By Kevin Flynn
JAG officers are Navy lawyers. They have law degrees from civilian universities but serve on military staffs.
They are not ‘line’ officers, meaning they do not command combat troops. This is an important distinction in the military because war fighters are the principle decision makers in the military.
In a civilian organization a lawyer can eventually run an organization or become a partner. In a military organization a JAG officer might eventually run a military legal organization, but never a branch of the service or a theater command. This puts them in a subordinate position even at a Flag rank.
While this may not be a concern for someone with a short term horizon, over the course of a 20 year military career it is something to consider.
JAG duties can run from criminal trials to rules of engagement. There can be mundane duties all the way up to critical policy rulings on the conduct of war.
Here is a rundown from the JAG official website with a list of practice areas:
- Military Justice (e.g., prosecution, defense, judiciary and appellate)
- Legal Assistance (personal legal services and advice to military members and their families)
- International Law (e.g., Geneva Conventions, Hague Convention, Law of War, Law of the Sea)
- Operational Law (e.g., rules of engagement)
- Administrative Law (e.g., government ethics, regulations and legislation)
- Environmental Law
- Civil Litigation (in conjunction with the Department of Justice)
- Humanitarian Assistance and Refugee Law (e.g., asylum law)
- Admiralty and Maritime Law
- Legislative Liaison (represent the Navy on Capitol Hill)
In order to become a JAG officer most people enter through the Student Program. If accepted into the program a law student is commissioned in the inactive Navy Reserve during law school.
After graduation from law school the student has to pass the bar exam. Then they have to complete the Navy Officer Development School. After this school they must pass a ten week Naval Basic Lawyer Course. After passing this course they are assigned to a command somewhere in the Navy as active duty Navy judge advocates.
Active duty regular officers can also apply to switch their designation to JAG. You apply while on active duty. In law school you remain on active duty with pay. You incur 2 years of additional obligated service for each year of school.
There are also direct appointments for lawyers who are practicing in the civilian world. The process works much like the Student Program with Navy Officer Development School followed by the Naval Basic Lawyer Course.
Is the JAG corps right for you? It depends on the individual.
The pay is lower than a typical partner or corporate attorney might make. The culture is one of honor, doing what is right rather than doing something because it is a rule.
A ‘sea lawyer’ is a derogatory term in the Navy- it is someone who argues about some issue rather than just getting their work done. Obviously JAG officers are interested in mission completion and are highly professional. They do not live in a hostile environment, but they are also not at the top of the military food chain and never will be.
For someone thinking of the JAG corps as a way to pay for law school and also a cool but demanding first job this isn’t a huge concern. However, for someone with ambition to run the entire Navy, the JAG career path is not the way to go.