Hanging Up the Uniform: Navigating the Military Attorney to Civilian Transition

Scott G. Johnson
Learn how to overcome the cultural chasm and navigate the challenging transition from the military to civilian life.

Learn how to overcome the cultural chasm and navigate the challenging transition from the military to civilian life.

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All military attorneys, from a Judge Advocate (JAG) only interested in completing his or her initial commitment to a JAG retiring after a 20-year career, will eventually trade in their camouflage for a suit and tie. Corporate America is generally supportive of the military and extends a helping hand to those in uniform whenever possible. The following advice will help military attorneys overcome the cultural chasm and navigate the challenging transition from the military to civilian life. 

Why Is the Transition So Tricky?

JAGs live and breathe the military daily and are generally placed in positions of responsibility earlier in their career than their civilian counterparts. Consequently, they believe that they are qualified for nearly every civilian job description they see. Would JAGs hire a civilian attorney with no military experience for their position? Of course not. Likewise, civilian hiring managers may have the same apprehensions about hiring a JAG for a civilian position. Less than one percent of the US population serves in the military. Thus, more than 90 percent cannot appreciate or understand fully what our military, including JAGs, does daily. JAGs who understand these unintentional obstacles during their transition are better able to keep their applications from being overlooked.

Walk, Talk, and Quack Like a Duck

To be a civilian attorney, compliance officer, or other equivalent position, a JAG needs to learn how to walk, talk, and act the role during his or her transition. A JAG shouldn’t assume a hiring manager knows what a staff judge advocate, court-martial, or operational law are. Explaining JAG work in industry-equivalent terms (e.g., senior attorney, general counsel, trials, transactions, etc.) increases the chance a JAG’s resume will contain job-specific search terms. These terms also better demonstrate to a hiring manager an understanding of a particular job’s or industry’s requirements.

Does the Team Need a Quarterback?

If professional football teams need a quarterback, they draft a quarterback. Likewise, hiring managers usually look for an attorney with a specific skill-set to fill a particular organizational need. Despite all the unique talents and leadership skills a JAG accumulates over her career, a JAG must demonstrate to the hiring manager how she can be a better long-term value to the organization than a traditional and more familiar civilian attorney. To do so, a JAG should carefully review civilian job postings to determine if her unique skills translate.

Quantity vs. Quality

JAGs accomplish a great deal over their careers and need to learn how to trade quantity for quality in their civilian resume. Start with a chronological resume created with all the comments from old fitness reports or evaluations, even if it runs four to five pages. Next, condense the resume into a one- or two-page document of career highlights that aligns with the requirements of a particular job description. For example, if a JAG is considering a civilian litigation position and it’s been a couple of assignments since the JAG worked in litigation, this exercise will help organize his accomplishments into a functional resume format that can highlight those job-specific skills while de-emphasizing any potentially detracting time gaps between assignments.

Network

The military often overlooks the importance of networking, but it is an indispensable component for any successful civilian job search. Networking helps JAGs understand a specific industry and meet industry leaders. JAGs should start by finding a local veteran network group and reaching out to other recently transitioned veterans. JAGs should try to schedule at least one event in their area of interest per week, whether it’s a presentation to a networking group, an informational interview, or lunch or coffee with an industry leader. JAGs should always remember that a simple “thank you” or LinkedIn connection could create another opportunity. When transitioning from military to civilian life, stay positive, follow these steps, and you’ll succeed in your civilian transition.

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Scott G. Johnson

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Scott G. Johnson is a compliance director with a financial services firm. A former P-3 naval flight officer, he served in various legal roles before retiring after 24 years of service as the assistant general counsel for operations at US Central Command.