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What does an Army Lawyer do?

By Dale Marshall
Updated May 16, 2024
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An army lawyer has many responsibilities. When assigned to a command, an army lawyer acts as legal counsel to the commander and staff for official decisions and actions, especially with respect to tactical operations and rules of engagement. Army lawyers are involved in all parts of a military trial, or court-martial: the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the judge are all army lawyers. In addition, army lawyers routinely provide legal advice to the officers and enlisted men in the command to which they're assigned.

Army lawyers are commissioned officers with the rank of captain or above in the Judge Advocate General's (JAG) Corps, which the army calls the “nation's oldest law firm.” They must generally complete their legal training and be admitted to the bar before they can become JAG officers, officially called Judge Advocates. As is the case for all officers serving in a professional capacity, such as doctors and dentists, they receive combat and leadership training, as well as specialized military training in their field. The specialized legal training for army lawyers focuses on the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the legal framework within which the US Military operates.

Upon completion of initial training, an army lawyer's first assignment is likely to be an army post in the United States, although it's not uncommon for a new JAG officer to be assigned overseas. The new judge advocate will be called upon to give legal advice to the unit commander and subordinates on all issues regarding policy, practices, and procedures, and will also consult on legal matters with the non-commissioned officers and enlisted personnel. This isn't restricted to military legal issues, though; many of the issues on which an army lawyer will advise military personnel will be related to any of a number of civil issues such as consumer and contract law and family law. Although it is extremely uncommon for an army lawyer actually to represent a client in civilian court, many soldiers, upon encountering legal problems for the first time, will first consult with a judge advocate, and hire a civilian attorney only if actual litigation is involved.

Army lawyers are a critical component of the modern battlefield. With ever-evolving and more complex rules of engagement, commanders routinely call upon their judge advocates to review their operations, strategic planning and even target selection with the objective of reducing civilian casualties and ensuring that the treatment of enemy prisoners is consistent with the UCMJ and applicable international law such as the Geneva Conventions.

When military personnel violate civilian law, their cases are generally handled by the civilian authority. When they violate the UCMJ, their cases are handled by the military in a court-martial. Unlike the civilian justice system, military courts do not sit in perpetuity; they're convened only when necessary. Army lawyers are responsible for the proper functioning of courts-martial, and judge advocates are assigned to serve as trial counsel (prosecuting attorney), defense counsel, and trial judge. An army lawyer assigned as trial counsel is responsible for many of the legal and administrative issues of operating the court, such as administering the oath to witnesses, as well as presenting the government's case. The defense counsel, likewise, is required to defend the accused zealously, just like the defense attorney in a civilian case.

Unlike their civilian counterparts, army lawyers can count on handling a wide variety of legal jobs in a typical tour of duty. Where civilian lawyers generally tend to specialize, especially as they gain more experience, army lawyers continually serve in multiple roles. One of the significant differences between the civilian and military justice systems, in fact, is that an army lawyer may serve as defense counsel in one case in the morning and as trial counsel in another that same afternoon. This generalist approach to the law makes the army an excellent career choice for many, which is one of the reasons that competition to become an army lawyer is so high.

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Discussion Comments
By Vincenzo — On Dec 28, 2014

@Logicfest -- But a lot of people don't retire after putting in their 20 years. They either continue in the service or work as civilian attorneys.

It is important to point that out. If someone enjoys his or her career as an Army lawyer, why bother retiring? A lot of people focus on that early retirement, but I figure they should take a job because they love it rather than because they want to retire early.

Oh, and being a JAG lawyer looks great on a resume when someone goes into the civilian world. That is a benefit, too.

By Logicfest — On Dec 27, 2014

Let's not forget that one of the best things about being an Army lawyer is that one can retire after putting in 20 years in the military. That means a lot of those Army lawyers can retire at full pension in their 40s and that is a good thing.

And they deserve it, too. After someone has dedicated their lives to serving the nation in the military, they ought to be able to retire and take it easy.

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