Michael Odell Walker

Lieutenant Michael O. Walker is a Judge Advocate with the United States Coast Guard.  He is stationed at the Legal Service Command in   He can be reached at michaelodellwalker@gmail.com.

Like any other government or commercial entity, ’s armed forces need lawyers.  From routine issues such as discipline, property management, and ethics to highly-sensitive issues such as whether to attack a target and the rules for engaging the enemy, military commanders at all levels regularly use lawyers, known as Judge Advocates (JAs), to advise them.  For graduating law students and experienced young lawyers, these present the opportunity to quickly gain important case handling and client relations experience while serving ’s citizens and earning a steady paycheck.  This article briefly discusses (1) what JAs do, (2) how to become a JA, and (3) benefits of being a JA.

1.  What Judge Advocates Do

Most people envision Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men” or the CBS series “JAG” or “NCIS” as what a JA does.  While each of these focused on one component of a JA’s work – criminal law under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the reality of a JA’s work covers a wide breadth of practice areas.

Each armed service – Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard - employs uniformed JAs.   While each service has areas of practice unique to them, JAs in all services work generally in the following areas:

Criminal Law, Military Discipline, and Military Personnel Matters:  More than just prosecuting and defending service members, this includes advising commanders on disciplinary options other than courts-martial, including administrative separation or informal punishment.  In addition to prosecuting and defending service members, JAs also practice appellate law.

Operational Law:  JAs advise commanders on whether proposed military action comports with the Law of Armed Conflict, Geneva Conventions, or other laws that apply to military engagement.   For Coast Guard lawyers, operational issues also include Constitutional legal issues (such as Search and Seizure), Federal criminal statutes, and bilateral agreements and treaties. 

Administrative, Fiscal, and Regulatory Law:  JAs provide support on a wide range of issues, including Federal procurement law, claims against the United States, agency-specific regulations, Federal ethics rules, and real property issues.

Legal Assistance:  JAs help military members with the preparation of wills, powers of attorney, landlord-tenant issues, and other legal questions.  This provides a valuable service which comes as a benefit to military members and their dependents.

Note that many JAs get significant experience upon reporting to their first duty stations, including contested criminal trials before member panels (juries).  From day one, JAs will also be interacting with their clients, many of whom are senior officers. 

2.  How to Become a JA         

While each service has specific application requirements, there are some commonalities.  JAs are recruited in law school and from civilian practice.  Each service requires a JA to be licensed by the highest court of a state.  Each has age, weight, and health requirements, which some requiring fitness tests.  Each conducts a criminal background check.  Links to each service’s Judge Advocate recruitment sites are below.

Applicants who make the cut will go to their service’s officer training school and legal school.  Training can take six months or longer.  Once training ends, new JAs go to their first duty station, where they will be for 2-4 years.

3.  Benefits of Being a JA

A JA’s career will likely span all of the practice areas listed above.  Some JAs even deploy to combat zones.  With the requirements of moving every few years, JAs also get the chance to see the country and world.  Additionally, JAs earn a regular paycheck, which includes non-taxable allowances for housing and food and the opportunity to earn a retirement after 20 years of service.  Free health care, further educational (e.g. LLMs or other degrees) and training opportunities, GI bill benefits, and access to tax-free groceries and department stores round out some of the great benefits. 

Further, JAs can develop their leadership skills in-service, through the , and with the Judge Advocates Association.


Young lawyers who want the challenge, opportunity, and benefit of gaining valuable legal experience, being a leader, and serving their country should consider serving as a Judge Advocate.  While selection is competitive, the rewards and opportunities to serve are great. 


Interested young lawyers should go to the websites below: 

Army:  http://www.goarmy.com/jag/how-to-join.html

Air Force:  http://www.jagusaf.hq.af.mil/

Navy: http://www.jag.navy.mil/careers_/careers/apply.html

Marine Corps:  http://officer.marines.com/marine/winning_battles/leadership_positions/law/judge_advocate

Coast Guard:  http://www.uscg.mil/legal/recruit/Career_Home.asp

DISCLAIMER:  This article represents the opinions of the author and not those of the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense or Departments of the Army, Air Force, or Navy.  Interested young lawyers should meet with a recruiter and contact each branch for specific requirements for becoming a JA.


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