“What about being a lawyer in the Army?” He asked me. “I didn’t know you can do that,” I replied. “It wasn’t on the preference list that my ROTC instructor showed us.” Then he said to me, “I know someone you should talk to.”
I was notified in 2012 of my assignment as Chief of the Judge Advocate Recruiting Office (JARO). I wondered how my prior military service prepared me for the assignment. Although I served as a field screening officer (FSO) many years earlier, I guessed I knew little about how the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps actually recruited and appointed new judge advocates. I guessed right. I quickly had to learn the basics of force management, the rules regarding officer appointment and accession, and the complexity of medical qualification. Above all, I had to learn how the JAG Corps “recruited” potential candidates. I eventually came to understand that the fundamental aspect of recruiting is person-to-person conversation—judge advocates recruit other judge advocates. Moreover, what I truly came to appreciate is that this personal discourse is not limited to the formal recruiting settings. Rather, it occurs informally and, often, unexpectedly.1 We are all recruiters—so long as we are willing to look for and take advantage of these opportunities.
The JAG Corps recruits because it needs to continuously add new lawyers to our firm to maintain a healthy force structure. In this way, we are not unlike the rest of the legal community. Yet, we differ from our civilian counterparts significantly because we are constrained by the military’s officer personnel management system.2 “Lateral hires” are a useful tool for civilian law firms to transplant expertise and experience directly where it is needed. But unlike a civilian law firm, it is difficult to add mid-career attorneys to our Corps.3 Consider the Funded Legal Education Program (FLEP). Officers accessed through FLEP provide valuable mid-career leadership and experience. The JAG Corps carefully manages their early career progression to ensure the individual FLEP officer’s legal competence catches up to their peers, who have been practicing attorneys and judge advocates for several years. Conversely, using direct appointments to access attorneys with ten to fifteen years of experience as majors or lieutenant colonels is impracticable. This is because these lateral hires would be significantly unprepared as officers and military leaders. Appointing them as junior-grade officers is the only option that allows the JAG Corps to develop them as officers and leaders. However, experienced attorneys are not likely to be interested in joining the JAG Corps in an entry-level position and seldom apply. Thus, we rely almost exclusively on recent law school graduates to offset losses from resignations and retirements and feed entry-level officers into our ranks to later be promoted. These candidates comprise the vast majority of our new judge advocates.4
Finding future judge advocates continues to be harder than in past decades. Law school enrollment drastically reduced in the 2010s. Rising steadily since the 1960s, law school enrollment peaked in 2010, with 52,404 first-year students entering school.5 By 2015, first-year enrollment dropped to 37,056.6 After several years of declining interest in legal education following the 2008 recession, the number of applicants and enrolled students at American Bar Association-accredited law schools is finally increasing.7 However, the current numbers are far below the peak year of 2004. Enrollment was driven down by tuition increases, declining salaries, and an overall contraction of the legal industry.8 Law schools struggled, and some failed. The result was fewer law students becoming lawyers and, as an understandable consequence, fewer law students becoming eligible to join the JAG Corps.
The JAG Corps felt the repercussions. In fiscal year 2014, 827 applicants applied to the Corps, and we selected approximately nine percent.9 In fiscal year 2019, 512 applicants applied, and we selected nearly thirty-four percent.10 While one cannot wholly attribute a decline in applications to changes in the economy and law school admissions, they are certainly the substantial factor.11
The JAG Corps employs all the formal methods of recruiting. We publish brochures, post on social media, and send judge advocates to conferences. Primarily, FSOs travel to every accredited law school in the country to conduct outreach and interview students. Yet, these formal recruiting methods are far from adequate to meet our recruiting requirements. Just as significant is each JAG Corps member’s efforts to connect to potential candidates. As agents of our law firm, we are the best ambassadors of our brand. We understand our practice and culture because we have experienced them. For that reason, we are more genuine than any brochure or social media post. Through person-to-person discourse, we can spark or fuel someone’s interest in our firm far better than any brochure. Personal interactions allow us to connect to their interest through relating our personal story of military service.
Consider this experience. It was the summer of 1994. I was spending three weeks at Fort Carson shadowing a platoon leader. I chose a quartermaster platoon because it was the only position open at Fort Carson. I was twenty-three—I just wanted to spend my summer in Colorado Springs. I was not interested in being a quartermaster officer.
One day, I was speaking to a first lieutenant in the motor pool. He was my sponsor during my Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadet troop leader training. “So why did you choose to be a quartermaster officer? Is it something you really wanted to do?” I asked. “Well, it was third on my list of branches,” he replied. “My undergraduate degree is in business, so I thought it made sense. I’m not sure how long I’ll stay in the Army, and maybe this will help me when I leave . . . . What are you going to list as your preferences?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “I was a signal corps Soldier when I was enlisted. I think I’m like you. I’ll do four years and then leave. I’m actually interested in being a lawyer. I’ll probably get out and go to law school.”
“What about being a lawyer in the Army?” He asked.
“I didn’t know you can do that. It wasn’t on the preference list that my ROTC instructor showed us.”
“I know someone you should talk to,” he said. “My wife is a judge advocate. I’m sure she’ll make time to talk with you. I’ll give her a call, and I’ll take you by her office.”
I visited the Fort Carson legal assistance office later that afternoon. The specifics of the conversation escape me; however, I recall learning that I needed to talk with my ROTC instructor about something called an educational delay. A brochure would have been nice. An ROTC instructor informed about how to help his cadets be judge advocates would have been great, too. But I received what I needed—a judge advocate willing to take the time to meet and talk about her experiences. I figured out the rest.
Fifteen years later, I was having dinner at the house of a fellow division staff officer shortly after arriving at Fort Stewart. He introduced me to his children, and, as expected, the conversation turned to what the children might do after they graduated high school. One of his sons stated that he is attending college on an ROTC scholarship. He asked me several questions about being a judge advocate and eventually disclosed his interest in the law. I told him, “I know someone you should talk to.” He came by the office, met some of the captains, and observed a court-martial. He spent the next summer as an extern at our office. He plans to apply for an educational delay when choosing his branch next year.
Our current career model tasks all of us to develop expert and versatile judge advocates. Leaders do this by smartly and deliberately managing talent. Yet, when our senior leaders remark that this talent management process allows the Corps to grow our future leaders, they are certainly implying that the seeds to grow talented officers are sown through recruiting. We must find and recruit the very best, if we care about the long-term success of our Corps. It is vital that everyone is a recruiter. TAL
1. I attended a minor league baseball game in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a few years ago. The man sitting next to me asked me where I was from and what I did for a living. We spoke during the game about our families, our shared interest in baseball, and our careers. He mentioned that he was a judge in Philadelphia and thought that his law clerks might be interested in learning about the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. One of his law clerks contacted me a few weeks later. The structure of our recruiting process provides numerous formal opportunities to discuss our profession. Staff Judge Advocates are charged with interviewing officers applying for the Funded Legal Education Program, counseling summer interns, and liaising with local Reserve Officer Training Corps battalions. The informal opportunities are just as prevalent.
2. Enacted in 1980, the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) created a rigged framework for officer qualification, appointment, and promotion. See 10 U.S. Code §§ 531, 532 (2010).
3. Congress recently reformed DOPMA in several ways, to include providing enhanced authority for the Army to grant original appointments to officers in grades up to O6. John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act of 2019, Pub. L. No. 115-232, § 502, 132 Stat. 1739 (2018).
4. Recent law school graduates comprise nearly seventy to seventy-five percent of newly appointed judge advocates. See The JAG Corps 2020 Recruiting Campaign Plan (Mar. 2020) (unpublished) (on file with author) [hereinafter Recruiting Campaign Plan].
5. ABA Required Disclosures: Standard 509 Information Report for 2019, ABA Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar, http://www.abarequireddisclosures.org/Disclosure509.aspx (last visited Apr. 11, 2020).
7. Am. Bar. Ass’n, ABA Profile of the Legal Profession (2019), https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/news/2019/08/ProfileOfProfession-total-hi.pdf.
8. Benjamin H. Barton, Fixing Law Schools: From Collapse to the Trump Bump and Beyond (2019).
9. Recruiting Campaign Plan, supra note 4.
11. Steve Nelson, Why the War for Talent Is Escalating for Law Firms, Attorney at Work (Feb. 26, 2019), https://www.attorneyatwork.com/why-the-war-for-talent-is-escalating-for-law-firms/.