Legal Quandary

Thursday, February 08, 2007

So, You Wanna Be A JAG?

About this time last year, the ever-fabulous E.Spat (may her blog rest in peace) sent me an email with the following proposal for a post. I emailed back some opinions, we chit-chatted about boys a bit, but in the end, we both got busy and this it never got posted. Lately, I’ve started getting questions about my experiences, so I figured maybe the time had come to put this out there. Also, now that I AM a JAG, I might have some additional insight into the process. I’m posting E Spat’s original comments in their entirety first, followed by my own thoughts. I’ll probably also go into more detail in later posts. Somehow the links that were in her original email also disappeared, so I’ve tried to add in as many as I could, but I’m not promising perfection.
Although we both tried to provide links to the other services, this is going to be VERY Air Force-centric, since that’s what E.Spat and I both know. As an additional caveat – this post consists of our PERSONAL opinions, and shouldn’t be construed as official guidance in any way, shape, or form.

I get emails occasionally from folks who want to know about JAG, about the military, or sometimes about my opinion on either of the two. And, since apparently there is some interest in the topic, I decided to turn it into a post.

As a disclaimer, let me say that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a JAG officer. However, I spent four years as an Air Force officer who, in the course of my job, worked daily with JAG officers. I did quite a bit of legal work within the military since the military law system allows commanders to impose punishment for many infractions. For instance, if someone was caught underage drinking, breaking administrative rules, being involved in domestic violence, etc., then it was my job not only to read them their rights and question them, but it was also my job to decide what their punishment would be and, in conjunction with the JAG officers representing both the individual and the interests of the government, impose that punishment. In essence, I was a cop, lawyer, and judge all rolled into one. So, now that you know my quasi-qualifications, here's my two cents.

If you want to be a JAG, here are the websites for each of the services where you can read more about the actual process. ARMY, AIR FORCE, NAVY, MARINES (you have to navigate this one a bit). I won't go into specifics here because it's mostly just about putting together a package and meeting a board and doing interviews…the type of thing you would do for any job, except in law school if you want to meet with a military recruiter you might just get your first experience in people judging you because you're interested in joining the military. [If there's interest, I’ll probably do a separate post on the whole AF application package, because it is a bit more involved than your “typical” civilian job – ed.] Get used to people judging you, because as much as every person you meet tells you they "support the troops" very few of them know or comprehend what it means to agree to potentially give your life to defend the Constitution of the United States of America. Oh, the one "special" requirement for joining the military that is *totally* unlike a regular job is that you have to pass a physical that is fairly in-depth and intensive, you have to meet height/weight standards, you usually have to meet some level of physical fitness, and you will have to be able to get and maintain a security clearance, the level of which will depend on where you are assigned to work. If you have difficulty with your weight, the military has the potential to be a long and tedious journey for you…think about 20 years of your job depending on maintaining a certain weight.

So, on that uplifting note, here are my thoughts about joining the military in general, whether you want to be a lawyer, or anything else.

One thing that every service will tell you, at some point, is that before you are a lawyer, or a personnel officer, or a logistics officer, you are a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine. In other words, you are first and foremost a military officer, and then you're a lawyer. Think about that carefully. Every once in a while I talk to someone who is interested in being a JAG and they tell me "Well, I'll be a lawyer so I won't have to deploy/shoot someone/go to war/etc." I would challenge that assertion by pointing out that, like every other career field, your primary function as a military officer is to support wartime efforts in any way deemed necessary and lawful. Attorneys regularly deploy to combat areas to advise commanders on issues such as targeting, the Law of Armed Conflict, interpreting U.S. foreign policy and international law, and application of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, amongst many others that I'm sure I'm missing. Will the vast majority of JAG officers spend their entire career out of danger, working on what would be considered "normal" legal issues? Of course. But, being ignorant to the possibility of deployment, or thinking it can NEVER happen, is both unwise and a disservice to yourself and to the people who count on you to be prepared to follow through on your obligations as a military officer.

Speaking of obligations, you will take an oath. You will swear to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic and to obey the lawful orders of the officers appointed over you. Part of your oath is obeying the Commander in Chief. Right now that is George W. Bush. Regardless of how you feel about Bush, he will be your boss until someone else is elected. And, guess what? That someone may be better in your opinion, but they may be worse. I think that military officers are fairly diverse politically, but you will likely find that what becomes important in a Commander in Chief when you are active duty is probably a little different than before you went in. Pay raises? Yup, those are important, especially when you see your troops living in poverty. Deployment rates? Yup. Who wants to be gone nine months out of every year? Spending policies related to national defense? Oh yeah…no one wants to be the person in the unarmored tank. You can vote just like everyone else, but you have to be prepared to be understand that you support the Constitution through the President, and that person may not always be someone with whom you personally agree politically. If you don't think that you can rise above the political fray and put "service before self," the military may not be the career for you.

As an aside on the above topic, you need to be prepared to enforce policies with which you may not personally agree. The two that come immediately to mind are Don't Ask/Don't Tell; and Conscientious Objection. I only worked on one Don't Ask/Don't Tell case in four years, and the person was pretty clearly excited to be getting out of his service commitment, but my impression was that the JAG officers handled those with somewhat greater regularity. The policy may change with a new administration, but then again, it might not. I also had one conscientious objector, right after the start of operations in Afghanistan. I had absolutely no problem working on that case, but everyone is different. And, along those same lines, I would say that if you are considering joining the military you should be prepared for the fact that some people will think that the policies of the military, whether internal or through the Commander in Chief, are *your* policies. My first week at law school someone asked me about Don't Ask/Don't Tell and then directed a tirade at me, the essence of which was "you are homophobic and horrible and anyone who could enforce that policy is an awful person." Sometimes there's no way to explain to someone who doesn't want to hear that the policies are not your own, and that you have absolutely no choice but to follow a lawful order.

You will give up some of the freedoms that you take for granted right now. Your right to free political speech will be somewhat restricted. Your right to act any way you want during your off-hours will be very definitely restricted. You will not be able to have close personal relationships with certain people (think fraternization and unprofessional relationships). You will have to understand that even when you are in civilian clothes you represent the military and, as an officer, you represent the values that go along with that. You will be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which will be unique and unusual to people who have no military background. Most people with no military background that I talk to are somewhat shocked by how restrictive military life seems. It is definitely not as bad as it sounds on paper, but there are sacrifices that must be made for the good of the service.

I think that joining the military can be an incredibly personally and professionally rewarding career choice. But, I also think that it's a decision that is not to be made lightly. It's a commitment. There is no quitting. If you don't like it, guess what? That's right, you still get to spend four years doing it. So, even more so that a regular legal job in private industry or government, it's essential to do lots of research, talk to as many people as possible, and do some real soul-searching before you take that oath.

LQ's Turn: For the most part I haven’t really been hit with angry tirades about military policies. Obviously there are military policies that some people disagree with, but my experience is that most people more or less understand that I don’t make the policies, nor does my service necessarily mean I agree with all the policies. That said, I think there are lots of folks out there who haven’t had any experience with the military and just don’t understand how things work. For example, the number one question I got during law school was “can I just tell them that I don’t want to deploy or won’t go to [insert name of undesirable location here]?” I hope readers here would understand by this point that the answer is “no.”

One point E. Spat and I might disagree on – she said that the majority of lawyers would probably spend the bulk of their careers out of harm’s way. I’m not sure that’s really the case any more. I know several attorneys in my office who have either been or are going to various hotspots around the world. I have friends who are JAGs in the other services, and I get the same impression from them. And it makes sense, really. Anywhere you have lots of young troops, you’re going to have people getting into trouble. If there are operations going on, lawyers are very often involved in deciding whether a target is lawful or unlawful. If the military needs to contract with local providers for services, lawyers are often involved. Environmental concerns? Check. Limited legal assistance to the troops? Sometimes.

The other question I get a lot is whether you can choose the bases you’re assigned to. By now, any good law student should anticipate the answer…it depends. How much experience do you have? In what areas? Are there any positions available for you to move into when it’s your time to move? Are you due for promotion? Do you have a special need to be in a particular area? (At least in the Air Force, you may be able to request a Humanitarian Assignment to be stationed as close as possible to a family member who is terminally ill. Or if a member of your immediate family needs medical care that is only available in limited areas.) For the most part though, you’ll be given the opportunity to have input into your assignments by filling out an assignment preference worksheet – better know as your “Dream Sheet.” This lets you rank order the types of jobs you’re interested in, specific bases, and general regions of either the Continental United States (CONUS) or overseas. Your Staff Judge Advocate (SJA) will also review your preference worksheet and add comments about what kinds of jobs would be ideal for your career development. The “rule” for AF JAGs seems to be that you’ll spend your first 2 assignments getting base level experience (General Law, Military Justice, and Claims, primarily. Maybe with a smattering of Contracts, Environmental or Labor & Employment thrown in.) But even this is subject to change depending on your circumstances. Bottom line is that although the Air Force will consider your input, the “needs of the Air Force” are always going to prevail.

I also want emphasize some of the positives of military service. I’ve been a JAG for all of 2 months. So far, I’ve met with close to 100 clients with all kinds of issues ranging from the very simple and easy to fix, to the truly horrendous. To a certain extent, every day is like a mini bar exam, because almost ANY issue – other than criminal - is fair game for legal assistance, and here the answers count. I’m heavily involved with one of the largest Ethics programs in the Air Force. I research and write on questions in this area of the law every day. Some of it is fairly straight-forward. Much of it is pretty arcane. There are extensive training opportunities. Before I even go to my formal school, I’ll have attended a week-long course (and picked up CLE credits!) in a fairly specialized area of the law. When I return from my JAG training, I will very likely be representing the Air Force in actions against on-base civilian offenders. I will definitely be prosecuting cases. I don’t know of any other legal job where you get this many hands-on experiences in so many different areas this early in your career.

All of this, and I haven’t even mentioned my favorite thing about being a JAG – the people. But at this point, that’s going to have to be a whole different post!

Questions, anyone?

This is a *printer*
Thanks for all the great info - I'll pass this along to my daughter whose 2nd life ambition is to be a JAG. Her first is to just be in the Navy.
(3.9 GPA, NJROTC, wants to go to the Academy) what? do I sound like a proud mom?
;- )
I really like this post. I will start active duty next month as a JAG in the Air Force. I will attend the March COT, then I will go to Holloman AFB, NM for a few months before I start JASOC in July.

I enjoyed reading about your experiences since finishing COT. Your situation is similar to mine in that you have had some time at your base before going to JASOC. Besides legal assistance, have you been able to do any other areas of law? Have you gotten to assist with any trials? What base are you stationed at?
John -

Send me an email. I'd be happy to answer some of your questions and give you the scoop on some of the fun that awaits you both at your base and at JASOC.
This is good stuff. I passed the bar in the fall, and contacted an AF JAG recruiter two months ago. I never went through with it though, because I got a cushy gov't job, for now. I am also getting married, so I am concerned about base assignment. There is an AF base close to where I live, but of course there is no guarantee I would be stationed there. If you get a chance, post more about your experience as a jag.
good post - do you have any idea on what post AF JAG opportunities are in either private practice or Gov? I was recently accepted into AF JAG, and am excited about the chane to serve I want to ensure that if I choose not to make the military my entire career I have other opp.
Are you aware of any JAGs who went to non-ABA schools? It appears that all the armed forces like that "ABA Approved" stamp. I received my law degree from a night school who has no interest in that stamp of approval. I'm admitted to my state and Federal courts, but I do not have the ABA seal of approval, even though I'm now a member of the ABA. Thanks!
Zale -

The AF requires that JAGs be graduates of an ABA accredited law school. See the FAQ page at

I don't know about the other services, but I would guess they have similar requirements.
Came across this in a highly random fashion, but had to read it, based on the title. Great post. You did an excellent job of wrapping it all up.

I've been an Army JAG now for more than 10 years, with 3 years prior enlisted before that.

Why do I stay, when I could arguably make more money on the outside? Job satisfication, patriotism, and I work with some of the best people in the world.

Do I go into harms way? As I write this, I am sitting in FOB Kalsu, Iraq (south of Baghdad, north of Hillah, near Babylon - you know ... home of Hammurabi, he of the Code?) This is my second tour in Iraq. Others, including JAGs, have had even more than that. It's worth it - this is where I truly practice law, the way I intended when I came into the JAG Corps.

Keep up the good work.
I am finishing up the law school application process and hope to eventually end up in a JAG program. Right now I am trying to choose between a few schools in the Top 30 where I would receive little to no financial aid, and one or two tier three schools where I would receive significant financial aid. Therefore my question important is the ranking of the law school you attend to be accepted into the JAG Corp? I would love to enter the corps with no debt, but don't want to hurt my chances of being accepted. Are good LSAT scores and law grades enough? I also have 2 years experience with Big Four Accounting and my CPA. Thanks!
My advice is always to go to the best school you're accepted into AND which you feel is the best fit for you personally. There's no point in making yourself miserable (or more miserable than you have to) for 3 years.

I attended/graduated from a Top 30 school and visited at a school significantly further down the rankings list for a year. I'll be honest with you - I don't think the professors or the education I received were any better at the higher ranked school, though I think the motivation level of the students was a little higher. Ironically, I also paid significantly LESS in tuition at the higher ranked school.

The ranking of your school may be a factor in the selection process, but I don't know that it's a huge one. I know many excellent attorneys, including AF JAGs, who attended second or even third tier law schools. I believe the SJA who interviews you as well as the selection board will be more interested in how well you've done in law school, what opportunities you've taking to distinguish yourself, and your other life experiences than the highly subjective school rankings. More importantly - what kind of reputation does your school have? For example, Creighton University and University of Dayton both have great reputations, but don't fare well in the rankings. I wouldn't sweat that part too terribly much.

That said, you should be aware that both the Army and the Air Force have tuition reimbursement programs available, so you may want to look into that before making your choice.

Hope this helps!
My friend Daniel was also not selected in the AF just because his law school wasn't ABA accredited. AF, Army prefer graduates from ABA accredited law school.
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