Melissa J. Halsey, who was recently named Chief of the Office of The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Assistance Policy Division, a civilian role, first joined the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps as a direct commissioned officer after earning her law degree at The University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. She served for seven years—all of them in legal assistance, an unusual path but one she requested after her first taste of it serving in Germany. Ms. Halsey sat down with The Army Lawyer to talk about her affinity for legal assistance and how she hopes to use her new role to shape the way the Army provides legal advice to its Soldiers.
TAL: So why all the interest in legal assistance?
MS. HALSEY: You know, I just really took to it. You hear very compelling life stories from people. I like listening to people. And I like applying my legal skills to the facts that a client presents to help him or her come to a solution. Anybody that’s done legal assistance knows that you will see something new every day. There’s just a huge variety of practice. You have the traditional kind of work in estate planning, but you also have family law, tax law, consumer law, military administrative issues, immigration, and more.
TAL: What are your priorities for legal assistance right now?
MS. HALSEY: I knew coming back into the job that there was just a tremendous baseline of experience and knowledge and a program that had been working very well for a long time. You know, if you talk to people out in the legal assistance field, everyone knew my predecessor John Meixell and knew they could talk to him. And that he had just an amazing amount of institutional knowledge. So the groundwork is already there. The way I hope to expand on some of it is with innovative ideas and energy. For example, I’d like to help the field develop and grow robust Expanded Legal Assistance Programs (ELAP) and empower practitioners to take more complex cases in different legal areas.
TAL: Are there other areas you think legal assistance needs to focus on? If I’m a judge advocate going into a legal assistance role, where are the biggest changes coming from?
MS. HALSEY: A lot of the traditional areas we handle are becoming more complex and interesting. I think immigration is an area, for instance, where we’ve had a really kind of traditional practice in legal assistance offices that is now evolving. Lots of service members are stationed abroad and many of them get married to local nationals. Many service members are seeking citizenship themselves. Policies in this area are changing daily, and our legal assistance practitioners need to be prepared to deal with new fact patterns, along with new policies, every day.
TAL: People are probably not aware of that.
MS. HALSEY: Right. And the rules are narrowing for citizenship. So our legal assistance attorneys overseas are just going to need to know what to do. They’re going to need to make sure that their clients fill out the right paperwork on the front end, and if there is a mistake, help them fix it on the back end.
Estate planning is another example of an area that’s changing. We’ve had the same estate planning software for probably over twenty years. That’s going away. We are working with the other Services to develop a more technically sophisticated program to take the estate planning done by legal assistance into the 21st Century. It’ll be a more streamlined product, easier for both the client and the practitioner to access.
Another area, and perhaps the area with the most attention, is with victims of domestic violence. I think that’s where we, legal assistance practitioners, can step in and really make a difference—we are the area of the JAG Corps that’s best poised to help that particular client population.
TAL: How so?
MS. HALSEY: Because in Legal Assistance, we are 100% dedicated to serving individual clients. We don’t answer to the command; we respond to the needs of individual clients. And we have the experience and technical expertise to provide the services these clients most need. For example, we can advocate for support when a Soldier and Family separate; we can advise on property division and child custody—essentially, we can provide clients with a legal pathway to separate from an abuser. Sometimes clients can be skeptical of legal assistance attorneys at first, and tend to wonder, “Do you really work for me, or do you work for the command?” But I think in legal assistance we have a strong tradition and reputation of advocating for clients. And our Rules of Professional Responsibility make it clear that we owe our duty of loyalty to an individual client, and his or her interests are paramount.
TAL: But how do you make that argument with that skepticism?
MS. HALSEY: I think because legal assistance attorneys are so closely aligned with Special Victims Counsel, we’re really sensitive to a victim’s need to understand how the system works, all the services we can provide, to whom they can make a report, etc. We can teach them about the laws in their state, and about how to move forward and try to get out of an abusive relationship. We can help get them the kind of economic support that they need, too. We can also help them deal with, prioritize, and triage those legal issues most immediately important to a victim of domestic violence.
TAL: Each legal assistance office has differences—in the numbers of judge advocates, in their audiences, and in their focus. How do you keep everyone on the same page? How do you ensure some level of continuity despite those differences?
MS. HALSEY: For one thing, I’ve restarted our Video Teleconference (VTC) program. It fell off a bit in recent years. We have had many different offices across the world participate. So far we’ve had two VTCs with over thirty offices across the world participating. The VTCs have been great opportunities for the different offices to hear what everybody else is doing. We talk updates but also try to get best practices and ideas from each office. I think that the VTCs were very well received and generated discussion about some of the really great ideas and work legal assistance attorneys are doing worldwide. Finally, I’m setting a goal to personally visit every legal assistance office across the Army JAG Corps.
TAL: There are some revisions coming on legal assistance’s regulations. Can you tell us more about that?
MS. HALSEY: Yes, we are rewriting our three main legal assistance regulations: AR 27-3, our core regulation on how we operate; AR 27-55, which is the notary regulation; and AR 608-99, which is the family support regulation. That’s an effort that’s been in progress long before I came on board. But I hope to get those three regulations across the finish line and published in the next year, while making sure I’ve provided my own input and edits as the new Chief and proponent of these regulations.
TAL: What will be their biggest impact?
MS. HALSEY: The AR 27-3 rewrite includes the parameters of the SVC program. I think that is our biggest sea change in legal assistance—how we interact with our colleagues in the SVC program. The interdisciplinary relationship that legal assistance attorneys and the SVC program managers have now is very new. A client’s eligibility to have a special victim counsel is closely tied to eligibility for legal assistance.
TAL: What is your goal for moving legal assistance forward?
MS. HALSEY: Overall, my big goal is to increase the prestige and reputation of legal assistance across the Army JAG Corps and the way people look at its unique and critical contribution to the Army, Soldiers, Families, and retirees.
TAL: Do you think it suffers from a lack of that?
MS. HALSEY: You know, I think there’s kind of a traditional mindset that legal assistance is limited to the first assignment you get as a new judge advocate. But I think that mindset is changing, and leadership is recognizing the invaluable work done in Legal Assistance—just look at the recent winners of the JAG Corps’ new regimental award—two of the five winners are legal assistance practitioners. I’m incredibly proud of that, but not surprised!
TAL: So it’s more of a pedestrian kind of —
MS. HALSEY: Yes. And I think it is a great first assignment. It’s a wonderful way to be introduced to the practice of law. It will show you the broadest variety of legal issues in the JAG Corps. But like I said, it is known as being the first assignment. I think our mission is vitally important, and I think it’s getting a lot of attention. A good example of this is our work with SVCs, what we’re doing already in legal assistance to help those clients, and potentially expanding that work to reach and help more victims.
TAL: Given all these changes, all these moving pieces, whether it’s the SVC side of things or increasingly complex cases, do you feel the JAG Corps has enough lawyers devoted to legal assistance?
MS.HALSEY: I think everyone in the Department of Defense would say they want more people to help with their specific mission. That’s natural. Of course, I’m no different given how vital I think legal assistance is to our Army, and to readiness specifically.
TAL: So wave a magic wand, practically speaking. What would legal assistance benefit from?
MS. HALSEY: One idea I’d like to see turn into reality is a growth in our ability to provide action officers—skilled legal assistance practitioners—who could help me stand up a training model to help our field develop best practices. Even without a magic wand, I think we can make this happen through the Expanded Legal Assistance Programs, and by assisting with either pro se work or even in-court representation.
I’d also want to help field offices develop practices to serve remote clients more effectively, and to leverage technology to do so. We always have clients who can’t physically come to a legal assistance office. Either they’re deployed or they’re disabled, or for some other reason can’t physically get into an office. I’d like to provide our technical expertise and policy guidance to make it much easier for those who are deployed or in a remote or austere area to receive legal assistance. They could reach back to a sophisticated in-place permanent legal assistance office and experience the appropriate level of service that every Soldier deserves.