Representing a client who serves in the armed forces can be one of the most rewarding experiences in a young attorney’s career. Helping those who uphold and defend the Constitution is indeed a noble endeavor. But it is one that comes with unique challenges that an attorney is unlikely to encounter with non-military clients. Consider the following general guidelines when representing military clients.
Learn the Lingo
The military is its own subculture with unique traditions, customs, and courtesies, and even its own vernacular. While service member clients may not expect you to know every military euphemism and TLA (a three-letter acronym for “three-letter acronym”), knowing the differences between an officer and enlisted, soldier, sailor, airman, and marine, will go a long way toward earning at least a modicum of respect from your client. Most will appreciate a sincere attempt to learn and will not hold mistakes against you.
Military Life Is Not Uniform
Just as is the case when representing civilians, service members are unique, with varied experiences and legal needs. Not all service members have experienced combat. Some service members are highly dissatisfied with what they do. And, as a cross-section of American society, service members are made up of diverse socioeconomic, cultural, and political backgrounds. Never assume that the legal strategy successfully employed in one military case will apply to all other military cases. There may even be different legal standards that vary by branch of the military. Thus, what worked in a soldier’s case may be fruitless in a sailor’s case. After all, the armed forces is a human enterprise. The successful attorney will approach each new client and legal matter with an open mind.
Learn the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA)
Service members are entitled to unique legal protections. Because military life can be demanding and dangerous in an unparalleled manner, federal law affords certain legal protections to service members. For example, while on active duty, service members may not be able to take leave to handle a legal matter or appear in court. This is especially true for those stationed overseas or deployed in austere combat zones. The SCRA provides many temporary procedural protections for service members who meet qualifying criteria. These include protections from court orders, proceedings in absentia, and the execution of judgments. The SCRA is a powerful tool that, when used effectively, can be among an attorney’s strongest allies when representing a military client.
HOR Versus SLR
Asking a service member “where are you from?” may elicit a range of responses. The service member may answer with their current duty station (the base to which they are currently assigned), where they grew up, their military Home of Record (HOR), or their State of Legal Residence (SLR). If you are representing a service member in a legal matter, it is important to ask the right questions to elicit the information you seek. The HOR may have little or no legal import. Home of Record is merely a military term denoting the place from which a person entered military service, and to which the military is obligated to return them upon discharge. On the contrary, SLR is a term that carries substantial legal significance. It is the place where one intends to permanently reside upon discharge and is used to determine tax status, voting eligibility, college tuition rates, and probate jurisdiction. One’s SLR is not simply chosen. Rather, it must be established via certain indicia of intent such as voter registration, vehicle registration, property ownership, etc. Thus, it is important to ask the right questions to discern a military client’s SLR.
When in Doubt, Call a JAG
Military attorneys, also known as judge advocates, or JAGs, are licensed attorneys who have undergone quite a bit of specialized training in military law. JAGs are smart, dedicated, and competent attorneys who are committed to their clients’ legal interests, even if that means taking on their employer. In my experience, JAGs welcome the addition of private counsel, as they understand their own limitations and appreciate the additional experience and expertise. Conversely, JAGs can be a wealth of knowledge when it comes to navigating the military legal system, avoiding pitfalls, and understanding many of the aforementioned issues. It is important, however, to ensure you are communicating with a JAG who is assigned to a role that authorizes him or her to represent individual clients—these are typically referred to as “defense counsel” or “legal assistance attorneys”—to preserve attorney-client privilege.
When All Else Fails, Call the ABA
The ABA has a Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel (LAMP). The LAMP Committee supports several initiatives in support of military personnel and veterans which can be easily accessed here. Among these initiatives is an online information center that contains a plethora of legal resources both for service members and for the attorneys who represent them. The LAMP Committee also sponsors a Military Pro Bono Center to facilitate pro bono opportunities for attorneys who wish to volunteer their time and legal talents to military families. And there is also an initiative called Operation Stand-By, which is an attorney-to-attorney network by which military attorneys can confidentially communicate with a civilian attorney with legal questions relevant to their subject-matter expertise. Operation Stand-By presents an excellent opportunity for civilian attorneys who are willing to share their hard-earned military legal expertise with young JAGs.
Representing a military client can appear to be a daunting challenge for a young lawyer, but it is not insurmountable, and there are many resources available. More importantly, it is a challenge that offers the opportunity to serve those who selflessly serve and sacrifice on our behalf.