How to Become a Military Lawyer
The pathway to qualifying for a career in military law is somewhat similar to that a lawyer operating in other fields must take - a legal degree is required, and applicants have to pass the bar exam first.
However, starting a career as a military lawyer involves a few additional steps, such as joining the military, attending the required training, and becoming a part of the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps. Note that military attorneys are always officers - no other enlisted members can serve in such a capacity.
Much like attorneys operating in other areas of law, military law career seekers should have certain soft skills if their goal is to land top-rated jobs in the field. Here’s an overview of the essential qualities that are in demand:
- Research skills and attention to detail: A military lawyer must possess a profound understanding of all parts of both civil and military law. In addition to constantly researching legal concepts, making sure to explore every facet of a given case is of utmost importance. Actions and advice of these attorneys may not only affect the individuals involved in the legal cases but also reflect on the military law practitioners’ branch of service and the US government itself.
- Communication skills: You won’t have a successful career as a JAG attorney unless you can speak effectively in public and write clearly and concisely. In other words, military lawyers must possess advanced communication skills and be capable of avoiding ambiguities both in the courtroom and otherwise.
- Interpersonal skills: All lawyers must show excellent interpersonal skills and sensitivity to the needs of others, regardless of the legal area they operate in, and JAG attorneys are no exception. Whether they represent a young enlisted soldier or a high-ranking commander, military lawyers should be comfortable communicating with everyone.
- Resilience: JAG officers must be able to work well under pressure while keeping a cool decorum. It’s also important to mention that many military law jobs come with long working hours and tight deadlines.
- Persuasiveness: Military lawyers’ scope of work involves having multiple difficult conversations every day. The power of persuasion is essential no matter if you’re dealing with your client, a judge, or another attorney.
- Problem-solving skills: Much like all other legal areas, military law is strictly based on logic, facts, and evidence. That’s why a JAG officer must be able to think fast and solve problems quickly but cannot afford to be casual in any of their dealings.
Becoming an attorney in the military combines two careers. As a member of the Judge Advocate General Corps, you’ll have not only the duties but also the respect and career opportunities of an officer while providing high-quality legal services to active-duty servicewomen and men around the world.
Much like with all other types of attorney jobs, the education path of a military lawyer is lengthy and time-consuming but ultimately highly rewarding.
It starts with applying for undergraduate studies (preferably in a related field), followed by a law degree at an accredited law school or university. After obtaining their Juris Doctor degree, prospective attorneys need to pass the bar exam - an examination required to practice law in the US.
Once you meet these initial educational requirements - which are more or less the same for all attorneys regardless of the area of law they plan to practice in - you’ll need to take a few more steps before getting admitted to the JAG Corps.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
At this point, it’s important to mention that there are two main paths lawyers can take when pursuing law jobs in the military. The first is meant for recent law school graduates - as long as you’ve met the aforementioned educational qualifications, you’ll be able to apply to the Judge Advocate General's Corps right away.
The second path gives experienced lawyers a chance to join the armed forces. Still, keep in mind that both fresh graduates and attorneys with previous experience in other fields of law must go through the enlistment procedure and enroll in Officer Candidate School (OCS), the official training academy for all prospective military officers.
Considering that each of the five branches of military service has its own version of the Judge Advocate General Corps, each service has its unique rules and standards for acceptance for applicants who wish to become military attorneys. Here’s an overview:
- Army: Founded by George Washington in 1775, Army JAG Corps accept prospective lawyers through Direct Commission. Commissioned applicants need to enroll in the two-phase Judge Advocate Officer Basic Training Course. The first phase of training for an army JAG officer, the six-week Direct Commissioned Course (DCC), takes place in Fort Benning, Georgia. The second part is called the Charlottesville Phase. It involves attending the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School at the University of Virginia. Those who complete both phases of the course enter active duty for the required four years. Additionally, applicants must adhere to the physical fitness standards of the US Army and be under the age of 42 at the moment of enrolling in active duty service.
- Navy: Prospective military lawyers in the Navy must be offered a commission. Should they decide to accept it, they receive the rank of Ensign and enter Officer Development School (ODS). Located in Newport, Rhode Island, ODS is tailored to individuals joining the Navy as officers. After completing the five-week course, candidates enter Naval Justice School, where they study the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and learn about the particular types of law they'll have to practice.
- Coast Guard: The list of military law careers also includes options offered by the Coast Guard. Final year law school students and experienced attorneys can apply to serve as Judge Advocates for the US Coast Guard through the Direct Commission program. After commissioning, candidates must attend the Direct Commission Officer course in New London, Connecticut, which lasts four to five weeks. Next, military attorney career seekers will need to enroll in a Basic Lawyer Class at the Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island, before starting their first four-year active duty commitment.
- Air Force: There are four ways you can become a military lawyer with the US Air Force. The four options include different programs for students, licensed attorneys, and active duty military members who want to obtain a law degree and return to active duty as JAG Corps officers, and experienced attorneys who want to work part-time with the Air Force JAG Corps while keeping their civilian jobs. Regardless of the entry program, all candidates must attend a five-week Commissioned Officer Training course before their four-year active duty service starts.
- Marine Corps: Once again, there are two ways to explore careers in military law as a Marine. The first option, the Platoon Leaders Class (PLC), is offered to students of the first or second year who have been accepted for full-time study at any of the American Bar Association-accredited law schools. The Officer candidate course (OCC) is the second pathway, meant for third-year law students and licensed lawyers.
The typical commitment for all military law jobs is four years of active duty. After that period expires, you can choose to re-enlist or leave the service.
Throughout their first years in the military, Judge Advocates primarily serve as defense attorneys or federal prosecutors in felony-level courts-martial.
In addition to operating in areas such as military justice, legal assistance, and command services, lawyers in the military also get the opportunity to expand their knowledge and practice into specialized areas, including criminal justice, international law, military operational law, and cyber law.
One of the main reasons why fresh law school graduates decide to become Judge Advocates is that this occupation guarantees a career with rotating assignments by both location and practice field.
By becoming a JAG, you’ll receive lots of practical and hands-on experience much quicker than you would as a civilian law practitioner.