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In Focus

Lawyers in the Military


Image by Gérard Dubois

When U.S. Army Capt. Robert Rodriguez, JD ’06, landed a job upon graduation as an associate at Crowell & Moring in Washington, D.C., he thought it would be the start of a long career. “Crowell was great to me,” he says. Yet in 2009, three years in, he found himself craving a change. “I was looking for something that would give me more one-on-one interaction with clients, that would get me closer to the action,” he says. “I wanted something more hands-on and faster-paced.” • So he left his job and spent a year and a half traveling and pondering his next move. While skiing, camping, and hiking his way across the United States, he came to realize that he needed to radically change his career—and his life. • An Army brat who grew up mostly in the D.C. area, Rodriguez was familiar with the military’s culture and way of life. He decided to apply to the Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps; he was admitted and began his service in October 2012.

JAG work, and life, is a stark contrast with what he had previously known; it involved a hefty pay cut and going from his D.C. condo to barracks that slept 100 (although this portion of the training was short-lived, Rodriguez notes). During the Judge Advocate Officer Basic Course, he went through firearms training, rifle marches, and exercises in land navigation and water survival. He spent three months in Charlottesville, Virginia, learning the ins and outs of military law.

For the past year, he has been a JAG officer at Fort Carson, Colorado. He initially focused on offering legal assistance to soldiers on all manner of issues: landlord-tenant disputes, divorce, child custody, spousal support, debt and credit matters. Since November, his job has been to provide legal advice to victims of sexual assault as a “special victims counsel.”

When people hear the term JAG, Tom Cruise’s character in A Few Good Men might come to mind; in reality, the military justice work featured in the movie is only one small slice of what JAG attorneys do. They also handle claims, for instance, when U.S. troops damage property abroad. They handle administrative and civil law, for example, advising on the range of issues that arise within a military installation that may be the size of an entire city. And they handle adverse administrative actions against soldiers in cases of misconduct. In the first four years in the corps, “any new judge advocate can expect to rotate among these disciplines and spend a significant amount of time in each of them,” says Rodriguez.

For Rodriguez, the variety of JAG work is stimulating and satisfying. Five days a week, he must be on base by 6:30 a.m. for a required PT (physical training) session, something he enjoys tremendously. And despite the risks inherent in military service, he is resoundingly content with his choice.

He is one of an increasing number of Stanford Law School graduates pursuing careers in military law. Across all military branches, applications for the JAG Corps are up; with combat operations winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan, military service has become more appealing because it is less dangerous. Meanwhile, the tensions surrounding on-campus recruiting have eased. The atmosphere on campus is much more welcoming to the military since the end of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, says Capt. Anne C. Hsieh, JD/MA ’12, an Army JAG officer based at Fort Stewart, Georgia.

Like Rodriguez, Hsieh has appreciated the variety of her work in her first year with the JAG Corps. This has included stints in federal criminal law (prosecuting crimes committed by civilians on military bases), administrative law, government contracts, fiscal law, and environmental law; she recently began a new assignment prosecuting soldiers in court-martial proceedings.

The military has an entirely separate justice system, with separate courts (leading up to the Supreme Court of the United States) and a different legal code known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), Hsieh notes. The UCMJ includes a range of “military crimes,” many of which are not offenses in civilian criminal codes or which carry stricter penalties than they would outside the military. For example, absence without leave and conduct unbecoming an officer are both crimes under the UCMJ.  In wartime, offenses including espionage, desertion, and willfully disobeying a superior officer may constitute capital offenses, although there have been no military executions since 1961. While a legal education at Stanford does not specifically address military law, it does address the underlying principles on which both the military and civilian legal systems are based.

When, as a high school student in California, Hsieh decided to apply to West Point, the decision surprised her classmates. She has no family history of military service; her parents are Taiwanese immigrants. But, she says, “I was drawn to the leadership aspect of it—the fact that it wasn’t all about academics.”

As an Army engineer officer, Hsieh led a platoon and deployed to Iraq, where she managed construction projects. Just before law school, she worked conducting humanitarian exercises, such as building schools and hospitals, in countries that are U.S. allies. Her travels throughout Asia for these projects sparked an interest in law as it intersects with international development. She did not intend to return to the military after law school but was drawn to stay on by her interest in JAG work and her fondness for military culture: “It’s being part of something larger than yourself.”

This is also what attracted Jonathan Margolick, JD ’13, to the U.S. Marine Corps Judge Advocate Division. (At press time, he was waiting to complete the second half of Marine officer basic training.)

Before law school, Margolick held a range of jobs. He worked for political campaigns, did health policy analysis for a county in Maryland, taught eighth grade at a Hebrew school, and volunteered to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He obtained a master’s degree in public administration at Columbia and very nearly enrolled in divinity school. While waiting for his military service to begin, he is working on a book about why democracies need national service. The guiding motivation for this entire trajectory has been how to make the biggest possible difference in the world—an objective for which no graduate program exists.

“For everything else we do in life, there’s training,” says Margolick. He considers the military the capstone to his own program.

He applied to law school after noticing that in many of his endeavors “there were things people really wanted to do, but the lawyers said no and that was the end of the conversation. I went to law school to figure out how to participate in those conversations.”

Simultaneously with his law school applications, Margolick applied to Officer Candidate School (OCS) with the Marines. He was admitted to both and completed OCS the summer before his 1L year. Alongside degrees in policy and law, Margolick views his pending military training and service as “a PhD in citizenship.”

His decision was difficult for his family to accept; his parents had come of age during the Vietnam War and even water guns were banned in the household. In addition, he notes, “Joining the military forces a confrontation with mortality that, say, a law firm job simply doesn’t—especially since we’d spent ten years in two wars that no one in the family saw as acceptable justifications for violence. We had to work all that through together.”

But OCS confirmed for him that he had chosen correctly. He recalls his company’s first sergeant telling the group of 300 officer candidates, “If the person next to you is failing, you’re failing.” It was, he says, the first time in his life that an institution held him responsible for the success of those around him.

“We live in an individualist age,” he says. “Find your own bootstraps, pull yourself up. It feels impoverished to me. It feels lonely.” As collaborative as the culture at SLS may be, ultimately students are graded solely on their own work. When he began law school just after completing OCS, this contrast was striking.

Margolick exemplifies a trend recruiters have noticed. The young lawyers graduating today are “very idealistic,” says Lt. Gen. Dana Chipman, JD ’86, who retired in November after four years as the Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Army. “I see a generation that is very interested in serving across a range of public-interest opportunities.”

When Chipman returned to campus for his 25-year reunion in 2011, “What I saw was a far more welcoming environment [to veterans] than what I had experienced as a student,” he says, adding, “That’s not a knock on Stanford. The environment at Stanford was very similar to any other law school at that time.”

This is partly due to the increasing number of veterans on campus. When Chipman was a student, many of his classmates had never before known anyone who was in the military; to his classmates, meeting someone who had gone to West Point was a novelty.

The current 1L class includes 11 military veterans, the highest number in recent memory. As of the 2013-14 academic year, Stanford Law is contributing the maximum allowable amount of matching funds under the federal government’s Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program, meaning that the full cost of law school tuition and fees is covered for any veteran with three or more years of service.

This policy change has helped to create a sense of support for veterans; strength in numbers also undoubtedly helps. In fact, the school increased its Yellow Ribbon support in part due to advocacy by the Stanford Law Veterans Organization (SLVO). Founded in 2010, the student group currently has about 20 members. In addition to advocacy, the group helps veterans on campus navigate legal issues they encounter. Also, it invites speakers and organizes social events, which are well attended by those with and without a history of military service.

“People are really curious about the military,” says SLVO board member John Casey, a 2L. As an airborne operations officer in the Air Force, Casey managed airfields in Qatar and Afghanistan; he took the LSAT in Kandahar. “It’s a separate world,” he says, “and if you’re not in it, you don’t know how it works.”

The environment on campus is “extremely welcoming,” agrees SLVO co-president Benjamin Adams, JD ’15. A lieutenant with the U.S. Navy, Adams deployed once to the Persian Gulf during Operation Iraqi Freedom and twice with counter-piracy missions off the coast of Somalia. “People certainly have strong opinions about the wars, but I haven’t sensed any hostility whatsoever” on a personal level, he says.

Confusion about why someone would choose both law school and military service often stems from the notion that the military teaches people to follow orders, which seems antithetical to the kind of independent thinking elite schools prize. But, says Casey, “I don’t think there’s actually a contradiction at all.” When an order is issued to build a building, it incorporates many smaller decisions in which an officer is expected to exercise discretion. “Obviously, you do obey orders, but you have a lot of freedom as to how you want to carry out those orders.” Adds Hsieh, “The people who are successful in the military are the ones who innovate, who think outside the box.”

Given this, veterans make a unique contribution on campus, says Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid Faye Deal. Because of their background in leadership, decision making, and acting under pressure, their presence “only enhances the SLS experience for other students,” she says. “By increasing support for veterans, the school has also benefited.”

That support takes a different shape for each veteran. For Maj. Benjamin Hernandez-Stern, JD ’06, it came in the form of flexibility and understanding when, as a law student, he had to perform duties beyond the one weekend a month the National Guard usually requires, because the nation was at war. He praises the administration and faculty for being “incredibly supportive and understanding” of the demands of his service.

In 2011, Hernandez-Stern spent five months in Iraq, investigating terrorist acts and prosecuting suspected terrorists in Iraqi courts on behalf of the U.S. government. He declines to give much detail about this work but according to a Department of Defense news release he acquired more than 1,000 warrants for suspected terrorists. He assisted in transferring more than 15 known terrorists into Coalition Forces custody and helped increase intelligence sharing between U.S. and Iraqi officials. During his time in Iraq, he worked 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week—as many do. After his return, he was awarded the Bronze Star for his service.

Though grueling, that work was uniquely fulfilling, he says, “You find a sense of accomplishment and reward that I have not found anywhere else. People’s lives are on the line every minute of the day. Every impact you make has such a profound ripple.”

Hernandez-Stern now works for the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C., handling civil rights complaints, and he continues his National Guard service weekends. He is currently on detail to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, where he prosecutes domestic violence and sexual assault cases.

Whether the work involves prosecuting enemy combatants or handling domestic violence cases, it has a clear and immediate impact. This is why Hernandez-Stern has continued his military service: “Some of these cases are tremendously compelling, and they motivate me in a way I’ve never been motivated.”

“So many lawyers are unhappy with what they’re doing,” he adds. “I don’t have that problem.”  SL

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