He is an ambitious and disciplined man, this Marine, who is also quick to laugh and always willing to share a round of beers and enjoy your company.
This is Capt. John Ferriter of the U.S. Marines.
In this interview, Ferriter gives us an inside look at what it’s like to be a Marine Judge Advocate, from what it takes to make it through Officer Candidate School, where you learn whether or not you’ve got the right stuff to lead Marines, to why, in exasperation, and in spite of the pain he knows he will inflict, he is ultimately forced to judo-chop me into submission.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview are the personal opinions of John Ferriter and do not reflect the position of the Department of Defense of the United States Marine Corps.
About the Lawyer
Who are you and where are you from?
John L. Ferriter, Captain, United States Marine Corps. I live in Alexandria, Virginia, and work at Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, in the Pentagon. My first assignment was in Twentynine Palms, California, and I am headed to Marine Corps Base Hawaii in July of this year. I am married with a 5 month-old daughter and a golden retriever. I come from a military family, so it is more or less a way of life and has been for several generations.
Where did you go to law school?
William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. Class of 2006. I was your classmate.
What type of law do you practice?
Military law. My personal practice has consisted mainly of criminal law (courts-martial), family law, and miscellaneous civil issues for servicemembers (landlord/tenant, estate planning, military rights and benefits, etc). But, Marine lawyers serve in many other capacities as well: command legal advice, ethics, law of armed conflict, fiscal law, etc.
Where do you practice?
I am licensed in Minnesota, but I practice law wherever the Marine Corps tells me to. Military attorneys are required to maintain an active license to practice law in one of the states and be certified to practice law in accordance with service regulations.
What was your rank when you first became a U.S. Marine and what is it now?
All Marine officers are commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants. Lawyers are a unique circumstance in that many of us serve in the inactive reserve while we complete a portion of law school. So, most USMC attorneys are 1st Lieutenants or Captains by the time we begin practice, since we still need to make it through law school and our training first. There are exceptions to this general rule though. I am a Captain and am selected for promotion to Major. If you don’t know what that means, just check out Title 10 of the US Code – it’s only about a thousand pages and it is really juicy reading.
Why did you become a JAG lawyer?
I watched A Few Good Men. Seriously.
By the way, don’t ever call a Marine attorney a “JAG lawyer,” or they might punch you in the face. I’m kidding, or course.
But, as explained in the next question, the USMC does not have a Judge Advocate General’s Corps—we are Marine officers with a primary Mission Occupational Specialty (MOS) of 4402: Judge Advocate. It sounds trivial, but the difference is important. In the Army, Air Force, and Navy, JAG Corps attorneys are restricted officers who (in a vast majority of circumstances) do not serve outside of that community. But Marine judge advocates are unrestricted line officers. We’re subject to being placed in any job. Marine judge advocates even serve as commanders (in charge of an entire Marine base, for example) and we frequently serve in jobs outside of the legal community.
I don’t think you’re kidding about getting punched in the face. But moving on. What makes the Marines different from other branches of the armed services, like the Army?
Unlike in the other services, Marine attorneys are all regular line officers. In other words, we go through the same general military training that all other Marine officers do—Officer Candidate School (OCS) and The Basic School (TBS)—which takes about nine months. During this time, we learn all the military skills to become “provisional infantry platoon commanders” for the USMC, which includes grueling physical events, academic studies on warfighting theory, military skills like calling for fire from artillery or close air support, and training on automatic weapons and explosives. It’s not an enjoyable experience for most attendees, but it is one you value after the fact. After all of that, new Marine officers go off to MOS schools to learn their specific job. Lawyers attend Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island, to become certified judge advocates. To be commissioned in the JAG Corps for the other services, you don’t have to endure anything nearly as tough or as long.
Why are the Marines sometimes called the “best” branch in the U.S. military?
See last answer. Simply put, we take being military officers (in the traditional combat arms sense) more seriously than the other services. Our reputation speaks for itself. If the proverbial “stuff” hits the fan, which service is sent to respond? The Marines.
Why is it that in the Marines every servicemember knows how to use a gun and is ready for combat, even though they often have other functions (like you, a JAG lawyer), as opposed to the other branches?
Didn’t I tell you not to call me a JAG lawyer?
But anyway, as the adage goes: Every Marine is a rifleman first. Your other job is secondary.
Describe that funny story you told me once about how the drill instructor tried to make you laugh, or you tried not to laugh, when he made fun of you after finding out you were going to be a lawyer.
There are too many of these stories for me to be sure which one you are talking about. Buy me a beer sometime and I will spin you some tales about Candidate Ferriter at OCS that will make you laugh. I was not popular with my OCS staff to begin with (not many people are though), so when they learned I was going to be lawyer it only got worse.
Describe the boot camp experience.
Another nit-picky correction, but officers don’t go to boot camp. Boot camp is where recruits go to become enlisted Marines—just think Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (NSFW).
Regarding OCS, just imagine spending 10 weeks at Quantico in the heat and humidity of a Virginia summer where literally the only thing the staff is trying to accomplish is make you quit at every chance they get. OCS is about screening and evaluating candidates to ensure they have what it takes to be leaders of Marines. About half of the people who show end up quitting or getting kicked out for failing something, be it physical, academic, or tactical. Often you’re given assignments or tasks that you literally have no allotted time to complete during the day because every minute of every hour is accounted for. So, you have to do those things in the middle of the night. By the way, forget about getting eight hours of sleep. Among other things, you’ve got to stand watch during the night. Sometimes you go on hikes through the woods or conduct other training in the dark. I’d say you average about 4 hours of sleep a day for those 10 weeks. Most people lose 10-15 lbs at OCS. TBS is a whole other story for a different day—it’s worse and goes for six months.
Now, to the Meat: Working as a Marine Lawyer
Describe what you might do in an average week, from military training to JAG lawyer work.
If you say JAG again, I’m going to judo-chop you.
This question is difficult to answer since Marine judge advocates work in so many different jobs. But most of us work in jobs doing legal work on a daily basis. Some work in non-legal jobs and do things more typical of the daily military lifestyle. But even those of us who work in legal billets still have to maintain our proficiency as Marine officers. This includes many things. For example: Physical fitness tests, testing on the rifle and pistol ranges, and maintaining your military appearance (grooming standards, uniforms, etc.).
How many hours would you say you work per week on average?
Like anyone, it varies based on what is going on. Right now at headquarters I probably work around 50-60 hours per week. Think of it like working at a corporate office building as an in-house counsel. When I was a defense counsel, I routinely worked weekends and slept in my office during trials, because it was only for a couple hours anyway—my wife loved that, by the way. But there are other jobs we serve in that are not as demanding as trial work. It just depends on what you’ve been assigned to.
What kinds of criminal defense cases have you handled?
Courts-martial cases run the full range of normal criminal offenses from assault, stealing, fraud, DUI, rape, murder, etc., and military-specific offenses like unauthorized absence, adultery, disrespect to superiors, orders violations, and war crimes. Civilians are often surprised that drug use (not just possession or distribution, but actual consumption) is criminalized in the military. The reason for this is obvious, though. As Colonel Jessep (A Few Good Men) says:
We’re in the business of saving lives.
The stakes are high, like with airplane pilots, so we have a drug testing program in place.
How many cases do you have on your plate at any given time?
It ebbs and flows. The Marine Corps handles the largest case load per capita of the military services. When I was defense counsel I normally had between 20 and 40 cases on my desk at a given time. Many of them pled out in front of a military judge, but I tried about 10 jury trials in the span of 20 months. We also represented Marines at administrative boards that are similar to courts (opening statements, witnesses, closing arguments). It was a busy time, but I learned a ton about being a courtroom litigator.
What’s been your most interesting case?
I represented an officer who was charged with offenses stemming from his decisions and conduct while deployed in Afghanistan. I won’t go into the details of the case in this forum. But he was a platoon commander in the far reaches of the worst part of the country. The Marines under his charge loved and respected him, and many credited him with their making it back to the U.S. alive. He was put up for a prestigious award for valor when the enemy attempted to overrun their position and they repelled the attack. While he did not escape the legal process unscathed, we got a good result for him and he is still in the Corps doing great things for our country. It was probably the single most rewarding professional experience of my life.
What’s been your biggest accomplishment as a lawyer so far?
See last answer, but in general it was getting just results for young Marines who were in trouble. Justice comes in many forms. But most of my clients when I was a defense attorney were young kids who got in trouble because they made a stupid mistake (or multiple stupid mistakes). Don’t get me wrong. I had some true bad apples. But all of them signed up to risk their lives for their country in a time of war, so they had at least some redeeming qualities. Getting a good result for them was very fulfilling.
Any advice for law students or young lawyers who might consider becoming JAG attorneys?
I just judo-chopped you for saying JAG again.
If you want to be a military lawyer, I’d recommend setting up a meeting with someone who does it for a living. Don’t just rely on what a recruiter tells you, because the recruiter is probably not a military lawyer. If you want to be a Marine judge advocate, do some soul-searching and make sure you are serious about being a Marine officer in the first place. You can practice law anywhere, but unless you are independently motivated to be in the Marine Corps regardless of the judge advocate/lawyer part, you will not make it through the training.
And irrespective of the specific branch of service, decide early if you want to pursue the military lawyer route. There are only a limited number of slots each year. If you try to do it after you’re finished with law school, it might be too late, and you could be waiting a long time.
What’s the difference between criminal law in the military versus criminal law in civilian life?
The military justice system is an interesting hybrid between criminal justice and employment law. It is a good-order-and-discipline system and a tool for the commander to keep his troops in line. When you face disciplinary action in the military, you are subject to normal criminal sanctions, like jail time, probation, and fines, as well as military sanctions like loss of rank, loss of pay, and getting kicked out with a negative discharge. All of these sanctions can follow a person around for life and have serious negative consequences on their ability to function in society.
Tools of the Trade
Describe your office space.
It’s an office environment right now. But, when not stationed at the Pentagon, we work on military installations with the rest of the Marine Corps. On those military installations there are training areas, shooting ranges, and physical training courses. There are also tanks driving by, helicopters landing—that kind of stuff.
What kind of hardware are you packing?
M16A2 service rifle, flak jacket, Kevlar helmet, KA-BAR held in teeth, face full of cammie paint, and tons of tattoos. I’m kidding. Just normal lawyer stuff. My current weapon most often employed is PowerPoint.
Paper or paperless office?
I try my best to get away from paper, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. The Marine Corps legal community is making strides toward electronic documents for court filings, transcripts, etc.
What do you bring with you to court?
Manual for Courts-Martial (see next answer) and the case file. Usually a strong cup of coffee too.
What’s your go-to handbook or manual for a JAG lawyer like yourself?
You just cannot take a hint, can you? JAG attorney??? What do you want? You want the truth?? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!!! (You knew I was going to get that in somewhere.)
It’s the Manual for Courts-Martial. Our bible. It includes the Rules for Courts-Martial, Military Rules of Evidence, offenses with elements and definitions, Uniformed Code of Military Justice, and some other miscellaneous stuff.
What do you do outside of work?
Well, being a new and first-time dad, life outside of work pretty much consists of being a new and first-time dad. But I do like staying active and my wife is generous enough to indulge me and let me continue to bike and water-ski as long as I return the favor. So she can keep pursuing her hobbies too. We don’t water-ski as much as we did before we became parents, but we still do it.
The outdoors, and staying active, has been a big part of your life.
Yeah, I like to try it all, but my favorites are surfing, biking, water skiing, snow skiing, and snowboarding. I was a college swimmer and I still swim laps for exercise. I was into triathlons for awhile, but I have decided that long-distance running is bad for my body. I don’t know why it never occurred to me before, but I had an epiphany one day when I realized that there aren’t any elite distance runners who are 6’4” and 215 lbs.
How can Lawyerist readers get in touch with you?
Permit me, Captain Ferriter, to ask you one last question.
What does it take to succeed as a Judge Advocate in the U.S. Marine Corps?
You finally got it right. But I will judo-chop you one last time for good measure.
To succeed takes many of the same attributes that it takes to succeed at other ventures in life: dedication, discipline, hard work, and a passion for doing the right thing. But you’ve also got to have what it takes to make it in the Marine Corps: physical tenacity, military bearing, and a willingness to be a leader. Because you’ll be put in leadership roles early and often.
Thank you, John Ferriter!