Should You Join the JAG Corps?

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This is the first of a two-part series on joining the JAG Corps. Part two is “Applying to the JAG Corps: Make the Cut”.”

Military lawyers are an interesting breed. It takes something a little strange in someone to want to go through college, through law school, and then join the military. But judging by the growing number of applicants to the various branches of the JAG Corps, it might seem that that breed of lawyer is rising. However, you might say that the rise in applications is nothing more than a reaction to poor job market, or a desire for extreme job security. But one thing is certain, a lot of law students and lawyers are trying to become military lawyers for whatever reason. If you happen to be one of these prospective applicants, and if you’re wondering whether the JAG Corps is right for you, I will do my best here to provide some insight.

First though, I have to give a few disclaimers. I am a Judge Advocate in the Air National Guard. So I am not on active duty, and I have never been in the Army, Marines, Navy or Coast Guard; just the Air Force as a national guardsman. Because I am in the Guard, and not active duty, I can write this with candor, but I must emphasize that my advice  and  opinions here are my own, and don’t represent the views of the U.S. Government or any one of our military branches’ JAG Corps. I also am only intimately familiar with the experience of one branch of the military, so while this advice will apply fairly well to the various JAG corps generally, it is simply that: a general analysis. Now, on to what you care about.

The Good

There are a lot of great reasons to join the JAG Corps; far too many to list here. So I will stick to the high points. The chief reason why so many people—at least until the last few years—apply is that JAGs get a truly one-of-a-kind experience. In your first few years as a Judge Advocate, you might be fully lititgating a criminal trial (a.k.a court martial), defending the U.S. Government against a taxpayer whose house got damaged by falling aircraft parts, or briefing troops on “shoot/don’t shoot rules of engagement” and laws of armed conflict. The thrill of the JAG Corps is that you don’t know where you are going to go, who you are going to meet, or what kind of lawyer you are going to be. The Air Force has a saying: “Bloom where you’re planted.” It speaks to the fact that you have almost no say in where you want to go, or what you want to do; but whatever it is that you do or wherever it is that you go, you should make the most of your opportunity.

To be fair, I also need to add that I know several JAGs who got completely rockstar assignments right out of the gate. What constitutes “rockstar,” you ask? I’m talking about places like Japan, England, Italy, Germany, Las Vegas and Pensacola. If you can’t bloom in any of these places, your roots are messed up, friend.

There has also never been a more lucrative time to join the military. The pay is good, you receive no-cost health insurance for you and your family and you get decent, free housing. Hell, you may even get an enlistment bonus. Add to that the fact that the military has also made great strides in lightening enlistees’ student loan debts, and you have several great financial incentives for joining up as a military lawyer.

The Bad

Being in the military can be pretty stressful. On top of already being in an already stressful profession,  military lawyers have the obligation to not only be good lawyers, but an obligation to also be good officers. Obviously there are several benefits to being an officer; and it’s a role to be proud of, certainly. But you are also expected to carry yourself in a professional manner at all times. As an officer, your everyday activities are subject to scrutiny: who you’re friends with, who you date, what you like to do on the weekends, whether you pay your credit card bills on time, etc. Some people handle this well; others don’t. The trouble with this is that your commitment to the branch you are in is usually 4 years, and if you don’t enjoy your work or the military lifestyle, you’ve got yourself one long road ahead.

Being on active duty can be extremely taxing on both you and your family. You have to move away from your home to other bases or stations “as the mission requires,” and you and yours might absolutely despise where it is that you have to move to. You also have to go through some form of training where you get yelled at, where you won’t get any sleep, and where you will be fed awful food. And if this weren’t scary enough, guess what? You are more than likely to deploy to some pretty awful places in the world, and you will have to do it sooner rather than later.

“The Suck”

Yes. You are going to deploy if you join the JAG Corps. For some JAGs, this is an insanely stressful but incomparably rewarding experience. For others, it’s just insanely stressful. Deployments can cause divorces, missed births of first-born children, missed NFL seasons, and just an overall miserable six months to a year of your life. And oh yeah, almost forgot, you are sleeping, working and eating IN A FREAKING COMBAT ZONE.

But nearly every person I have deployed with, and nearly every JAG I have spoken to wouldn’t trade that experience for any other professional achievement. You get to provide legal counsel, represent service members and advise commanders in a hostile part of the world. If you can do that and do it well, then you have a hardening experience that can prepare you for nearly anything that the legal profession can throw at you. Also, name another occasion where you can sit down with a client while wearing a sidearm (put your hands down, Texas attorneys).

This list is not exhaustive, mind you; and I hope that I have emphasized the good over the bad here. Personally, I decided to join the Air National Guard because it offers a good mix of both the freedom to live a civilian-puke life with the thrilling experience of being a part-time Judge Advocate. If you think that you are interested in a life as a Judge Advocate in one branch of the military or another, stay tuned for part two of this post on how to apply to one of the various JAG Corps.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thenationalguard/4146449809/)

Legal Careers

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  • http://www.UndeniableRuth.com Ruth Carter

    I spent my 1L summer doing an internship with the Army JAG in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. It was an incredible experience. The JAGs I met were some of the smartest and most articulate people I’ve ever met. The work so hard, and they risk being required to live in some middle of nowhere places. Most of the ones I met have incredibly big hearts, and they’re also tough as nails when they need to be.

    From what I’ve heard, getting into the JAG is more challenging than ever. For those who get in and are the right fit, it’s a fantastic experience professionally. They are the lead attorneys in their own cases and they’re in the courtroom very early on in their careers.

    • dfasfgl

      Were you there when the Commander at Leonard Wood was relieved of duty? She was my former OIC and the worst person I met in the army. My respect for the army increased significantly when they canned her.

  • Dick Bean

    I am a retired Air Force Reserve JAG who was first an active duty Army JAG (three years), then an Army Reserve JAG (14 years) and lastly an Air Force Reserve JAG (and a retired Air Force civilian attorney). I specialized in Government contract law for pretty much my entire career. However, in the Air Force reserves, I did have some work in otherareas of law. It was an incredibly positive experience for me and I owe my career in industry to my prior experience and the great opportunities I had to work with some stellar folks who mentored me. I had the opportunity to mentor others as my career developed. The thing that strikes me the most is everyone’s commitment to a common goal, something you may not find in a law form or corporate environment. Everyone was quite willing to help one another out and there was never an issue of who received the credit. I would recommend the JAG experience to any new attorney who is willing to work hard (it is not a 9-to-5 job even in contract law if you want to do a good job). You will enjoy a supportive work environment.

  • Keith

    The Air Force JAG Corps web-site states that, in modern times, the JAG Corps has met all its deployment needs through volunteer Judge Advocates. Your comments, however, indicate that you have deployed as part of the ANG more than once. Were you forced to take those deployments? I serve in the Army JAG Corps where deployments are inevitable and last 1 year to 18 months (1 1/2 years). I thought about switching to the ANG for a more suitable work-life balance. I certainly wouldn’t want to transfer to the ANG if deployments are just as likely and just as lengthly. It just isn’t possible to maintain a successful civilian career when you spend 1 year overseas, 1 years home, the next year overseas, etc.

    • Tyler White

      When I was deployed, it was a different environment and I was in a different job. OIF had just kicked off, and while most of us getting sent over were volunteering to go, some troops were basically “volun-told.”

      Now, I would agree that JAGs getting deployed are for the most part volunteer deployers. The pay is good, the experience is good, and generally speaking, career progression can depend on it… so a lot of hands get raised in the guard. The Air Guard has a significantly lower deployment tempo than the Army Guard does, and the slots are—as far as I know—always filled by volunteers. Hope that helps.

  • Jesse Martinez

    Hello, I am currently a high school senior, but have my mind set on law school. I have recently become interested in joining JAG after law school. My question is, what are the physical requirements for JAG attorneys? Was training a particularly grueling experience, or was it a very doable experience? Not that I am against physical activities, I’m in sports at school, but I am just curious and wondering what to expect. Thanks.

  • Dan

    Jesse – I’m an Army Reserve JAG officer, and have been for nearly 6 years. Of those 6 years, I’ve spent about 3.5 on active duty, and have just started another year mobilization. All of this active duty time has been voluntary, and all (with the exception of a few weeks in Germany) has been stateside. The physical requirements vary from service to service. As you might imagine, the Marines are the toughest. The Army and the Air Force seem roughly similar to me, and I don’t really know what the Navy and the Coast Guard require.

    All the services will require that you meet their height/weight standards (which are different for each service, but they all have standards). You will need to regularly pass a physical fitness test, which again varies from service to service. Currently, the Army’s physical fitness test involves 2 minutes of push-ups, 2 minutes of sit-ups, and a 2-mile run. A passing score depends on your age, but at your age, expect to need about 45 push-ups, 50 sit-ups, and to do the run in less than 15:30.

    In many offices, you’ll do regular physical training with the office–sometimes daily, sometimes just a few days a week. The intensity varies quite a bit from office to office.

    Best of luck to you! I’ve found the Army JAG Corps to be an incredibly demanding and rewarding experience, and hope you will too.

  • Linn Lee

    My son is a second year law student. Since he was a young boy, he always wanted to be a Navy Seal. Since he is my only child, and I am a widow, he did not go towards that goal (as he knew it would be upsetting to me). Now he is talking about going into the service as a JAG – possibly the Navy. Can anyone tell me which is the safest Service to join? I dread the thought of him going into a combat zone. Also, he is the kind of kid that always likes to be in the middle of whatever is going on. If he were sent to a relatively safe foreign base/area – I know he would be the first to volunteer to go on a dangerous patrol or mission. So sorry if I sound selfish and over protective. I know there are many wonderful young men and women serving our Country in military service. Also, I do sometimes think I have no right to want my child safe – when so many other mothers have children serving. Every mom reading this will probably understand where I am coming from . Long story short – what is the safest JAG military assignment? Thank you.

    • http://lawyerist.com/tyler-white-lawyerist-staff-writer/ Tyler White

      This is my completely unscientific ranking of deployment risk among the services from highest to lowest:

      1) Marines- JAGs in the Marine Corps are more embedded with their troops than any of the other services, as far as I know. There is also—in my opinion—less regard for the professional nature (read: paper-pusher status) of the JAG officer. Meaning, Marine JAGs are treated more as an officer first and JAG second than any of the other services (they go through roughly the same training as all the officers in the Marines).
      2) Army- These guys deploy a lot. Often they volunteer for these deployments, and sometimes they are “voluntold.” But the Army deployment tempo is high.
      3a) Air Force- If you are an active duty Air Force JAG, you will likely deploy overseas at some point. It might be a good assignment, or it might not be. It might be for a long time, or it might not. I’m not trying to sound crass, but it really is a crapshoot. And some deployments are dangerous, while some are not. Some have snack bars, others don’t, etc.
      3b) Navy- I have no idea, to be honest. I don’t think that Navy JAGs deploy that much, but I honestly don’t know… maybe somebody can fill me in?
      4) Coast Guard- These guys are mostly CONUS. They may have some deployments, but the exposure is (again, as far as I know) minimal compared to the other services.

      I base all these things on the impressions I’ve gained in my time in the service. Again, complete UNSCIENTIFIC analysis. Hope this helps.

      • Ray

        So in short, which service in your opinion is the safest?

        • http://lawyerist.com/tyler-white-lawyerist-staff-writer/ Tyler White

          /looks over both shoulders…

          Coast Guard, I guess?

  • Jacob Stewart

    I’m in the middle of my sophmore year of my undergraduate degree. I have a few questions regarding the JAG corps in general. Are there any internships that can been done with any JAG corps while I’m working on my undergraduate degree? Secondly, how hard is the JAG corps on wives and children? Do they get to move with you when you get transferred to a different base even if it is an international base? I know they can’t come when you are deployed but I was wondering how it affected them over all. Thanks for the help!

    • http://lawyerist.com/tyler-white-lawyerist-staff-writer/ Tyler White

      Regarding internships: the only internships that I know of with the various services are for law students. I know of several people that did internships after their 1L year in the Army and Air Force, and they all loved it.

      Regarding the family: yeah, joining the military can be very difficult on families. Any service you join on Active Duty will likely send you on a deployment (see unscientific rankings directly above). Deployments can be long and difficult for you and your family, especially kids. It’s part of the deal, unfortunately.

  • BM

    So in Army JAG and Navy JAG you most of the time technically volunteer for deployment?

  • Jennifer

    I’m currently in the Air Force Reserve as a Security Forces member and 2 years into my bachelors in Homeland Security. I’m looking to change over into law because I love it so much and I want to further y military career. I was looking more in to going active duty, do you feel that being guard was better and more beneficial than the short years you served on active duty?

    • JOhn

      You need a bachelors degree, with a high GPA, and you need a respectable LSAT score, prior to applying to law school.

  • NCBrian

    This is a wonderful article – thank you so much for posting!

  • JAYJAY

    Can I join the Air Force to go to law school then become a JAG?

  • Anastasia Axiopoulos

    i want to be a JAG for the Navy. When i graduate high school i don’t know if I should first go to college as a law student and then join the navy or go to a naval academy (ex. United States Naval Academy) and surve as a cadet. I don’t know what should I do.

  • http://patriotsmovement.com/ Kyle

    Very good article. I took the pathway in reverse. I am an ad enlisted airman looking to enter law school and then commission. Thank you for your insights.

  • Jennifer

    Does your wife work (or do you know spouses of JAGs who do)? How has things like having to move affected their careers? My longterm boyfriend is working towards becoming a JAG, and I’ll admit I’ve been a bit worried about how that lifestyle could affect my career. It’s not every job where you can just pick up and move whenever your husband gets moved.

    • Nancy Baca

      Jennifer – I am the spouse of an Army soldier – JAG or no – the year long deployments and the required moves WILL affect your career. I have found that either I will spend extensive time away from my spouse during his moves OR move with him and forego my career. Neither is a good choice – especially when you mix kids into the whole thing. If your kids are young, then you can bring them with you – if they are older, then they start to have a say in where they move and where they won’t. I believe a large percentage of the army spouses are very young and uneducated. However, the educated and older spouses do have a very hard time adapting. My advice is if you want to stay with your boyfriend, then expect that if your career is not mobile, then starting your own business (like ebay selling or internet based) is probably the only job you could have. It is very frustrating to tell you the least. I spent a year alone during his deployment last year and now have decided to go to lawschool myself in an attempt to put roots down and perhaps grasp onto a sense of stability that my husband’s career does not provide. My husband might have to leave during my studies, but I am tired of waiting to see before my life begins and perhaps make some changes to the army policies that in my opinion rip families apart. My advice to you? If you want a career, don’t stay with your boyfriend. Harsh, but putting a military career requires the old stay at home kind of spouse. Things have not changed in their world.
      Good luck!

  • Sara

    How soon after joining up are you gennerally deployed? And if it is neccessary to deploy, is 1 deployment enough or is it a regular thing (as in every few years)? And do you know at all the major similarities/differences between the JAG corps for America and that of Canada (i’m Canadian and can’t really find much info specifically pertaining to Canadian JAGs)?

  • Aaron

    I graduated from law school in May and just joined the Air Force JAG Corps. I made a blog to keep family informed about the process and hopefully help prospective JAGs understand a process that I was in the dark about most of the time. Check it out. http://air-force-jag-journey.blogspot.com/

  • Isaiah

    wow. 11 days after probably the worst terrorist attacks in us history and this is what people are concerned about.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      10 years and 11 days, you mean.