During a ceremony at the Missouri Supreme Court on Jan. 30, Karen Towns became the first military spouse to be sworn into the Missouri Bar Association under a new rule that creates a pathway for attorney-spouses to practice law while stationed in Missouri.
As of Jan. 1, Missouri joined a network of states permitting military-spouse attorneys, whose active-duty service member is stationed within the state, to apply for temporary admission to the Missouri Bar Association without requiring the taking of the bar exam.
Towns was sworn in by Missouri Chief Justice Zel Fischer prior to his annual State of the Judiciary address at the state Capitol.
During his address, Fischer explained the licensing process to practice law is intentionally designed to be rigorous in order to protect the public, but, the rules on taking the bar exam simply because they relocated with their family needed to be re-evaluated.
“You’ve heard the adage, ‘when one member joins, the whole family serves,’” Fischer said. “For some members of our active-duty military, that means their attorney-spouses must sit for a bar exam in every new state in which they find themselves … or abandon their career … or split up the military family. We realized this makes little sense.”
Rule 8.106, entitled “Temporary Admission for Attorney Spouses of Active Duty Military,” was signed Sept. 5, 2018.
“Under the new rule lawyers with licenses in good standing from other jurisdictions, whose spouses are full-time active service members of the United States Armed Forces assigned to a duty station in Missouri or a contiguous state, can apply for temporary admission to practice law in Missouri,” Fischer said.
He said, “Allowing these qualified attorneys to share their legal talents with our citizens while they are in our state will honor the sacrifice they make as military spouses and will serve Missourians well. This rule is already being utilized — just nine days after it took effect, we had an applicant. Her story exemplifies why we always need to look for ways to make our legal system better for those we serve.”
Towns earned her law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2001 before marrying now Col. Eric Towns, who is currently the U.S. Army Fort Leonard Wood Garrison commander. They have relocated more than a half dozen times in just under 12 years of marriage.
“This did not exist when I first married my husband,” Towns said. “I wish it had, if only because looking down the road you know that there are options besides taking a bar exam everywhere you go. I’m truly encouraged that this is gaining traction. Hopefully not just for the niche here for attorney-spouses, there are many types of licensures out there affecting many military spouses.”
Towns said she is honored to be selected as the first spouse to be sworn in under the new rule and to have Fischer swear her in.
Towns laughed as she said, “I think it’s fair to say that my first swearing in was a little more low-key.”
“It was an amazing experience, primarily because there was such an outflowing of support for the military community and to be able to experience that first-hand was tremendous and humbling at the same time,” she added.
Before Rule 8.106 took effect, attorney-spouse lawyers wishing to practice law in Missouri would have to take the costly bar exam.
“It can cost over a $1,000 just to submit the application, that varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and then you need to factor in the cost of bar review study courses. So from a practical stand point, it’s very expensive,” she said.
And from a time stand point, Towns said, the process is very time consuming.
“It can take up to a year to get licensed when you factor in starting with the application, to the character witness/background check — that can take months — to actually taking the exam and the processing afterward,” she said. “It’s a very lengthy process. It’s an undertaking.”
She said when military spouses are considering taking the exam at a new duty station they have to look at many factors and do their own analysis. These factors include: “time and place — are you going to be there long enough; will you be able to find employment in that market; and are you in a position to take it financially?”
According to Towns, the process has now been streamlined into submitting an application with background check information and all supporting documents, paying a fee and waiting.
“I think it provides hope for spouses who want to pursue their professional self-actualization, while at the same time supporting their active-duty spouse,” she said. “There’s a dichotomy — supporting your spouse, but also wanting to do something for yourself and I do believe those cannot be mutually exclusive.”
She encourages military spouses to continue to strive to reach their career goals.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s OK to feel discouraged,” Towns said. “Admitting that upfront just means that you’re human. With that being said, I would say, ‘Don’t give up.’ It’s OK to take time to regroup but if it’s something that is truly important to you — don’t give up.”