Kimberly Hopkin (she/her/hers) '19
Before I came to law school, I was told by one of my mentors that I would be the happiest person in my class. She wasn’t commenting on my actual personality and demeanor; she was trying to imagine going through law school without having to deal with the stress of trying to find internships or earn a GPA high enough to enter the job market. While those are certainly perks, I like to think that I’m extremely lucky not because I already have a job but because I already have my dream job. I’m an active duty Air Force officer who, with any luck, will be part of the Judge Advocate General Corps. In fact, this summer I got the opportunity to intern at a base-level legal office working on diverse issues common across Air Force bases.
I think there are some common misconceptions about what JAGs do. While I can’t speak for the other branches, I can clear up some urban legends about what Air Force JAGs do – and, no, we aren’t pilots. At every base, there is a Staff Judge Advocate (SJA) who works directly for the Wing Commander (essentially the CEO of the base). The lawyers who work for the SJA are Assistant Staff Judge Advocates (ASJAs) and usually in charge of one or two categories of law. For instance, a new ASJA will typically start out learning civil or administrative law and practice employment law and deal with ethical questions from commanders. But they could also easily be placed in environmental or contract law for their first assignment reviewing contract solicitations, bids, task orders for IDIQ contracts, or overseeing the process when contractors fall short. While there is a Chief of Military Justice (usually a second or third assignment Captain), all the ASJAs will take turns prosecuting different cases. This is not only because of a heavy case load, but also because they need to earn their certification before they can go to trial without a senior officer. So, the rumor about being in a court room within six months of passing the bar is realistic although not guaranteed.
All ASJAs will also spend between three-to-four hours per week doing Legal Assistance. This can range from drafting wills and powers of attorney to giving legal advice to tenants seeking to break their lease under the Servicemember’s Civil Relief Act (SCRA). They can give preliminary advice on starting a divorce or consumer protection rights, but they can’t represent members in court. This is because ASJAs work for the government first and foremost. Therefore, even though the Air Force encourages legal assistance appointments to save members millions of dollars in legal fees annually, ASJAs carefully consider whether taking on a client would in any way compromise their duty to the Air Force or the client. For instance, an ASJA would never give a service member advice on the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) because they need to be able to prosecute without any conflicts of interest.
Therefore, at each base there is also an Area Defense Counsel (ADC) who doesn’t answer to any authority on the base. These are usually third assignment Captains who have previously been a Chief of Military Justice. These lawyers represent service members who are accused of disciplinary or criminal infractions. They usually have a heavy case load and travel to other bases within their region frequently. For instance, if two service members are accused of smoking marijuana together, then the ADC can only represent one, and an ADC from another base in the region will represent the other. It’s not unusual to handle around 35 clients at a time – even at a small base.
One unique role for lawyers in the Air Force is the Special Victim’s Counsel (SVC). Every time a case involves a crime about sexual assault or domestic violence, among other qualifiers, the victim is given the opportunity to be represented for free by an SVC. The SVC’s job is to specifically advocate for the victim’s rights during the process. For instance, it might be helpful to the prosecution to have a victim testify about the accused serving them alcohol, but they shouldn’t advise the victim to give that testimony if they are underage. Also, if the victim is military too, there can be disciplinary issues that arise out of working through the traumatic experience. In a world where you can lose your job based on how quickly you run a mile and a half, and where repeatedly coming to work late is a crime, the Air Force wants to give victims enough space to heal while still maintaining discipline. The SVC represents their client and their interests alone.
While many are pulled to serve in the JAG Corps because of the unique way military lawyers practice several different types of law, I think the majority choose to join because they want to serve in the military. It’s a different way of life that’s hard to explain. Some of the civilian men I’ve talked to about the military seem to think the kind of discipline required is similar to playing high school or college sports. Both can be inspiring and rigid, but I don’t get to decide where I live, when I move, how to wear my hair every day, or how big my waistline can be. Sometimes I’m chest-deep in paperwork that seems irrelevant and all-consuming. Or, I’m spending my lunch hour clicking through mandatory online training about how to operate a fire extinguisher. (Yes, my entire lunch hour.) It can be really easy to feel like you don’t have any impact, like you are a cog in a huge machine. Someone “thanking me for my service” on those days makes me feel like a fraud.
But then I look up from my paperwork, and I realize that I’m part of the best “company” in the world. I get to work for and with some of the best people you’ll ever meet. Where they truly care about your mental health and whether you spend enough time with your family. I’ll never have to worry about being paid less than my male counter-parts. Not deciding where to move next means I move out of my comfort zone and see the world. Focusing on fitness means I can get out of the office and go for a run as part of my job. Wearing my hair in a low bun means I can sleep in fifteen minutes because I don’t have to blow-dry my hair. Being in the military has taught me resilience and forces me to push through things that make me uncomfortable or frustrated. I may risk my life during a deployment, or be separated from my family over the holidays, but it’s worth it to me because I work somewhere that closes the office so that my co-workers can eat tacos with me because it’s the last day of my eight-week internship. Taking that lunch break means most of them stayed even later that night, but they didn’t mind. That’s what being in the military is like.