, who led the Virginia effort, said passing a bar exam is so time-consuming and expensive that many lawyers choose to stay behind when their military spouse moves, or they go but don't practice law.

Preparatory courses take months, as do test results, and the multiday exams are usually only twice a year.

"That's why a lot of spouses don't even bother," Musso said, especially when they know they'll probably move again in two or three years.

Musso, an estate planning lawyer in Northern Virginia, has moved nine times in the 24 years she has been married to an Army officer. While she is licensed in Virginia, she decided in several other states to work instead as a legal assistant, researcher or teacher.

"It's a cut in pay," she said. "There are a lot of spouses who just aren't practicing."

Thea Pitzen, a business litigation lawyer who married a Navy flight officer four years ago, took her first bar exam in Georgia, where she attended law school. She took a second test in Florida after her husband was assigned there.

For the two exams - including preparatory classes, registration fees and travel to test sites - Pitzen estimates she spent about $10,000. When they moved to Virginia early last year, she decided she wouldn't take a third; she works in Washington, D.C., which allows lawyers from other states to practice without a new exam.

"This opens up a lot more possibilities," Pitzen said of Virginia's change. "It knocks down a significant barrier."

Musso said the Military Spouse JD Network, which has about 900 members nationwide, began advocating for easier licensing here two years ago.

In 2012, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that made it faster for military spouses moving here to obtain a range of professional licenses issued by the state, including cosmetology and real estate.

Corinne Reilly, 757-446-2277, corinne.reilly@pilotonline.com

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