Advice About Becoming a Military Lawyer

Q: During law school I enjoyed the challenge of mock trial & appellate court competitions, so naturally I thought that I would head into litigation. Unfortunately, I learned during my summer associate clerkship that big firm associate litigators do not often get the autonomy and responsibility that I craved and the work schedule can be grueling. So I started taking classes in transactional areas and now I work for a boutique Trusts and Estate Planning firm.

I've been doing the Trusts and Estate Planning thing for almost a year now, and I'm convinced that it's just too boring for me. I've now applied for a position as a lawyer with the Armed Services because the opportunities and challenges presented by practicing with the military seem to be endless and exciting.

My question is whether the expert panel has any information and/or advice about becoming a military lawyer. Will such an experience hurt me if I ever wish to return to the private sector? Am I glamorizing the practice of law in the military?

A: The answer to your questions is yes. And no. Working as a judge advocate allows instant responsibility and variety, from handling a court martial to litigating civil matters to doing transactional work. You will be given much more authority earlier in your practice than you would with any law firm. However, some of the work you would do will not be applicable outside of the military, since military law has its own esoterica. Therefore, some of the knowledge won't be transferable, although the skills used will be.

If you learn how to effectively describe all of the skills you develop while practicing in the military, you could possibly overcome the reluctance of some employers. But it's difficult to know in advance -- some law firms will appreciate the breadth of your experience and the responsibility you will be required to shoulder, and others will perceive your background as not on point. One effective networking technique is to locate law firms that already have hired former military lawyers, since those firms have been exposed to the benefits of such training.

That said, practicing for twenty years in the military and retiring with a full pension isn't itself such a bad option, so long as you are working with good people and doing interesting work. And if being a career military individual has never been an aspiration, keep in mind that professionals, such as lawyers and doctors and dentists, are not expected to participate in extensive military regimentation. Also be aware that you don't necessarily have to join the military to work as a judge advocate. There are programs in both the Army and the Air Force that hire civilian lawyers to work within the judge advocates office.

On the other hand, if you want more action, autonomy, and responsibility while developing skills that are marketable in the legal community you could consider a position at a smaller litigation firm or starting your own solo practice. In these environments you would be free to litigate with little or no supervision. If you are solo you choose your own cases and make all the decisions about representation.