Applying to the JAG Corps: Make the Cut
I struggled with arriving at an accurate title to this post, because truth be told, it is very difficult to guarantee yourself entry into the JAG Corps right now. Any post promising a sure-fire strategy for entering the JAG Corps would be disingenuous. The latest figure I heard was that the Air Force accepted 4% of its applicants for a position as a Judge Advocate (For a look at whether you might be the right fit for a military lawyer lifestyle, see my last post).
With thousands of well-qualified law students and attorneys applying to the various branches of the military, it has become a veritable “Royal Rumble” of job seekers, and there’s no way to fully guarantee that you will be the one hoisting the belt. That being said, I’d like to provide some tips on how to get through this application process—and with any luck—how you can make yourself a more attractive candidate for joining the JAG Corps.
The Application Process
Most branches start accepting applications from law students who are in their 2L year. This is a good thing because the application process seems like it takes about a year and a half to finish (ed. note: it doesn’t). You can learn about the painstaking specifics of each individual branch’s application process from their respective websites, but the common theme among them is this: the application is frustrating. To join the Air Force’s JAG Corps, for example, you need to provide the following:
(*interlocks fingers, cracks knuckles*) (*slams 5 hour energy, tells secretary to hold all calls*)
a complete transcript from college and law school (through your current year), a 10 page writing sample, a list of references and several letters of recommendation, a completed Questionnaire for National Security Positions, a drug and alcohol abuse questionnaire (druggies need not apply), a certification that you aren’t a conscientious objector (hippies need not apply), a picture of yourself and a certification that you fall within Air Force height and weight standards (fatties need not apply), and seemingly a billion other things. You also need to get yourself to an active duty Air Force base for an interview with the head attorney on that base (called a Staff Judge Advocate). Given my location, that meant that I had to drive 12 hours round-trip through eastern North Dakota to the nearest base for my interview. That was lame. Now, the Army at least brings the interviewers to you; the Army is considerate like that.
The point is that there is a lot of stuff that you have to do to apply to any one of the branches. But, as any licensed attorney will tell you, applying to their state’s bar was a giant hassle too, and that didn’t stop them from going after what they wanted. If you are really serious about joining up, you will get through all the minutae. Go to any one of the branch’s websites and see what their specific procedures for application are; the process is a pain, but it can be worth it.
I mentioned earlier that most services start taking applications from candidates in their 2L year; but the truth is, you can start preparing for that application well beforehand. Like any desirable job in the legal profession, your entry into that field will require a good resume. I have heard from several recruiters and officers on admission boards that reviewers evaluate candidates on a “complete person” standard. Meaning, of course, that the JAG Corps wants complete people… or something. What the “complete person” standard really implies, though, is that no one great attribute of a candidate will guarantee entry into the JAG Corps, and conversely, no one negative attribute will disqualify that candidate (unless that attribute is being an obese hippie pothead).
So while grades in law school certainly matter to the review board, they won’t make or break you. If you have white-hot grades in law school but have never done anything else but sit in the library, you could be a less competitive candidate than someone with above average grades but played college sports. If you are the editor of the law review at a top-30 law school but have never volunteered your time to so much as a soup kitchen, you may be looked at less favorably than a graduate from a tier-4 law school with a splendid military record.
This lack of predictability is maybe the most frustrating part of the application process, but for some it can also be the most encouraging. Many students from lower ranked schools may be preemptively nudged out of big law jobs or prestigious government posts just by virtue of their law school’s low standing, but that isn’t the case here. Obviously, you can’t go to a lower ranked school and graduate with crappy grades while still hoping to be competitive; but with the JAG Corps, your fate isn’t sealed by where you decided to go to school. I went to JAG training with other lawyers that graduated from Top-10 law schools as well as Tier-4 law schools. So while you may not have gotten in to the school you wanted, you can still work your tail off and get in to the JAG Corps.
As I mentioned earlier, the acceptance rate in the Air Force for the last run of candidates was 4%, a figure that is pretty representative of the military as a whole. This means that now is the most Competitive. Time. EVAR. for joining the JAG Corps. And that’s why you should probably start putting yourself in a good position to be competitive as soon as possible.
So, What Stands Out on an Application?
JAG Corps review boards have a super-secret set of criteria that they use to evaluate an applicant’s suitability for duty as a military lawyer. They won’t tell me exactly what that criteria is; I asked. I can tell you, however, what kind of applicant seems to make the cut lately, and derive some conclusion of what review boards are looking for (that’s called inductive reasoning, homeboy). If you have some combination of the following, you should consider throwing your hat in the ring:
1. Good grades in college and law school
Remember what I said, though: these are not the be all and all of your prospects of gaining acceptance. If you have great grades, you aren’t necessarily a shoe in. If you go to a middling law school, you aren’t necessarily out of the running, either.
2. Prior military experience
If you are prior service, awesome. If not, there isn’t much you can do about that now. Quite a few of the folks who get accepted to serve as a JAG have worn the uniform before, but it is by no means a huge percentage. My prior service got my application through, I am quite sure of that. But if you’ve never served before, then you will be in good company among the other 85% or so of successful applicants who had also never served.
3. Work experience
Applicants to the JAG Corps with significant prior legal experience may have a leg up on other candidates. One of the main focuses in the several branches of the JAG Corps is developing courtroom experience in its ranks. One of the first jobs of many new Judge Advocates is to conduct court martials and work in other areas of “military justice.” If you are applying and you have some civilian courtroom experience, you will certainly be looked at favorably. Many of the new lieutenants coming in are coming straight out of law school, and if you can differentiate yourself as someone with more than just moot court experience, you will stand out.
Other work experience could factor in to your chances for success as well. The JAG Corps is looking for new officers who can be counted on to adapt to new environments and thrive. I mentioned earlier that the Air Force has a mantra encouraging you to “bloom where you’re planted.” If you can demonstrate that you have a capacity to overcome stress and difficult situations—as evidenced your track record of laudable work experience—you may be precisely who the application board is looking for in that review cycle.
4. The Old, Old Wooden Ship
The military is one of the most diverse workforces in the country. As such, diversity is valued rather highly by the various branches and their respective JAG admission boards. Whether you think that diversity is a legitimate point of consideration or not, you should try to focus on it in your application if it applies to you.
If you are applying to the JAG Corps simply because they are hiring and the job market is sweaty-hot garbage right now, guess what? They are hip to that. With very rare exception, application reviewers know how to spot an applicant who is simply applying because the military might be the only game in town. If you want to make sure that you don’t appear to be one of those applicants, show that you are dedicated to serving in uniform. Try to get an internship with the JAG Corps in law school. If you can’t do that, volunteer to play cribbage at a veteran’s home. Something, ANYTHING to show that your level of commitment to joining the armed forces goes beyond your love of playing Call of Duty: Black Ops multiplayer.
Kick the Tires and Light the Fires
Everything that I talked about above applies mostly to the “direct appointment” route for entering the JAG Corps. There are, however, many ways you can start a career as a JAG; I’ve just limited the scope of this post to the most popular route. But no matter which route you take to the JAG Corps, the common theme is this: start working on it as soon as you can. This is a very, very competitive career field to try to enter right now. If you start preparing yourself and your application as soon as you can, you can showcase the level of dedication and commitment that you have to serving in the armed forces as an attorney.