Military spouse goes to court to become Georgia lawyer

Harriet O’Neal and her husband, U.S. Army Capt. Nolan O’Neal. (family photo)

Harriet O’Neal and her husband, U.S. Army Capt. Nolan O’Neal. (family photo)

COLUMBUS — Harriet O’Neal knew her life as the wife of a U.S. Army infantry captain could be frequently uprooted. Such was the case last year when her husband was transferred to Fort Benning from a posting in rural Louisiana.

O’Neal, a lawyer, took solace in the fact Georgia is one of 29 states in the country that gives military spouses the chance to practice law without having to take the grueling state bar exam after moving here. So O’Neal applied for the waiver, only to be rejected.

The 29-year-old lawyer is appealing that denial to the Georgia Supreme Court. Although she is representing herself, her case has picked up support from top Georgia attorneys, the American Bar Association and various legal organizations. They are asking the court to grant O'Neal the waiver, which is intended to ease the financial stresses on military families that accompany relocations.

An arm of the state Office of Bar Admissions adopted Georgia’s military spouse waiver program for attorneys in 2016. In December, O’Neal became the first person to request such a waiver, said John Sammon, the office’s director. When the office rejected her request in January, it disparaged her academic record and said the bar exam she passed in Louisiana isn’t as tough as Georgia’s.

Atlanta lawyer Linda Klein, past president of the American Bar Association, said the denial sets a terrible precedent.

Atlanta lawyer Linda Klein, past president of the American Bar Association. (EMILY JENKINS/ EJENKINS@AJC.COM)

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“Military spouses don’t relocate from one state to another by choice,” Klein said. “They relocate under orders of the U.S. military. They are sacrificing a lot for our country, so let’s meet them halfway and support our all-volunteer military.”

Klein, former associate U.S. attorney general Joe Whitley and Sloane Perras, chief legal officer of the Krystal Co., are among a group of attorneys asking the Supreme Court to grant O'Neal her waiver. The state "should make it clear that we mean what we say when it comes to unsurpassed support for our service personnel and their families," they wrote.

Perras wishes such waivers were available when her former husband was an Air Force pilot. Because of relocations, she worked eight different jobs between 2003 and 2009 and had to pass five different bar exams within three years after graduating from law school.

“It was impossible,” she said. “(The waiver) is critical to help keep military families together and allow for a smoother transition of life.”

Sloane Perras, chief legal officer of the Krystal Co.

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According to court filings, military spouses are 10 times more likely to have moved across state lines in the past year as compared to their civilian counterparts. Also, the unemployment rate for spouses of active duty service members is four times greater than for their civilian counterparts.

“The unique challenges faced by military spouse attorneys have real and lasting consequences for both individual families and the U.S. military,” said a brief filed by a national military spouse legal network, a Norcross attorney and state and national associations for women attorneys.

Because of their nomadic lifestyle, many military spouses forego their chosen careers, or their spouses leave the military, causing the armed forces “to lose talented, extensively trained and highly skilled service members,” the brief said.

O’Neal, who grew up in Louisiana, has wanted to be a lawyer since she was in the eighth grade.

“I always wanted to do something important and make a difference,” she said in recent interview. “I knew I could do that in the legal field.”

She obtained her undergraduate and law degrees from LSU and passed the Louisiana bar exam in 2014. She met her husband-to-be, Capt. Nolan O’Neal, on the dating site Tinder a year later. They married last September, a month before he received orders to move to Fort Benning for training that began in January.

At the time, Harriet O’Neal worked as a law clerk for two judges in Louisiana. Previously, she worked as a labor lawyer and as an advocate for abused and neglected children in foster care.

With a six-figure student loan debt, O’Neal was eager to find work in Georgia. She wanted to be a prosecutor or public defender because they are the attorneys most likely to be in a courtroom.

“In real life, I’m an introvert, but not when I get in court,” she said.

O’Neal said she was shocked when the Office of Bar Admissions rejected her waiver request.

“I was also confused because they didn’t give me any explanation, until I appealed,” she said. “That hit me hard, because they pretty much tore into me.”

In a filing with the Supreme Court, state attorneys said the admissions office wants to support members of the military and their spouses. But O’Neal’s transcripts show she was consistently in the bottom quarter of her class and she has worked three different legal jobs during the three years she has practiced law, the filing said.

The Louisiana bar exam does not have as comprehensive an exam as the one used in Georgia, the state added. These concerns, among others, were enough for the board to think O’Neal needs to pass the Georgia bar exam before being permitted to practice law here, the filing said.

O’Neal said there’s a reason she struggled academically. Her father was ill when she entered law school and died while she was there.

“It was a rough time,” she said.

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Klein, the former ABA president, said if the Office of Bar Admissions had followed its own stated criteria when deciding O'Neal's request, it would have granted it. O'Neal already passed the bar exam in Louisiana and is a lawyer in good standing, Klein noted.

As for the office’s swipe at O’Neal’s grades, Klein said: “What do you call the person who graduates last in his or her class and passes the bar exam? A lawyer.”

After being denied the waiver, O’Neal said she felt desperate to bring in some income. She now does contract work for a firm specializing in copyright and trademark law.

O’Neal said her husband could have stayed in Georgia for up to three years. But because of the bar office’s rejection, Capt. Nolan O’Neal put in for a transfer, and the couple will move to a post in Germany either late this year or early next year.

Even so, O’Neal will continue to pursue her appeal.

“If this was only for me, I wouldn’t have continued to fight it,” she said. “This is now for whoever comes after me.”