September 2017

Benefits and Considerations About Becoming a Military Attorney

By Drew Lautemann

Assistant Director, Pro Bono & Public Service, California Western School of Law

Many attorneys enter the profession for an exciting career and to make a difference in the world. From Abraham Lincoln to Mahatma Gandhi to Thurgood Marshall, history is full of attorneys who positively impacted the world. The law school process, however, unfortunately often leaves students feeling less empowered, burdened with debt, and pressured to get the best paying job they can. It doesn’t need to be that way. Often, the most fulfilled attorneys work in public interest positions. While most law students and attorneys are aware of careers working with nonprofits and government agencies like public defender and district attorney offices, one path that students and young attorneys may not have considered is being an attorney for the military. Each of the five branches of service – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard – has a Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG), and while the positions are competitive, young attorneys wanting a fulfilling, exciting career should consider applying.

Benefits & Considerations

In addition to the pride and satisfaction of supporting our armed forces, there are many upsides to joining the JAG Corps. While it is not advisable to cite these as primary motivating factors in seeking to join the JAG Corps during the application, some of the personal benefits include:

  • JAG attorneys are trained in and practice a very wide variety of law, including criminal prosecution and defense (courts-martial), family, tax, estate planning, contracts, immigration, torts, environmental, landlord-tenant, and more. JAG officers also often gain significant trial experience much earlier than their counterparts in the private sector. Nowhere else can a young attorney gain experience in so many areas of law.
  • The pay and benefits of joining the JAG Corps are competitive. Attorneys will commission as lieutenants and typically be promoted within the first 6-12 months.
  • In addition to base pay JAG attorneys receive many financial benefits, including, but certainly not limited to, free health care and housing if living on base, or a tax-free housing allowance for those choosing to live off base. Housing allowances vary depending upon the location and often cover the entire cost of the attorney’s housing.
  • JAG attorneys are eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and the Army, Air Force, and Navy have additional student loan forgiveness programs.
  • As a JAG officer you will be required to maintain good physical conditioning. What other legal career not only encourages attorneys to stay in shape, but actually requires it, provides the facilities, and gives time during the day to do so?
  • Finally, JAGs who serve for 20 years are eligible for military retirement benefits. Therefore, a young attorney in his or her late 20s could join JAG, serve 20 years, and receive a full military retirement before turning 50. They would then leave the military with significant experience and job prospects.

In exchange for all the great benefits of being a JAG officer, there are serious considerations to be made. Some include:

  • JAG attorneys are required to serve at least four years on active duty and usually four more years on inactive status afterward. The freedom to change jobs, take vacations, and many more aspects of daily life are limited.
  • JAG attorneys will likely not live in one location for long. They are usually assigned to military bases for two years at a time, with possible deployments to other locations during that time. Family members can typically accompany the attorney to their assignments, but not on deployments, which can be for several months at a time.
  • The initial JAG training can also be difficult for attorneys with families. Training begins with approximately six weeks of officer training focused on leadership skills and military tactics and then approximately ten weeks of JAG school (Marine JAG training is significantly more rigorous).
  • JAG attorneys do not typically get to decide who to represent or what cases to take. Attorneys may find themselves arguing positions at odds with their personal beliefs, such as defending someone accused of a terrible crime or giving advice that leads to military action and the resulting loss of life.
  • As with any military career, there are potential safety issues involved with training, living, and working in certain geographic locations where you may be assigned or deployed.
  • While the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy has been lifted, President Trump has announced via Twitter that transgender individuals will not be allowed to serve. The details of the ban are still being formulated, but whether or not you identify as transgender, you should consider how you would feel working for an organization that discriminates on that basis.

Application Process & Qualifications

The application process includes an application consisting of college and law school transcripts, a resume, letters of recommendation, a motivational statement (somewhat similar to a cover letter or personal statement), LSAT scores, a full-length photograph, and more, depending on the branch of service. Applicants must also complete an interview with a JAG officer as part of the application process. Applicants selected for JAG must then complete medical and background clearances.

Every JAG branch uses a whole-person approach in selecting its attorneys. Law school grades are important, but they aren’t everything. Selection committees are looking for students and attorneys with demonstrated leadership, commitment to public service, and trial skills, and those who bring a diversity of experience to the Corps. Age restrictions, physical fitness, medical requirements, and other qualifications vary depending upon the branch of service. Attorneys must be in good physical condition and under the age of 42 at the time of commissioning to join Army or Navy, under 40 to join the Coast Guard, under 35 to join the Air Force, and under 28 to join the Marines. They must also be of good moral character and pass a background check.

Each branch of service has different application deadlines, with some branches only accepting applications once per year (Army & Navy) and others accepting them two (Coast Guard) or three times per year (Air Force). The Marines have a less regular JAG recruitment schedule, so interested attorneys should contact a recruiter for more information. The application and selection process can be rigorous, so it is advisable to speak with your law school’s Career Services Office. They can often assist you through the process and connect you with recruiters.

Serving as a JAG for the U.S. Military is another option for new attorneys to consider. As always, there is a cost to service in the military, but the reward for your service experience in different areas of the law, a decent salary and benefits, and the pride of serving your country — may be well worth the sacrifice.