March 01, 2018 Feature

A Different Type of Military Service

By G.M. Filisko

How many people have you heard say something like this about their job: “I can’t imagine anything better at this moment—it’s pretty close to nirvana”?

These are the words of Nancye Bethurem, a senior civilian attorney for the US Army Corps of Engineers in Dallas. And they’re much like the comments of other women practicing law in the military but outside of the more commonly known Judge Advocate General Corps, or JAG.

These lawyers aren’t serving in the military—they’re what military personnel often call “civilians”—but they’re working within some branch of the military. And they say—careful to note that they’re speaking for themselves and not the military—that other women might want to consider joining them for the experience, the camaraderie, and the work/life balance.

A General Practice Indeed

Maria Esparraguera first landed in a career with the U.S. Army because she simply needed a job. She fell in love with a man from New Jersey and, after law school, moved from Pittsburgh to the Garden State to be with him. After a few years of working at local law firms—which she quickly realized wasn’t for her—she heard through her law school that there were openings at Fort Monmouth, an Army post that’s now closed.

She’s been with the Army ever since, and she’s not alone. More than 1,400 civilian lawyers work for the Army worldwide, she says, and about 40 percent are women.

The bulk of Esparraguera’s first Army legal job dealt with procurement and contract issues. Today, 33 years later, Esparraguera is the director of civilian personnel and labor and employment law for both the Army and its JAG office.

She has three broad practice areas. The first is heading the rough equivalent of an in-house labor and employment firm that defends claims brought by the 7,000 civilian Army employees at the Pentagon and in the region surrounding the capital. That practice ranges from whistleblower claims to equal employment opportunity claims and all employment law matters in between.

Esparraguera’s office also evaluates all Army policies that touch civilian personnel, and her staff essentially serve as training and career counselors for the Army’s legal department, which covers lawyers, law clerks, court reporters, and others in the legal field. Workers in these positions worldwide can apply to attend the Army’s various training programs, and Esparraguera’s staff oversees the selection process for which staff can go where.

Bethurem differs from Esparraguera in that she’s worked for the military on and off during her career—in between jobs at law firms and corporate employers like Walmart. She started with the Army and later worked for the US Air Force. Now she works for the Army Corps of Engineers, effectively serving as regional counsel overseeing a seven-state area and managing about 50 lawyers and paralegals. Bethurem offers advice on all legal matters that arise, from procurement to labor issues and from real estate to environmental and other regulatory issues.

Like Esparraguera, Bethurem is intrigued by the broad range of responsibilities. “I leave the military and come back, and I leave and come back,” she says. “I love the amazing variety of the work, the complexity of the work, and the ability to feel like you’re doing important work. I’ve handled cutting-edge cases that really matter for the country and that advance core democratic principles on which our country was founded, such as freedom of speech and religion.”

The military also offers career opportunities for spouses of those serving, as it has for Stephanie Crosse. Since 2013, she has been a civilian attorney with the Army Medical Command at Fort Meade, Maryland, providing no-cost representation to soldiers leaving the military because of service-connected disabilities.

“I have clients who have post- traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury, or maybe have worked in the infantry for a long time and were marching with backpacks and their knees or backs are bad and they can’t serve anymore,” Crosse explains. “When the Army has a question on whether these soldiers can safely perform their duties, it’ll refer them to the disability process. Soldiers have due-process rights, and they get an attorney to represent them.”

Before this job, Crosse practiced law in a mid-sized firm, joined an in-house counsel team, and worked in academia. “I took the job because my husband is an active-duty JAG,” she explains. “The Army started a spouse-hiring program after identifying this as an area where they could help spouses and fill positions through an expedited hiring process. I decided it was easier for me to work for the Army than to secure bar certification each time we move, which is typically every two years.”

Now Crosse says she can envision working for the Army for the long term. “At this stage of my life, this is a really great opportunity for me,” says the mom of a toddler. “I don’t have to work long hours or take work home. I’ve done the work long enough that I now have subject-matter expertise, and I’m still learning something new every day.”

No Job Is Perfect

The vast practice area a military legal job provides also can be a drawback. Annette B. Kuz holds a position much like Bethurem’s for the US Army Corps of Engineers’ South Pacific Division based in San Francisco, serving as its assistant chief counsel and division counsel.

She also thrives on the range of work she’s been able to do, but adds: “It can be too overwhelming how much we have on our plate, to be knowledgeable about everything from environmental law to construction contracts.”

The good news, Kuz says, is that she’s able to turn to Army Corps of Engineers’ headquarters’ lawyers, who typically have the expertise she needs. “There are 400 attorneys in the system, and the collegiality and willingness to help each other out is pretty unusual for agency attorneys,” she says.

The pay isn’t technically a drawback because these women say their jobs offer them a very comfortable salary. But you’ll earn less working in a military legal position than you’d earn in the private sector. Pay scales vary by position and organization, Esparraguera explains, but in general, starting pay for an Army legal job would be about $80,000, and the maximum pay would be nearly $160,000, with the possibility of additional salary awards or student loan payback in some positions.

“I think you’re going to get paid a fair amount,” Esparraguera notes. “But you’re not going to get rich quick.”

You sometimes also may have to deal with fewer resources. “Our biggest problem is we bite off more than we can chew, and we’re not resourced for it,” Kuz says. “I’ve had a paralegal vacancy now for two years. We had furloughs and sequestration in 2014, so there was significant downsizing of staff throughout the system. You make do with what you have, and what you have is sometimes not enough.”

A Unique Culture

Far outweighing the drawbacks for these women are the collegiality and other positive aspects of the military culture.

“There’s a wonderful camaraderie working in the military,” says Becky Ausprung, chief of the civilian personnel litigation branch at the US Army Litigation Division at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. “It’s very collaborative. Everybody shares work product freely. There’s also not the pressure of billable hours. If you spend time talking with your colleagues, you don’t have to worry that you weren’t billing for that time.”

Unlike Esparraguera and Bethurem, Ausprung wasn’t always a civilian. In fact, she joined the Army and served as a JAG officer before moving into her current civilian job. “Joining the service as a judge advocate was the best decision I ever made,” she recalls. “I absolutely loved it. I got great experience in the courtroom, but my husband and I lived apart for five of eight years while we were on active duty, and we made the decision to leave active-duty service.”

Today, Ausprung oversees six lawyers and two support staff defending employment litigation claims brought against the Army. “It’s a very family-friendly environment,” she states. “I work roughly 9 to 5. When I need to get something accomplished, sometimes I have to stay late or work on the weekend, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. There are also leadership opportunities that have appealed to me. I started as trial attorney for my branch and became the branch chief.”

From the start, Esparraguera has also connected with the culture of the Army. And while she agrees that the camaraderie has been a plus in her career, she says the military offers more than that.

“I’ve met incredible people, and I’ve watched leaders be amazing,” she notes. “The Army has done so much for me as far as opportunities to obtain training, things I’ve been able to see, and places I’ve gone. The Army has a depot in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania, and during the war, I traveled there and watched people repair equipment that was clearly shot through with bullet holes. They take such pride in what they do.

“I’ve seen some of the most breathtaking places,” Esparraguera adds. “I’ve been to our bases in Korea. The Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, California, is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever been. I’ve been able to fly in a Black Hawk helicopter—when I do that, I think I’ve died and gone to heaven. To see the power of the military and soldiers in training, it’s just breathtaking.”

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G.M. Filisko

G.M. Filisko is a lawyer and an award-winning, Chicago-based freelance journalist who covers legal, real estate, business, and personal finance topics for such publications as the ABA Journal, Consumers Digest, REALTOR Magazine, AARP.com, and Bankrate.com.