Judge Advocates (JAGS):  Are you a real lawyer?  Yes…I am.

I attended my first Ms. JD annual meeting in February 2014 in Austin, Texas along with Major Leticia Soto.   We had a great time and were able to speak to law students who were very curious about serving in the military while practicing law.   With the encouragement of Courtney Gabbara (thank you!) and my leadership I’ve decided to write a blog series about life as a Judge Advocate.

When I tell people I’m a Judge Advocate or JAG—some immediately know that I am a lawyer (and reference “A Few Good Men” or the television show “JAG”) and some are puzzled.  In fairness to those who are surprised that there are lawyers in all branches of service, I didn’t know much about them either before applying for a commission in US Army JAG Corps.   In fact, I didn’t know much about the military.

I was always intrigued with international law from a very young age.  I wanted to be a doctor but when I found that physics wasn’t really my cup of tea, I thought about the law and how I could still help people albeit in a different way.  I loved to read and write, so law was the perfect fit for me.   As I began law school, my interests were in international law and national security law.  I took as many classes that were as internationally focused as possible along with an International Human Rights Clinic.   I looked into law firms but knew that I would not get to practice the type of law that I wanted to at the time.  I looked at the Department of State and finally, Department of Defense, specifically, US Army JAG Corps.    At the time I applied (2004) there was not a lot of information online like there is today (   I asked everyone I knew from a fellow law student who was applying to the US Navy JAG Corps to a professor I had for a Federal Claims course.  My professor worked for a federal agency in DC but had worked with a number of JAGs throughout his career, extolling, “They always seemed to be having the most fun.”

The US Army JAG Corps, like our sister services, has a varied practice.  During my interview at George Washington Law School, the Field Screening Officer (FSO) gave me a lot of useful information on the differences between the sister services.  We are all different; we all have different missions and different service cultures.  Fortunately—and surprisingly —the Army was a good fit for me, despite never considering myself “military” material.   I was not in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in undergrad, I did not attend the US Military Academy at West Point (I attended UC Berkeley), and it was out of my comfort zone.   I was told during the interview we would have to pass a physical fitness test twice a year consisting of a 2 mile run, 2 minutes of push-ups and 2 minutes of sit-ups.  I was also told that I would get legal experience right away.  Both of these were true.   I was intrigued and thought: if I do not like it I can resign my commission after 4 years.   Turns out I have enjoyed every minute--I’ve been in 8 years.

Once I applied and was accepted, I had to take the bar exam and wait for the results before I could attend the Officer Basic Course (OBC).  During the time between my law school graduation and bar exam results I was in constant contact with the Judge Advocate Recruiting Office (JARO).  I had to take a medical exam to deem I was fit for Active Duty.  We also discussed my first assignment.   I was given a form that had 5 spaces for locations that I would want to request.   This undoubtedly, made me a bit nervous.  In the military, you are not guaranteed a certain location or duty position; after all, selfless service is one of the tenets of the military service.  I was uneasy with not knowing where I would be stationed but I also decided to “let go” and relax.  This was a first assignment—if I did not like, I would have at least had a memorable experience and I would have served my country.  I was convinced it would be a great experience.  And it was—and still is.

Once I received my bar exam results in November 2005, I hit the ground running:  I was sworn in on a brutally cold day in Albany, New York on 13 December 2005.  I was flying to Ft. Lee, Virginia on 1 January 2006.  I reported on 2 January 2006 for Active Duty.  I called JARO and said I was interested in National Security Law. The Chief of JARO suggested I look at Hawaii or Germany as a location.  I am from California and thought Hawaii would be a nice warm spot after having been in DC for 3 years of law school.  The assignment process went smoothly and I was given what they call “assignment instructions” for 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.   When you request assignments or duty locations you cannot be guaranteed a certain location or duty position.  However, in my experience the assignment office will try to place you in a location or duty position of your choice—sometimes they can match both up and sometimes they cannot.   It’s based on the needs of the Army.   It may seem difficult at first to put your life (at least temporarily) in the hands of an assignment officer but it always seems to work out.

I had my assignment in hand. I knew I would be leaving the chilly and humid weather of the East Coast to sunny Hawaii…but before I could get to the substantive legal work (and the surfing!), I first had to master OBC.  More on that next time…

But a few lessons/ Do’s and Don’ts I learned from the application/initial assignment process (US Army specific):

DO research the various JAG Corps early—if it’s something you are even remotely interested in.   Check out the websites—the US Army JAG Corps website:   
DO be flexible—this is an experience.  It’s okay that you don’t have complete control over everything at all times.  Maybe a certain location or job was not your first choice, but if you learn to make the best of it, it will work out. 
DO know that you can resign your commission after your initial commitment—this isn’t forever.  A 20+ year career isn’t for everyone—and it doesn’t have to be for you.   You will get some great training, have some great experiences, make life-long friends in the process, and serve your country.
DON’T be intimidated because it is the military—you’ll surprise yourself with what you can do.  I know I certainly did.
DON’T be afraid to ask for what you want in terms of assignment and location—BUT DO understand that where you are placed is for the needs of the Army JAG Corps.

Captain Majella C. N. Pope is the Deputy Chief of the US Army Judge Advocate Recruiting Office.  She attended UC Berkeley (BA, Political Science) and received her JD from The George Washington Law School.   She is licensed in NY. She has been in the US Army JAG Corps for 8 years and has had 2 deployments to Iraq.

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