International Law in a Surprising Place

Vol. 17 No. 3


Caitlin McNamara is a 2L at Pepperdine University School of Law and a 2012 Summer Intern in the California Army National Guard JAG Corps.

As the availability of legal positions in the commercial sector shrinks, the opportunities available in the public sector, and particularly the international public sector, have become exponentially more competitive. Fortunately, while the new lawyer interested in international law faces an uphill battle in the current economy, she may be able to find career fulfillment in an unexpected place.

The Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps of the U.S. Armed Forces provides a unique opportunity to work with a variety of international legal issues. In addition to prosecutorial, defense, and legal assistance responsibilities, the JAG officer is also responsible for advising commanders regarding the legal constraints and implications of a commander’s decisions. This advice is pertinent to a commander’s operational activities in the field and to the development and implementation of policies and procedures at home.

During deployment, a JAG officer is directly responsible for providing legal analysis of situations facing commanders in the field. The legal analysis that a JAG officer provides to a commander is often a significant and crucial factor in operational decisions that the commander ultimately makes. This includes legal analysis of the rules of engagement as determined by U.S. law, international law, and the laws of a host country.

Deployment is not, however, the only opportunity for a JAG officer to analyze international law and impact operational and policy decisions. A JAG officer’s analysis of proposed operational procedures and response tactics is increasingly taken into consideration at the developmental stages. When a policy or procedure is developed in response to an anticipated or ongoing need, the commander responsible often seeks a JAG officer’s advice regarding the most legally appropriate way to shape the policy or procedure to ensure compliance with domestic and international law. This means that JAG officers can, and do, play an important role not only in implementing lawful operations and compliance with the rules of engagement in the field, but also in developing policies and procedures that comply with international law and humanitarian standards.

The role of a JAG officer is varied, and while international law is an important component, it is just one of the many bodies of law used by a JAG officer. Accordingly, a new lawyer focused solely on international law will likely find himself or herself frustrated by the more common legal tasks facing a JAG officer. The JAG corps provides an opportunity unparalleled in the legal field for new lawyers who are interested in international law and are also passionate about public service in general.

The opportunity for a new lawyer to practice an extremely wide range of law is relatively unique to the JAG corps. As a JAG officer, a new lawyer has the opportunity to handle a very broad range of cases. The first tour of a JAG officer often includes criminal law, both for the prosecution and the defense; legal assistance work, which includes landlord-tenant law, family law, estate planning, and other legal issues a service member may bring into the office; employment law; legal advice regarding disciplinary issues under military regulations; contract law; and tort law regarding military liability for personal injury and property damage involving civilians.

While international law is ultimately a small component of a JAG officer’s role, it is an extremely valuable one and one that allows a new lawyer to contribute meaningfully to ensuring the conformity of military operations to international legal standards. Moreover, because the other legal services provided by a JAG officer are essential to the proper functioning of the military, the JAG corps offers an ideal career option for the new lawyer who has a desire to practice international law and serve his or her country.



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