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Choosing the Right Military Branch for Your Legal Career: A Marine Perspective

Geoffrey G Hengerer, Steven Arango, Jhonathan Morales Najera, and Max Jesse Goldberg

Choosing the Right Military Branch for Your Legal Career: A Marine Perspective
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Every week, law students and lawyers reach out to us with one simple question: What is it like to be a Marine Judge Advocate (Marine JA)? As we’ve had more and more conversations with prospective Marine JAs, we’ve come to realize that one topic, in particular, deserves its own article: the similarities and differences between Marine JAs and our counterparts in the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard (JAGs). While our Marine Corps experiences influence our perspective, we hope it is helpful to those interested in joining the military as a lawyer.

Similarities Across the Branches

Across all five branches of the military, JAGs and Marine JAs perform many of the same duties. These similarities fall into three broad categories.

  • Military Justice: JAGs and Marine JAs represent service members and provide legal and administrative support for courts-martial, which are military courts that handle violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). JAGs and Marine JAs serve as trial lawyers—prosecutors, defense counsel, and victim’s counsel. Most JAGs and Marine JAs will serve in a military justice role in their first tour to enable them to advise commanders and commanding generals competently in future assignments. For Marine JAs, future military justice assignments include the opportunity to serve as military trial judges with the Navy-Marine Corps Trial Judiciary (NMCTJ), litigate appellate matters before the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals (NMCCA) and the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF), or serve as appellate judges with NMCCA. Some Marine JAs also get deputized as Special Assistant US Attorneys (SAUSAs) and prosecute civilian crimes on federal installations in US District Courts.
  • Legal Assistance: JAGs and Marine JAs provide legal assistance to servicemembers, dependents, and retirees, helping them navigate issues including family law, estate planning, consumer law, landlord-tenant disputes, and other civil matters.
  • Advising Commanders: JAGs and Marine JAs are responsible for advising commanders on a wide range of legal issues, including military justice, ethics, international law, operational law, and providing legal assistance to military personnel and their families. JAGs and Marine JAs also provide legal guidance during operations, ensuring compliance with the law of armed conflict and other applicable legal frameworks. JAGs and Marine JAs are involved in advising on administrative actions, such as the review and disposition of investigations, boards of inquiry, and disciplinary actions.

For Marine JAs, all these duties are conducted worldwide, aboard one’s assigned military installation, afloat on a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), in forward deployed combat zones, or anywhere between.

Restricted and Unrestricted Officers

One of the most fundamental differences between JAGs and Marine JAs is that JAGs (except Coast Guard JAGs) are restricted officers while Marine JAs are unrestricted. Army, Navy, and Air Force JAGs are restricted officers, meaning they are mostly limited to serving as lawyers throughout their military careers. In contrast, Marine JAs are unrestricted officers, allowing them to serve in various positions that are also open to other Marine officers, such as a Commanding Officer.

Marine JAs may serve as a commander or leader of military units in addition to providing legal services. Promotion boards consider and value attributes that are not directly related to legal work, such as leadership ability and physical fitness. Marine JAs are increasingly competitive in higher-level screening boards and have been selected to command units such as security battalions, training battalions at the recruit depots, and headquarters and support battalions for military installations, schools, and other command entities. Several Marine JAs have also been selected to lead various regions for the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group (MCESG), which supports and protects our embassies and consulates around the globe.

Additionally, due to their unique skill sets, Marine JAs are often selected to serve as executive officers (XOs) and operations officers (OpsOs) for certain units. For example, a JA serving as XO would be in charge of synchronizing staff functions and taking lead on critical unit administration. As a collateral duty in this role, that Marine JA might also serve as Embassy Liaison Officer (ELO) and work on settling foreign claims on behalf of the United States Government. These kinds of positions frequently require Marine JAs to exercise both leadership and legal skills while serving a critical role for the unit.

JAG and Marine JA Training

The selection for JAGs and Marine JAs follows a similar pattern, with some variations unique to each service. Generally, candidates must hold or be on track to obtain a JD from an accredited law school and meet the eligibility requirements for a commission as an officer in their respective service.

For JAGs, once selected, candidates attend an officer induction course specific to their branch, which is typically about five weeks in length and focuses on basic military knowledge, customs, and courtesies. Upon completion and commissioning, JAGs must pass a bar examination and become licensed to practice law in at least one US jurisdiction. Afterward, they attend a specialized training program in military law: the JAG Legal Center and School (TJAGLCS) for the Army; the Naval Justice School (NJS) for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard; and the Air Force JAG School for the Air Force. Upon completing this training, JAGs and Marine JAs are assigned to legal positions within their respective services.

Marine JA Pipeline

The Marine JA pipeline shares some of these attributes, but it is significantly more involved because it prepares candidates to lead Marines in addition to practicing military law.


The first step in becoming a Marine JA is to be selected for the program. Candidates must meet the basic qualifications for joining the Marine Corps, including physical fitness requirements that are more demanding than the other branches. These physical standards can be found here. For the Marine Corps, future Marine JAs can be selected as college seniors, 1L, 2L, 3L, or as licensed attorneys. Marine Officer Selection Officers (OSOs) will work with every potential candidate to submit the best possible package for the selection board. The OSO will help prepare candidates for the physical fitness demands, military knowledge, and general expectations of training. While fitness is essential to being a Marine Officer, boards take a holistic view of each applicant. To get in touch with an OSO, submit information here.

Officer Candidate School

Upon selection, candidates attend Officer Candidates School (OCS) in Quantico, Virginia. Marine OCS is a 10-week program designed to screen and evaluate potential Marine Corps officers in their leadership potential. Prospective Marine JAs are not exempt from the rigors of OCS, competing alongside future infantry officers, logisticians, and pilots. The program focuses on leadership, physical fitness, and basic military skills. Candidates who complete OCS may—at their sole discretion—accept a commission as Second Lieutenants in the US Marine Corps. For most candidates, OCS is a transformative experience that helps them decide whether to join the Marine Corps. As 1st Lt Jacob P. Castagnola (3L at University of Oklahoma College of Law) explained, “the distinction between the Marine Corps and the other services became even more apparent when I learned about the highly competitive and rigorous moral, physical, and academic standards for being selected to attend and graduate OCS.”

The Basic School

After commissioning, bar passage, and licensing, Marine JAs attend The Basic School (TBS), also located in Quantico, Virginia. Some Marine JAs will defer TBS by one year to complete a judicial clerkship, LLM, or MBA. TBS is a six-month training program designed to teach all newly commissioned officers the basic skills required to be provisional rifle platoon commanders in the Marine Corps. TBS focuses on leadership and basic military skills, including land navigation, weapons handling, and small-unit tactics. Although TBS is not tailored specifically for Marine JAs, it is a critical component of their training, as it ensures they understand how to effectively support their brothers and sisters in arms within the Marine Corps. This training instills a sense of personal and professional credibility, which will prove critical when advising commanders and warfighters in an operational setting.

Naval Justice School

Following the completion of TBS, Marine JAs attend the NJS in Newport, Rhode Island, alongside the other sea-service lawyers (Navy and Coast Guard). This 11-week course provides comprehensive training on military law and the practice of law within the Department of Defense (DoD). The curriculum covers various topics, including military criminal law, legal assistance, administrative law, and operational law. One of the main graded events is a comprehensive mock court-martial focused on commonly encountered scenarios and legal issues. Upon successful completion of NJS, Marine JAs are qualified and certified to “hit the fleet” and begin their service as military legal practitioners.

Continuing Legal Education and Professional Military Education

Although many state bars waive continuing legal education requirements for active duty servicemembers, Marine JAs can receive CLE through specialized training at NJS, the Army’s TJAGLCS, and other DoD entities. Marines must also complete Professional Military Education (PME) for each grade, captain and above. For instance, Captains must complete Expeditionary Warfare School (EWS), which can range from one to two years of courses focused on “on the warfighting capabilities of a Marine Air Ground Task Force operating within a complex and distributed Naval expeditionary environment”; Majors are expected to complete Command and Staff College (CSC), again ranging from one to two years. Marine JAs may also be selected to attend TJAGLCS to obtain an LLM in criminal, international, or cyber law.

Our Culture: Leading Marines

Although JAGs and Marine JAs share a common goal of providing legal services and support, the cultures of each branch differ due to their distinct histories, missions, and operational environments. Being a Marine JA requires the desire and ability to lead Marines as well as practice law. The Marine Corps has stringent physical fitness standards and requires all Marine Officers (including Marine JAs) to receive provisional rifle platoon leadership training at OCS and TBS. Due to these requirements, the Marine Corps tends to attract a different kind of person. In our experience, serving as a Marine allows you to be part of an organization with a long-respected, revered, and illustrious reputation. In the Marine Corps, you are part of the select few: there are roughly 550 active duty Marine JAs out of 178,000 active duty Marines. As a result, every legal assignment assigned to a Marine JA is critical either to the unit they are supporting or to the Marine Corps at large.

Esprit de Corps: Why We Joined

“The Navy has its ships, the Air Force has its planes, the Army has its tanks and manpower, but the Marine Corps has its culture.” For many of us, this phrase encapsulates what sets the Marine Corps apart from the rest. The other branches each provide unique opportunities to serve and may be the right fit for many. For us, the sense of camaraderie—the esprit de corps—makes “our Corps” unique. Every Marine Judge Advocate has their own story of why they joined.

Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey G. Hengerer

Lieutenant Colonel Hengerer attended OCS in 1998 looking for challenge, adventure, and a different post-college experience. He also followed a family tradition of national service with both grandfathers serving in the Army during World War II and his parents joining the Peace Corps in the 1960s. After completing his active duty obligation in 2007, Lieutenant Colonel Hengerer did not accept a Reserve commission due to anticipated conflicts between satisfying military requirements and pursuing his civilian career. After several years at a large corporate law firm, he felt called to return to a life of service where he found loyalty, camaraderie, and a sense of purpose. In 2013, Lieutenant Colonel Hengerer was reappointed and has continually served as Reserve Marine JA in several capacities, including a tour as a military trial judge.

Captain Steven J. Arango

Captain Arango is a first-generation American. His father emigrated from Venezuela to the United States when he was 20 years old, where he learned English by watching local news, attended medical school, and became a successful cancer surgeon. Even with this success, his father never stopped helping others—service is ingrained in him. He passed this quality on to Captain Arango, a quality that moved him to serve his country. For his choice on which branch, that decision was easy: Captain Arango’s hero—his grandfather—served as a US Marine in the Pacific during World War II.

Captain Jhonathan J. Morales

Captain Morales is a naturalized US citizen born in Guatemala. After coming to the United States at just five years old, he became the first in his family to graduate from college and to become a licensed attorney. Due to his appreciation for the country and desire to give back, he chose to become a Marine and has never looked back.

Second Lieutenant Max J. Goldberg

Second Lieutenant Goldberg had virtually no military background in his family but got “bitten by the bug” during law school. Although he considered all five branches, he ultimately chose the Marine Corps for the unique blend of military leadership and courtroom experience that it offers. The Marines have given him a chance to serve alongside the most dedicated public servants on earth and the privilege to uphold the law while embodying the spirit of initiative and honor that permeates the Corps.

We all have a unique background, but what unites us is the Marine Corps. When we earned our Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, we became brothers and sisters of arms with hundreds of thousands of other Marines–active, reserve, and retired. That’s what makes the Marine Corps special: no matter where you came from or what you have done, once you don the EGA, you are now part of the greatest fighting organization the world has ever seen.

Gunslingers: In the Corps and Beyond

While many Marine JAs make a career in the “Gun Club,” most will serve a tour or two and transition to civilian opportunities. However, they will not return to their hometowns or new cities empty-handed; they will be armed with marketable and transferable skills. In addition to being a Marine JA and having completed one of the world’s preeminent leadership and management training at OCS and TBS, they will have valuable security clearances and significant trial experience. The trial experience one receives as a first tour Marine JA with drafting complex motions and arguing in court before judges and members (the military equivalent of juries) frequently surpasses that gained by junior associates. The value added is demonstrated by the fact that Marine JAs have excelled in every area of the legal profession, including:

  • Major National Law Firms, including Hogan Lovells, Covington & Burling, King & Spalding, Jones Day, and Steptoe & Johnson;
  • In-House Counsel, including Facebook, T-Mobile, Anduril, and Blue Bell Creameries;
  • Federal Government, including the Department of Justice, US Attorney’s Offices, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); Federal Public Defenders, the US Department of the Interior, and other agencies;
  • Boutique Small Firms and Solo Practitioners across the county
  • Local District Attorney Offices and Public Defenders;
  • Members of Congress, such as former Congressman Conor Lamb;
  • Political Appointees, including several appointed US Attorneys, the Director of Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and a former Deputy Legal Counsel to the Governor of Maryland;
  • Federal Judges: Judge Michael D. Hawkins (Ninth Circuit); Judge Albert Diaz (Fourth Circuit); Judge Steve Logan (District of Arizona); Judge William “Chip” Campbell (former USMC pilot*, Middle District of Tennessee); Judge James Sweeney II (Southern District of Indiana); Judge Jason Pulliam (Western District of Texas); Magistrate Judge William Gallo (Southern District of California); Magistrate Judge Chris Dos Santos (Southern District of Texas); Judge James Baker (CAAF); Judge Margaret “Meg” Ryan (CAAF); Judge Joseph Falvey (United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims);
  • State Judges in California, Florida, Illinois, and Maryland; and
  • Federal Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) for the Social Security Administration, Executive Office for Immigration Review, and the Board of Veterans Appeals.

Many Marine JAs not only transition to civilian careers but also continue their service in the Marine Corps Reserves. Although it can be challenging to juggle family, a demanding civilian career, and service obligations, Reserve Marine JAs have the opportunity to augment a civilian practice with military roles such as command advisement, prosecutorial functions, defense of service members, and as trial and appellate judgeships. For more information on Reserve JA opportunities, visit the Reserve Legal Support and Marine Corps Forces Reserve webpages.

Moreover, Marine JAs who leave after their active duty obligation and those who continue in the Reserves leverage a robust national network of referrals and resources to assist you and your clients. For example, a former Marine JA in Baltimore has a client who has an urgent hearing in Los Angeles can immediately retain someone they served with and trust to handle the matter as local counsel.

Finally, the Marine JA experience and the fact that one answers the call of service will inevitably serve as a foundation for securing interviews, jobs, and clients.


Law students and attorneys considering a career in the military have a wealth of opportunities across the different branches, each with its unique set of challenges and rewards. While the selection and training process for JAGs in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard share many similarities, the Marine Corps offers a distinct experience emphasizing the importance of leadership and a deep understanding of the Marine Corps’ culture.

No branch is for everyone. While Marine JAs share many similarities, we differ just as the branches of the military we serve. Each of us made a decision that fit our personality, mindset, career goals, family considerations, and other factors. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to selecting a branch for a military legal career.

We hope this article has laid out some of the basics of a legal career in the military and explained why we chose the Marine Corps. To make an informed decision, we highly recommend that you speak with recruiters from each branch and engage with officers already serving in the JAG and Marine JA community, as they will provide invaluable guidance in choosing the right branch for your career as a military attorney.

Finally, we invite you to reach out to any of us—we are always happy to discuss what makes the Marine Corps special. Our LinkedIn profiles are hyperlinked in our names below.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the District Court of Maryland, Maryland Judiciary, US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Federal Judiciary, US Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or US Government.