There are plenty of military-themed movies and TV shows featuring military lawyers. Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, the Humphrey Bogart classic, The Caine Mutiny, and on television who can forget JAG or even NCIS to a far lesser extent. Some watch these films and programs and wonder what it would be like to serve as a lawyer in the Army, Navy, Air Force, etc.
For those with qualifying degrees and who are willing to become commissioned officers in the United States military, there are careers open to those who want to become military lawyers.
These lawyers are uniformed service members and not civilians. They attend officer training required by their branch of service, they have professional military education requirements, and they may be called upon to serve as defense counsel for one case only to serve on the prosecution in another case.
The pathway to becoming a military lawyer involves joining the military, attending the required training, and upon graduation becoming part of the Judge Advocate General Corps.
Military lawyers are always officers. No enlisted member serves in such a capacity as doing the work of a lawyer in uniform requires the same kind of education and training that serving as a civilian attorney does. A legal degree is required AND the applicant must have passed the Bar Exam.
Each branch of military service has its own version of the Judge Advocate General Corps, and once the initial requirements (the law degree and Bar Exam) are met, each service has its’ own standards for acceptance for applicants who wish to become military attorneys.
What Military Lawyers Can Expect From JAG
Each military branch of service has its own chief attorney called a Judge Advocate General. Those who serve under the Judge Advocate General are known simply as Judge Advocates. Serve as a Judge Advocate long enough and it’s possible to be promoted to become a judge with duties that include both courts-martial and courts of inquiry.
Complexities Of Legal Lawyering
Judge Advocates aren’t just tasked with knowing and understanding American law; they must learn and understand both the Uniform Code of Military Justice as well as (in many cases) Status Of Forces Agreement laws, as well as the laws of the host nation where they may be called upon to serve overseas.
Military members don’t require legal services stateside only–anyone serving overseas may require a will, a power of attorney, or even legal representation should the servicemember become involved in a disciplinary action that could lead to a court martial.
Professional Education Required
Some may read the above and assume that if they want to become a military lawyer, they will have to study Status Of Forces Agreements, UCMJ laws, and other military legal documents while in law school and approach their chosen branch of service with that information already mastered.
However, this is NOT TRUE, and you may breathe a sigh of relief if you’re interested in learning more about becoming a member of the JAG Corps knowing that.
So how does the military make sure it gets the right candidates for these jobs if the laws mentioned above are not required courses of study for recruitment purposes? Simply because the military runs its own technical training schools and they do so for Judge Advocate candidates, too.
A Look At The Navy JAG Program
A good example of such a school is found in the Navy. The Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island “provides intensive instruction to officers in the fundamental principles of military justice, civil and administrative law, and procedure, with practical application of those principals,” according to the Navy JAG official site.
In the case of Navy applicants, a Basic Lawyer Course is required (even though applicants have already passed the Bar Exam) and once that training is successfully completed, the applicants are eligible to become certified as Judge Advocates.
In the past the Navy’s Basic Lawyer Course was approximately ten weeks long, covering a variety of civil and military issues. Those attending this Navy school are admitted with a four year service commitment effective once the trainee begins active duty at the school.
How do these military lawyer candidates get to go on active duty to start school? They must attend officer training before attending classes. Officer school in the Navy is described as something other than “basic training” in the traditional sense of the concept, but attendance at the Newport, RI Navy Officer Development School is a requirement to enter the program.
Graduates of the Navy JAG program serve their first two years serving in three important capacities; legal assistance, command services, and military justice.
As mentioned above, each branch of the military has its own version of JAG. Army troops entering the JAG Corps are directly commissioned and enter the Judge Advocate Officer Basic Training Course, including a six-week basic training for JAGs in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Following that, an officer’s course lasting just under 11 weeks is convened at the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School located at the University of Virginia. A four-year commitment to serve is required to become a member of Army JAG Corps.
Air Force candidates can apply in a variety of ways including completing law school and the Bar Exam, or by entering as an established civilian attorney. In all cases, a five-week Air Force Officer Training course is required.
U.S. Marines can enter as law students who complete a ten-week officer’s course while on summer break from law school–these students are placed on the Inactive Reserve until the applicant returns to the military once law school is over.
Passing the Bar Exam is required and attendance of a six-month Marine Corps Basic School, which is a Marine Corps basic training environment. The other option is open to those who are already licensed attorneys who have graduated law school, passed the bar, etc.
Those interested in a legal career with the U.S. Coast Guard also have options–you can become a JAG Corps member by becoming what the Coast Guard terms a Direct Commission Lawyer.
Both first-year law students and licensed attorneys may apply in this manner, and like the other uniformed services, attendance at an officer training school is required. In this case it is the five-week long Direct Commission Officer course located in New London, Connecticut. This training is followed by ten weeks of Basic Lawyer Classes at the Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island. A four year service commitment is required.
You read that correctly–military recruiting efforts include highly specialized programs to recruit and train those suitable to join the military in highly skilled positions such as Judge Advocates. Those interested in becoming commissioned officers and lawyers in uniform can contact a “regular” recruiter, explore their options via the official sites of Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, etc. recruiting,
And there are even recruiters who specialize in Reserve slots–if you want to serve as a lawyer in the military but don’t want to commit to four years of active duty, talk to a Reserve recruiter instead of an active duty recruiter.
When speaking to a recruiter for active duty or Reserve service, be sure to ask about the branch of service’s educational assistance programs that may be available when you apply. A good example of past options includes the Air Force’s Funded Legal Education Program, offered to Air Force commissioned officers who serve on active duty. Under FLEP, commissioned officers on active duty may apply and be competitively selected to attend law school with Air Force funding.
Not all branches of service offer the same incentives; it’s a very good idea to comparison shop each branch of military service to see what options you may have as a law school graduate, a current student, or as an already-practicing attorney.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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