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The JAG Experience

published August 07, 2012

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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( 622 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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We have all seen the Hollywood version of the JAG experience. A classic JAG moment is caught in the epic film A Few Good Men, when Jack Nicholson (playing Col. Nathan R. Jessep) screams “You can't handle the truth” while be cross examined by Tom Cruise (an inexperienced US Navy JAG officer). Is this epic cinematic moment an accurate portrayal of the JAG experience? What about the television JAG depiction?
Get a legal career in the Judge Advocate General's Corps

In the television series JAG, watchers follows Lt. Cmdr. Harmon "Harm" Rabb, Jr., a former pilot turned lawyer…along with an elite group of naval officers, as they defend, investigate, and prosecute those accused of military-related crimes. Together, they search and discover the truth in their pursuit of justice. Their pursuit takes them all over the world, flying in space-age aircraft and visiting exotic locales, all to discover the truth. But before you run out and enlist in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, you should spend a little time investigating in the experience.

One of the first basic JAG facts is that a JAG officer may also go by the name of a Staff Judge Advocate. In addition, JAG provides legal services for the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, and each branch provides insights into the different areas of the JAG experience. For example, a Marine Corps Judge Advocate may receive extra leadership training through the training of the 11 Leadership Principals including communication training and training to ensure that marine leaders are constantly seeking self-improvement.

Visit any of the armed services websites and you'll discover a good general description of what it means to be a judge advocate. The Army's website states, in part:

“The JAG Corps is a wide-ranging practice that includes military law and criminal prosecution to international law and legal assistance — both in the U.S. and abroad.

Being a part of the JAG Corps offers the unique opportunity of serving one's country as an Officer in the Army while quickly developing professional skills. This is exactly why JAG Corps Attorneys gain a valuable career edge and an excellent starting point for a career in public service. In addition, JAG Corps Attorneys can choose to serve either full-time in Active Duty, or part-time in the Army Reserves.

The JAG Corps is much more than the legal arm of the Army. JAG Corps Attorneys are exposed to a wide variety of legal work with wide-reaching impact in just a few short years.”

Factors to Consider

The Army's JAG website describes the salary range, "With a competitive salary and 30 days paid vacation each year, the Army's JAG Corps is a law firm like no other." In addition, the military offers 10 paid federal holidays. Since the Army's claim is a good one, it's worth exploring in a little more detail.

For starters, "a competitive salary" is probably stretching the phrase. According to the websites we reviewed, JAG salaries for the different divisions vary but are generally low, especially when compared to their private-practice counterparts.

“I tell candidates we start out between 38 and 44 thousand,” commented Major Rachel Vanlandingham, the lead JAG recruiter for the U.S. Air Force." But only for the first six months. Once you become a captain, you earn substantially more." Below is the Monthly Basic Military Pay Table effective January 2012. The salaries listed are monthly and do not include special incentive pay, housing allowances, medical benefits, etc.

But when compared to their private-practice colleagues, JAG wages may not be competitive, but the JAG payment schedule is not subject to the ups and downs of the legal market.

There are additional other reasons to consider a career as a military lawyer. "First and foremost, service to your country," suggests Major Vanlandingham. Prior to her current position, she spent several years practicing as an Air Force judge advocate. Ms. Vanlandingham was quick to highlight some of the more important benefits that can't be counted in a bank.
  • Ranking military officers get plenty of respect.
  • The military teaches you discipline.
  • You learn how to work with authority.
  • You develop excellent oral advocacy skills, and
  • The job cultivates confidence in legal abilities, in large part because of the unusual level of responsibility JAGs are given their first weeks on the job.

If none of the preceding benefits sway you, consider another of Major Vanlandingham's points: "legal experience across myriad types of law."

The Army website echoes the Major's perspectives, touting immediate responsibility in fields such as "military law and criminal prosecution to international law and legal assistance," as opposed to "doing research for a senior partner." Indeed, according to the website, "Many JAG lawyers begin litigating cases almost as soon as they begin their Army careers" and soon may be "negotiating international agreements that affect the Army worldwide or arguing appeals in front of federal court judges."

While some of the preceding is recognizable hype, many former judge advocates leverage their military work experience as litigators, defense procurement specialists, or international negotiators. These lawyers use their background and training to land jobs that more than compensate them for their years of comparatively low pay in the legal corps.

How Do You Become a JAG?

Given the preceding, if you are interested in becoming a JAG or Staff Judge Advocate, what's the process? There is no single JAG career path. However, "75 percent of our JAGs come in straight from law school or as young attorneys," explains Major Vanlandingham.

If you're serious about becoming a military lawyer, first get your J.D. from an accredited law school. Then take and pass your local bar. Armed with your J.D. and bar credentials, you're eligible to apply to one of the branches of the armed services to become a judge advocate. But don't expect rubber-stamp acceptance of your application.

"We bring in between 100 and 120 new JAGs every year," says Major Vanlandingham. Those new JAGs are culled from approximately 800-1,000 applications, meaning only 10 percent of JAG applicants are accepted. In having your application considered, your law school, grades, class rank, internship experience, and extracurricular activities-like bar review-will all make a difference.

Once accepted into the JAG Corps, you won't have to attend boot camp. But you will take a couple of different multi-week training courses that introduce you to your particular branch of the armed services and to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

One of the major benefits to being an enlisted JAG officer is the training. In this day and age, a number of firms are not investing in training associates. Although some firms may take a few days to let the new associates get the ropes, a number of firms and corporations allow young attorneys to sink or swim, a move that can prove detrimental to both the incoming attorneys and the firm. However, new JAG attorneys receive months of additional training.

According to the US Navy JAG Corps website, the Naval Justice School (“NJS”) Curriculum provides a 10-week training course for new “Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard judge advocates.” This program trains new JAG members in the “fundamentals of military justice and relevant civil law, with particular attention to administrative law, investigations, legal assistance and military justice.” Additionally, the NJS focuses on fine tuning trial advocacy skills so that JAG officers are prepared for civil and military court procedures. Further, a number of staff judge advocates will attend additional training in certain areas including computer crimes, military operation law, trial advocacy, and defending complex cases.

NJS does not just focus on training attorneys because let's be honest, behind any great attorney are a number of legal support staff members. Law firms may struggle to cover the costs of training a paralegal or give up on a paralegal, clerk, or secretary prematurely, thus providing a windmill support staff environment. However, NJS provides training for law clerks, legal technicians, and other legal services. Each of the courses offer specialized support training to ensure a JAG attorney has sufficient office support.

An additional benefit of the JAG service is job security because some might argue if Harm, the pilot/JAG in the TV series, would have left the navy and gone to work as a pilot for a major airline, he may have earned twice the wage of a starting judge advocate. Nonetheless, in times of economic downturn, attorneys at firms, companies, or airlines may be let go in attempt to reduce expenses or be subject to significant payment reductions. Typically, JAG members have more job security in lean legal markets.

Like other jobs in the military, there are commitments. If you come in as a lawyer, you're committed to four years of service. If the military helps you with law school-i.e., sends you to law school and pays for your education (another career path to becoming a JAG)-you are committed to two years for every year you're in school. In other words, how you enter the Corps can sometimes dictate how long you stay in.

"I was in the Coast Guard for 27 years," commented Mark O'Hara, formerly a Coast Guard lawyer and now a board member of the Judge Advocates Association, a national professional society for retired and active judge advocates. First, O'Hara spent seven years as a Coast Guard sailor. Then the Coast Guard paid for O'Hara's legal education, which meant that after seven years as a sailor, he went to law school, acquired his degree, passed the bar, and then owed the Coast Guard another six or so years as a lawyer. And by the end of that, O'Hara points out, "you only have six years to retirement."

What Kinds of Assignments Can You Expect?

In today's JAG Corps, you will probably move twice in four years-to places over which you have little control. And you will be performing the kind of work the military dictates, not necessarily what your heart desires. However, in most instances your JAG assignments out of the blocks are the real reason to consider at least an early career serving as a military lawyer. All of the military websites we reviewed, the lawyers we interviewed, and a raft of supporting documentation stressed the immediate responsibility given to recent JAG graduates.

"I tried my first case just a few months after passing the bar," commented Major Vanlandingham. "It was an amazing litigation experience."

While you may be making half the salary of your private-firm colleagues, you won't be grinding away performing research for law firm partners or wading through the fine print of client contracts. Regardless of how long you stay a judge advocate, you'll probably be surprised by military life as a lawyer.

To learn more about the military legal corps, visit their websites.
  • Navy Judge Advocate General -
  • Marines Staff Judge Advocate -
  • The Judge Advocate General's Corps - U.S. Army -
  • U.S. Coast Guard Legal -
  • Judge Advocate General, United States Air Force -

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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published August 07, 2012

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 622 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.