First lawyer admitted under Military Spouse Rule
A rule change that took effect in September removed a major barrier for spouses of military personnel who wish to practice law in Florida. For Bailey L. McGowan, the first person to take advantage of the change, it meant she didn’t have to be a substitute teacher after all.
Florida has more than 55,000 active-duty service members in bases from Pensacola to Key West. The rule change, proposed by The Florida Bar’s Military Affairs Committee and approved by the Florida Supreme Court, was created for people just like Bailey McGowan.
McGowan’s husband, Kaleb Simpson, is a captain in the U.S. Air Force, flying AC-130s out of Hurlburt Field in Okaloosa County, where he has been stationed since 2017. McGowan stayed behind in Texas to complete her studies at the Texas Tech University School of Law and sit for the Texas bar exam. Then, she assumed, she would have to repeat the process in Florida.
“I was applying to be a substitute teacher,” she said, “because I was looking for a flexible income while I was planning to study for the Florida bar. [A law school professor] let me know about the rule change and encouraged me to apply.”
McGowan was sworn in as a member of The Florida Bar on January 31 and now works as a public defender in a misdemeanor court in Okaloosa County. She also handles Baker Act cases for the office.
The Supreme Court, recognizing the unique mobility requirements of military families who defend their country, approved creating Chapter 21 of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar and also a new Rule of the Supreme Court Relating to Admissions to the Bar 2-23.7. They allow the lawyer-spouses of full-time active duty military personnel, if they meet several conditions, to practice in Florida for up to five years without taking the bar exam.
Florida is the 30th state to have a military spouse rule.
In approving the rule, the Supreme Court wrote that “the assignment of a service member to a duty location in Florida may place the service member’s spouse in the untenable position of having to choose between giving up the practice of law to relocate with the service member and continuing to practice law in the jurisdiction where he or she is already licensed.”
Eliminating the Bar exam can halve the time it takes for an attorney coming from out-of-state to meet the requirements for practicing law in Florida.
“I was ecstatic for the opportunity to practice law without having to take another bar for a state that we, unfortunately, won’t be living in forever,” McGowan said. “This rule enables military spouses to give back to their communities and families while also ensuring the integrity of The Florida Bar.”
To be eligible, a lawyer must be married to a service member and hold an active, valid law license in another U.S. jurisdiction; be a member in good standing and not be subject to any discipline or pending disciplinary investigation in any jurisdiction to which they are admitted; plan to reside in Florida in the next six months; not have failed the Florida bar exam within the past five years; pass a character and fitness review by the Florida Board of Bar Examiners; and pay a $1,000 application fee. The Florida Bar recommends that candidates apply as soon as the military issues the change-of-station orders.
McGowan applied for her exemption in late October 2018. “The process was a bit slow, but that’s to be expected when you’re the first one to receive your approval,” she said. “It was a learning experience for everyone involved, and I believe we all took away valuable lessons in communication and patience.”
Once certified under the rule, the new Florida Bar member must complete the basic skills requirement within six months of certification and complete 10 hours of continuing legal education, including two hours of ethics credits, each year. The new member must also be employed by a Florida law firm or agency and have a mentoring relationship with a Bar member.
McGowan offered this advice for other lawyer-spouses: “Communicate early and often. Try to be patient, but also don’t be afraid to reach out to the Bar.”