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.
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.
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.
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.