August 30, 2016

Transitioning from Military Law to Civilian Practice

General Jack Rives, ABA executive director, discusses his career as a military lawyer, his transition to civilian life, and his current ABA role.


ABA Law Student Podcast

Transitioning from Military Law to Civilian Practice


Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads; from finals and graduation to the Bar exam and finding a job. This show is your trusted resource for the next big step. You are listening to the Legal Talk Network.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: Hello and welcome to another edition of the ABA Law Student Podcast on the Legal Talk Network. I am Sandy Gallant; Seventh Circuit Governor with the ABA Law Student Division representing the States of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. I am currently a 2L at Northern Illinois University College of Law in DeKalb, Illinois.

Our show today is sponsored by the American Bar Association Law Student Division. In this monthly podcast we cover topics that are of interest to you, law students and recent graduates. We will be talking about a variety of issues, from finals to the bar exam and everything in between. We hope this show is a trusted resource for all of our listeners.

For this show, we have the privilege of speaking to a career military attorney who is now leading the ABA; that is General Jack Rives. Welcome so much to the show.

General Jack Rives: Thank you Sandy. Great to be with you.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: And let’s talk a little about your military background and why you were inspired first to join the Air Force?

General Jack Rives: My inspiration to go in the Air Force was easy; I had an ROTC Scholarship at the University of Georgia as an undergraduate that gave me a four year commitment in the Air Force. I’d wanted to be an attorney since I was young, so I had what’s called an educational delay to go to law school and once I graduated from law school, I came in the Air Force as a military attorney; they are called judge advocates or JAG.

And my intent was to serve my four years. I didn’t mind serving four years, but I would serve four years then I would get out, I would go back home to Georgia and get into the practice of law.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: So how does the four year intention suddenly turn into a 33 year accomplished career in the Air Force?

General Jack Rives: The opportunities I had were great. Beginning with where I was assigned, I am from Georgia and I actually requested an assignment in the south-east or south-west or somewhere overseas. My first assignment was in Upstate, New York and I went to Upstate, New York in January that winter we had a 185 inches of snow around New York and the temperature was a little different than I was used to in Georgia. Growing up in a small town in Georgia and I went to the University to Georgia for both undergraduate school and law school.

So I enjoyed my first assignment, but I wanted to see more, so I volunteered to go to Korea after year and a half, and then after a year in Korea, I went to Greece for a year and a half, and then I was selected for a special assignment where I was the defense counsel in the more serious felony cases in the Western Pacific; Korea, Japan, Guam, and the Philippines.

I did that for two years, then I had my first assignment in Washington D.C. and also with my first nine and a half years in the Air Force, I moved seven times. So I never got bored, I enjoyed what I was doing. The practice of law in the military is a great way to do it, you are in a rut and you are able to get into some areas that maybe you didn’t think you wanted to do in law school, but you find out this is interesting and this is what being a lawyer is all about.

And as I became more senior, I had opportunities to develop management skills and leadership skills and I kept moving and the time I was in the Air Force, 33 years I moved 16 times all over the world. I had an opportunity to visit every state in this country and I also went to more than 50 countries overseas.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: You achieved the rank of three-star general and you were the first military attorney to achieve that rank. What personal values did you bring to that position, sir?

General Jack Rives: The values that are important are those that any good attorney ought to have and the first watchword should be integrity, and your integrity should never be questioned.

I remember once — I love to eat and I love Chinese food and I even like the Fortune Cookie and I eat the Fortune Cookie. But I remember one time I had the Fortune Cookie and I opened it up and it didn’t have some cute saying from Confucius, like men who run behind car get exhausted. Instead, the Fortune Cookie said there are no degrees of honesty. And at first I was thinking, Confucius didn’t say that and I was thinking that’s not funny, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized there are no degrees of honestly, you either are an honest person or not, that’s not a compliment to say she is honest most of the time, or he has a fair amount of integrity. You have it or you don’t?

So, in the military and in the practice of law it’s critical to have integrity.


Another value is, in the military especially “Service Before Self”. You do learn a lot and there is great satisfaction from helping other people and in the case of being in the military, you are doing some things that really are important. And whether it’s helping an individual client or some of my assignments in the military, I had opportunities to do things at a fairly important level with national security. It really does make a difference.

And those are the critical things; integrity, service and having a good work ethic. Going in and only caring about getting things done effectively was the important thing. And one of the beauties of being a military attorney is you could focus on whatever the job was.

For example, if I had a client who had personal financial problems, if I was in the private sector, I may think this is going to take me six hours to work on and she can’t afford to pay much anyway, so don’t want to give my time pro bono.

In the military you are paid a fair living wage and you’ve got good benefits, and so I don’t have to worry about something that may take me six hours, but I’m not getting paid for it because my pay was the same no matter what I was doing.

So I found the practice law in the military to be invigorating, valuable, it mattered, the commanders in the military would tend to say — and as I became more senior and would travel around, they would tell me the most valuable person on their staff was their lawyer because the lawyers are involved in everything going on within the command.

Gr. Sandy Gallant-Jones: So how do you take those skills that you developed over 33 years and transfer that to a successful civilian career as an attorney?

Jack Rives: Yeah, I retired from the military in March of 2010. I started at the ABA on Law Day 2010. So I had a two month break when essentially I was job hunting, but I did have two months when I had retired from the Air Force and had not yet found my next job.

I wanted to do something that was meaningful and had challenges and the American Bar Association is certainly both of those things. The work is very meaningful and I have kidded with the selection committee that they didn’t reveal all of the challenges of the job. A question I frequently got when I began the job was, tell us about the transition from the military to civilian life, what was the hardest part? And I realized that the transition was really easy because the things I did in the military, the skills I developed were the same ones I used in my current position as the Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the American Bar Association.

What I learned in the military was how to manage things and lead people and how to work with people. And the same skill set I developed in 33 years in the military works very well in my current position. Sometimes people say, you know, the Presidents leave after only one year. Well, a lot of my commanders left after less than a year, so I was used to that part of it. And they said, essentially, I have got 420,000 bosses, everyone at the American Bar Association is someone I work for.

And that was during the military too, I had 300 some million bosses, the people of this country are the bosses of our military, but the skill set you develop really is transferable. I would recommend a military practice to anyone, whether it’s 4 years or 24 years or even longer as I did, you develop good skills that are readily transferable and you learn things that really do make you a better lawyer, a better leader.

Many attorneys can’t be successful by being essentially a lone wolf. They do their job and they don’t learn how to manage things and lead people, but you can’t do that in the military. And in my current job, people would not have remembered who that short-term executive director was if I was not able to work with people. Both our Volunteer Leaders who were the officers and the Board members and the House of Delegate members, but also our members at large, I try to be very responsive and I try to lead the staff that’s responsive and enthused about doing their job because it does make a difference.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: You know, one of the growing trends among law schools is a growing number of non-traditional students who are pursuing law as a career. Many of those non-traditional students are veterans and what do you say to those veterans who are bringing their personal experience, be it in combat and are now in the classroom?

General Jack Rives: I congratulate them, first of all for their service to their country, but second of all for making a decision to enter the practice of law, and whether they are a paralegal or another support personnel, a court reporter or whether they’re in law school, they can have a great career in law and even in this country we have 1.3 million people who right now have a Juris Doctor degree. Not all are practicing attorneys but I have no doubt believing that everyone who went through the legal education has learned things that benefit them every day.


And the legal education can be critical to making a person more articulate, better able to reason, better able to analyze and better able to advocate and articulate their position.

So the people who come from the military, I commend them for going to law school and I do believe they are going to be better students in many ways than I was. I went from kindergarten all the way through law school without a break, and the veterans who have served their country have had some great experiences and they can come back and enrich the courtroom. I had several — even though I went to law school 40 years ago, I had several people who were then in the service and had gotten a break from service to get their law degree. I had a retired Navy officer who had served more than 20 years in the Navy, and they brought a fresh approach and a different way of looking at the classroom experience in law school.

It was very effective and I believe that the more veterans and people who have done other things before going to law school, will enrich their law school classes in many ways and they are going to have a better experience from the beginning because they’re more mature than someone who like me went from kindergarten through law school and just thought it was about education and the academic experience.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: What can law schools do to be more supportive for veterans, because oftentimes many of these veterans have families; they have established a life before returning to the classroom.

General Jack Rives: I have been gratified that a lot of law schools really do consider the family and the total person situation for their students. They don’t — just look at someone who is filling a seat, but they do consider when someone has a family, when they have children, and they typically have additional needs that the school should be helping with and can help with. I have been gratified that at an overwhelming number of law schools they do provide just that support. And you’ve detailed some of the ways that can happen. There are countless ways that law schools do respond to recognize that their students are not all like me coming from kindergarten through law school, and they are people who had a job and a life. They have done other things, they have got a family, so they have got a lot of concerns than just coming to class and studying and getting ready for things, ultimately for the bar exam and the practice of law.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: I know you have experience in so to speak, rallying the troops, and now that you have transitioned to being the Executive Director of the American Bar Association, you really are trying to rally membership, and your new troops, your new recruits are law students. So why should law students become members of the American Bar Association and why should they get involved?

General Jack Rives: Yeah. That’s a great question. I will begin by stepping back a little bit. When I was in law school we did not have the law student division. When I was in law school, I was looking forward to graduating and passing the bar being admitted and becoming a member of the American Bar Association. And when I became a member of the ABA, I received my Certificate of Membership like most people of that era; that was one of the first things written on my wall. I had my diploma from law school, undergraduate school, and I had my membership in the American Bar Association. It’s the National Professional Association, we are voluntary association, but anyone who goes to law school should say, I want to join with my fellow attorneys and get involved in the big things that the ABA can do.

The American Bar Association will make you a better attorney. We provide CLE, we provide reading materials, we help with having you meet other attorneys. Our job Board ABA Legal Central currently has more than 640 jobs posted. Their ultimate goal is to be the best job board for lawyers in the world, and we have made dramatic progress over the past few years, and I intend to assure we continue to do that. But we can make individuals better attorneys, we can help you get clients, we can help you get a job, and we also help the profession and the country.

Our commitment is to serve our members and also to improve the rule of law in this country and all around the world, and to strive to eliminate bias and enhance diversity. And these are things the American Bar Association does. We do a lot of things to help the profession. There are things only a National Professional Association can do.

For example, since the Eisenhower administration, Federal judicial nominees are vetted through the American Bar Association before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate will vote on the Federal Judiciary nominees, they want to know what does the American Bar Association think.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: Wow!

General Jack Rives: Accreditation of law schools falls under the America Bar Association. The ethical rules that govern the profession are examined and enhanced as time goes on by the American Bar Association and National Bar needs to do that.

We have a dozen or so registered lobbyists in Washington, DC to advance lawyer’s interest, not so much the association as the legal profession.


So these are things the American Bar Association does. We help individual lawyers, and we help the profession. And so, they have law students get involved from the beginning. They will get benefits that they can find on our website and we’ve got student representatives on every campus, you can tell them the benefits of membership. For the last year we’ve had free membership for law students. Right now we’ve got 73,000 law students who are members of the ABA Law Student Division.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: That’s incredible!

General Jack Rives: And it’s more than 55% of the students. A year before we had fewer than 20% of law student members. So the goal is to have 100% of law student members and to prove the value of membership, every law student member can join up to five sections of the ABA at no cost. We are just enrolling our premium membership for law students, and under the Premium Program you pay a $25 fee and you get a big variety of benefits.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: Huge perks, huge.

General Jack Rives: Huge perks and I encourage people to go to the website and see what the benefits really are, because it’s worth a lot more than $25.

One of the areas I’m excited about is the ability to post a question while you are in law school. May be your school only offers one IP course, and you’re wondering should I get into this area. I have got a pretty good background for it, is this something I want to do?

Sandy Gallant-Jones: Right!

General Jack Rives: And you can post the question and an IP attorney will say here is my advice. So instead of you wondering or talk to someone who doesn’t really know the answer, you can establish a rapport with the lawyer. Maybe that will lead to a phone conversation or exchange of e-mails or even coffee, or maybe even the job.

So we’ve got a number of benefits for students in our National Professional Association. If you are going to be a lawyer in this country, you should be a member of the American Bar Association.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: All right! So let’s hark in back to your 1L year. I know it was a long time ago, but if you could give Jack Rives a piece of advice, because I know that we have a lot of brand new law students listening to this podcast. What advice would you give yourself to really cope and manage with the stress and demand that law school brings?

General Jack Rives: Yeah, Sandy, you did a great job of highlighting the fact that stress and demand are two of the biggest terms that our first-year students especially feels, and in a phrase I would say, hang in there. I would also say keep your sense of humor; have some balance in your life. The equation is going to be twisted a bit because the balance is being in class and studying and being prepared for class for the overwhelming amount of your waking hours, and your waking hours especially as exams get near are a lot more than your sleep hours, but realize you do need to have some balance in your life. Stay physically fit. Make the time to exercise. If you have got a family, take time with your family. That’s a breath of fresh air as well. But focus on school; realize how important it is to get that basic grounding and what the first-year studies will do for you.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: I am curious; do you remember your first cold call?

General Jack Rives: My first cold call of which sort?

Sandy Gallant-Jones: For in class, your first cold call —

General Jack Rives: Yeah, I think, everyone is traumatized by that, mine was actually in real property.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: Oh no!

General Jack Rives: Instead of torts. In torts the professor made you stand up and would grill you until you couldn’t answer questions. But my first one was in real property, and we were doing some of the older studies that you wonder why am I worried about something they did in England 500 years ago? And so I had read it. I wasn’t paying all that much attention to it, and sure enough the professor calls on me to answer questions and to explain an area that I really don’t feel like comfortable with.

So the lesson there is, be prepared, and of course, if there is one phrase that law students should know and it is be prepared and you cannot over prepare. And the same thing is true for the legal profession. If you’re really well-prepared you can handle any situation and that’s what I found in the practice. When I was in litigation and I was both a prosecutor and a defense counsel in the military, and what I found is I frequently got good results and almost always in my own mind I would say that’s because the other side was not as prepared as I was. And there’s no excuse for people not being prepared, especially in the military practice. You have the time to do it right and to prepare, and it’s not, well, this client is only going to pay me a certain amount of money, so I am only going to give her a few hours.

If the case preparation requires 40 or 60 hours, that’s how much time you put into it.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: Awesome! General Jack Rives, ABA Executive Director, thank you so much for your time and thanks for joining us on today’s podcast.

If anybody wants to reach out to you and just ask you a quick question sir, how could they do that?

General Jack Rives: Yeah, they are very welcome to. I enjoy getting e-mails. I am always responsive. My e-mail address is  HYPERLINK “” And you are welcome to call my office in Chicago (312) 988 5225.


I enjoy interacting with students especially, and people who are excited about the profession. If I am not there to answer your call, I will be given the note and I will call you back. If I don’t respond to your email the same day you send it, then it probably means I didn’t get it because I do respond to all the emails the same day. So please resend it later that day or the next day, because I will engage with you. I am glad to that and I’m happy that our students are so enthused and excited about becoming the best members of our profession. And the one thing I would say to the law students and I tend to say to law students is, I would love to trade places with you.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: What?

General Jack Rives: Not in law school, as much as being at the frontend of their profession. I would not enjoy taking the bar exam again, but I would love to be where you are. Sandy, you are too well. You’ve got a lot of experiences that are not necessarily fun, but you are going to learn things and you are going to be able to apply it, and then you are going to be able to be at the frontend of a great profession.

Sandy Gallant-Jones: You set an amazing example as a leader and you are so inspiring sir. Thank you very much for your time.

General Jack Rives: Thank you very much Sandy.

Sandy Gallant-Jones:  And we would like to encourage you to subscribe to our ABA Law Student Podcast on iTunes, please take a moment to rate and review us as well.

You can also reach us on Twitter at @abalsd using the #lawstudentpodcast. We want to hear what’s on your mind. I am Sandy Gallant and we thank you for listening to the ABA Law Student Podcast. Stay tuned, expect more, and until next time podcasters, study hard.

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In this episode of the ABA Law Student Podcast, host Sandy Gallant-Jones speaks with General Jack Rives, executive director of the American Bar Association about his career as a military lawyer, his transition to civilian life, and his current role within the ABA. Jack reminisces about his passion for the legal profession from an early age, his undergraduate time at The University of Georgia on a Reserve Officers Training Corps Scholarship, and shares that he originally only planned to spend four years in the Air Force. After an educational delay that allowed him to attend law school, he entered the military as a judge advocate general (JAG). Jack provides a breakdown of the various occupational and travel opportunities that changed his initial plans and led to a 33 year long career as a military lawyer. He provides insight into the personal values, like integrity, strong work ethic, and service that aided him in becoming the first military lawyer to ever achieve the rank of three star general and emphasizes how these values are necessary for the success of every attorney. Jack takes time to commend veterans who are pursuing law degrees, discusses ways that law schools can better support these particular students, and talks about his journey transitioning from the military to civilian practice and his work with the ABA. He closes the interview with tips for law students on how to manage the stress and demand of their studies and the many benefits that joining The American Bar Association can have on their flourishing careers.

General Jack Rives is originally from Rockmart, Georgia. Upon graduating from the University of Georgia School of Law, he began a 33-year career in the United States Air Force as a judge advocate general (JAG) where he became the first military attorney to attain the three-star rank of lieutenant general. During his time in service, General Rives led 2,600 lawyers and was awarded both the Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster and Defense Superior Service Medal.

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Featured Guest

General Jack Rives

General Jack Rives is originally from Rockmart, Georgia. Upon graduating from the University of Georgia School of Law, he...

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Sandy Gallant-Jones

Sandy Gallant-Jones is the Seventh Circuit Governor for the American Bar Association Law Student Division, representing all law school...