The Army Lawyer
On Becoming a Versatile Paralegal
|U.S. Army paralegal specialists search an apartment complex floor by floor during a hostage rescue training mission on Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, during 2019 Paralegal Warrior Training Course, July 22, 2019. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by SGT James Garvin)|
13 March 2020 started like any other day. I went on a long run that would energize me. I prepared for my last day of class, where I would re-certify as a military instructor. Everything was falling into place. Soon, I would permanently change stations (PCS) and slowly begin the transition to the next chapter of my career as a fellow at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy. Of course, as the reality of coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) finally made its way to the United States, that all changed. The Army cancelled training, restricted travel, and delayed PCS moves. Everything I came to know and expect, as a Soldier and leader for the last nineteen years, was changing. Nothing could have prepared me or other members of the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps for COVID-19. The sudden changes required us to learn new things while continuously developing expertise in multiple core legal disciplines. This article explores the well-known concepts of expertise and versatility and examines them in light of this new, unknown environment of an ongoing pandemic and its effects. In this article, I offer ideas on how to instill these concepts of expertise and versatility in junior Soldiers to help them now and in their future JAG Corps careers.
First, it is essential to note there is no cookie-cutter approach to becoming an expert in a field. Multiple studies have sought to determine how one best develops expertise.1 Some may have heard of the 10,000-hour rule, which suggests the key to success in any field is the amount of time you practice.2 Practice makes perfect, they say. Although the 10,000-hour rule may sound intriguing, psychological research shows that people achieve expertise through quality training and focused practice—not the amount of time spent on a particular task.3 The Army defines expertise as “in-depth knowledge and skill developed from experience, training, and education.”4 That said, leaders own the task of developing expertise in themselves and their Soldiers.5 Leaders fulfill their responsibility of developing expertise in their Soldiers when they take the time to create quality training that will keep their Soldiers engaged and focused.6 My first assignment as a paralegal was a great illustration of how a noncommissioned officer (NCO) took charge of my development as a Soldier and steadily advanced me on the path of becoming an expert.
Be a Mentor/Find a Mentor
When I arrived at my first assignment in Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, I was assigned the responsibility of processing all chapters for the installation. I had received limited instruction in Advanced Individual Training (AIT) on how to draft administrative separations, so I had no idea where to start. Fortunately, my NCO at the time—Master Sergeant (MSG) (Retired) Billie Suttles—pointed me to the regulation and the templates on the shared drive (before Military Justice Online (MJO)7) and had me get to work immediately. She made it clear she was not going to hold my hand but was willing to guide me through the process of drafting administrative separations in an effective manner.
For the next twelve months, then-MSG Suttles went through dozens of boxes of red pens as I attempted to master the art of chapter processing. She never allowed me to use the excuse of limited knowledge as a reason to turn in a substandard chapter packet. She regularly referred me to the regulation to find answers on why specific language appeared in the separation packet memoranda. So that I could understand why the templates were formatted the way they were in our shared drive, she sent me to a class on how to draft Army correspondence properly. Learning how to process administrative separations did not come easy for me. Still, through multiple repetitions, quality training, mentoring from my NCO, and patience, I slowly became the expert that commanders, first sergeants, and attorneys could rely on for guidance on administrative separations.
Challenge Their Development/Challenge Your Development
As leaders, we cannot allow our Soldiers to become data entry clerks—where their only purpose is to input data into MJO and generate documents—without helping them understand the meaning behind what they are doing. Leaders are responsible for providing as many opportunities as possible for their Soldiers. These opportunities should provide quality training where they are not constantly distracted by a first sergeant who needs “just a quick second of your Soldier’s time to talk about an Article 15.” My numerous years in a training environment have taught me that our Soldiers are able to get the most out of their training when we keep them engaged through creative, interactive, and relevant training. Using the eight-step training model outlined in Field Manual 7-0 is an excellent framework for designing relevant training that will keep Soldiers engaged.8 Just as then-MSG Suttles did for me, leaders must challenge their Soldiers to think bigger and dig deeper on the road to becoming an expert in a variety of subjects. Although it took a long time, I became comfortable and confident in my abilities to process administrative separations. It was only a matter of time, however, before I was required to step out of my comfort zone and learn new things.
During the initial invasion, my deployment to Iraq with 3d Infantry Division awakened me to the need to be versatile. As the 3d Infantry Division crossed the berm into Iraq, I sat in the driver’s seat of the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle during complete blackout conditions. There, it became clear to me that expertise as a paralegal in any of our core legal disciplines would not be enough to return me to my family. Developing expertise is undoubtedley an important aspect of being successful in the legal profession. Still, we cannot let our focus on becoming an expert hinder our ability to adjust to change or new responsibilities.10 As paralegal NCOs, we must be versatile and encourage the same behavior in our Soldiers.
Leaders must “embrace a variety of subjects, fields, or skills.”11 Likewise, Soldiers must follow the example of their leaders and also be willing to embrace a variety of skills. Leaders who are capable and ready to step out of their comfort zone inevitably influence and encourage their Soldiers to do the same. Leaders who are not open to learning a variety of skills fail to model being a lifelong learner12 and, in the end, fail their Soldiers. No amount of experience or expertise in one position could have prepared me for the challenges I faced as a young specialist deploying for the first time. Nor could any amount of experience or expertise have prepared me for the changes that took place as COVID-19 arrived in the United States. If leaders lack versatility and adaptability, discourage their Soldiers from offering new ways to solve problems, or allow themselves and their Soldiers to become complascent, poor performance and mission failure are the likely outcomes. To assist leaders in developing versatility in themselves and their Soldiers, the following are a few recommendations based on my personal experience.
Volunteer for Opportunities to Work Outside of Your Comfort Zone
I did not have to fight through a long line when Sergeant Major (SGM) (Retired) Mark Cook suggested I take the Observer Controller/Trainer (OC/T) job at Fort Polk. After I took the assignment, people often asked me what I had done to anger Human Resources Command (HRC). The fact is, though, I learned the most about the Army and its capabilities during my time there. It was not enough for me to know the responsibilities of a paralegal, I had to understand how our duties in the JAG Corps tied into other staff sections and the Army as a whole. While I was at the Joint Readiness Training Center, I was appointed as the task force maintenance officer, served as the knowledge management officer, and sat on a committee chaired by a former Sergeant Major of the Army to help identify deficiencies in Army training and assist in developing solutions to the training gaps. My assignment to Fort Polk was, by far, the most instrumental experience in my personal and professional growth. Being assigned to jobs that forced me out of my comfort zone made me a more well-rounded Soldier and enhanced my critical and creative thinking skills.
Be an Agent for Change
There is no doubt that COVID-19 upended the way we normally conduct business throughout the Army. Upon the arrival of COVID-19, a number of our Soldiers and Civilians started teleworking as a result of social distancing guidelines that were put in place by our senior leaders.13 Since it was no longer business as usual, and there would be no opportunity to see Soldiers on a daily basis, many questions arose about how to conduct accountability and training. Despite all these challenges, senior leaders throughout the JAG Corps immediately took action by creating physical fitness challenges to keep Soldiers engaged and connected,14 maintained accountability through the use of technology, and developed virtual training plans to ensure Soldiers still received professional development opportunities.15 Our leaders quickly recognized that conditions were changing, and it could no longer be business as usual; they encouraged leaders at all levels to embrace the change and adapt to new ideas of conducting business by keeping an open mind. This particular type of versatility has more to do with a leader’s mindset than learned skills, but it is definitely a choice for a leader to keep that open mind and react to situations in a versatile manner.
Do Your Best Not to Homestead
When HRC calls and informs you it is time to move, be ready to move. Discuss the move with your family and work together to make it work. This summer, I will have been assigned to Fort Bliss for three years, which is the longest I have been in one location. I typically move every two or three years and have never been to the same duty station twice. The constant moves have exposed me to a number of different organizational cultures and new ideas. Although constant PCS moves have been somewhat difficult on the family, being exposed to new environments has made me more adaptable and capable of meeting new challenges. “Leaders exposed to different types of thinking, different people and cultural norms, everyday changes in execution, and new challenges will learn the value of adaption.”16 Arguably, it may do the same for your Family, in a less tangible way.
Engage in Lifelong Learning17
As of this year, I officially became eligible for retirement. Even though I am coming to the end of my career, I am still taking every opportunity to learn new things. I recently became certified as a paralegal and officially earned the civilian title of CORE Registered Paralegal. Although the credential is designed for paralegals relatively new to the profession, I still learned a lot and feel that—even late in my career—pursuing the paralegal credential was worth the effort. Becoming a credentialed paralegal has opened up new opportunities for when I leave the Service, and it has also made me a more competent Army paralegal for the remainder of the time I serve and a better supervisor in that I can share this experience with my Soldiers and encourage them to pursue the same credential.
Change in the Army is inevitable. As leaders, it is our job to develop versatility in ourselves and our Soldiers, while continuously building expertise. By doing so, we gain a competitive edge and improve our credibility with commanders and other clients. These are just a few tips leaders can follow. As TJAG mandates in almost all of his communications, as a Corps, we need to be ready. Pursuing expertise and versatility, and mentoring those we lead, will help us to develop the deep knowledge and skills required to meet TJAG’s mandate.18 As we navigate COVID-19, expert and versatile leadership within the JAG Corps is on full display; luckily, the current generation of leaders has pursued those two ideals throughout our careers. We will pass what we have learned to the next generation of leaders. TAL
1. Eric Barker, How to Become an Expert at Anything, According to Experts, Time (Aug. 23, 2016, 8:00 AM), https://time.com/4461455/how-to-become-expert-at-anything/ (summarizing research and studies on expertise and listing tips).
2. K. Anders Ericcson, Deliberate Practice and the Acquisition and Maintenace of Expert Performance in Medicine and Related Domains, 79 Acad. Med. 70 (2004), https://journals.lww.com/academicmedicine/Fulltext/2004/10001/Deliberate_Practice_and_the_Acquisition_and.22.aspx.
3. Kevin Loria, The ’10,000-Hour Rule’ About Becoming an Expert Is Wrong—Here’s Why, Business Insider, (Aug. 27, 2017, 11:49 AM), https://www.businessinsider.com/expert-rule-10000-hours-not-true-2017-8. Even the researcher Anders Ericsson, whose 10,000-hour theory was popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book Outliers, has disavowed the idea that just practice makes perfect. Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the new Science of Expertise (2016) (extolling the virtues of purposeful/deliberate practice over traditional practice and emphasizing the importance of feedback and the role of an effective teacher in pursuing expertise). See also, e.g., Becoming an Expert Takes More Than Practice, Assoc. of Psychol. Sci. (July 2, 2014), https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/becoming-an-expert-takes-more-than-practice.html.
4. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Doctrine Pub. 6-22, Army Leadership para. 4-17 (1 Aug. 2019) (C1, 1 Nov. 2019) [hereinafter ADP 6-22].
5. Id. para. 1-113 (“Noncommissioned officers are the backbone of the Army and are responsible for maintaining Army standards and discipline. [Noncommissioned officers] are critical to training, educating, and developing individuals, crews, and small teams.”).
6. Id. para. 1-113. “Tactical success relates directly to the Soldiers’ level of tactical and technical training.” Id.
7. DJAG Policy Memorandum 18-02, Deputy Judge Advocate Gen., U.S. Army, subject: The Judge Advocate General’s Corps Enterprise Applications (19 Dec. 2017) (directing all Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps personnel to use the Military Justice Online application to process all military actions).
8. See generally U.S. Dep’t of Army, Field Manual 7-0, Train to Win in a Complex World para. 1-1 (5 Oct. 2016) [hereinafter FM 7-0].
9. See ADP 6-22, supra note 4, paras. 8-13–8-14 (defining and discussing versatility, as well as the damaging effects of a leader lacking versatility).
10. William Arruda. Four Ways To Become More Versatile And More Valuable At Work, Forbes Mag. (Apr. 5, 2018, 8:11 AM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/williamarruda/2018/04/05/four-ways-to-become-more-versatile-and-more-valuable-at-work/#5d5f8faa3f77.
11. See Versatile, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/versatile (last visited July 1, 2020). See also Robert B. (Bob) Kaiser, The Best Leaders Are Versatile Ones, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Mar. 2, 2020), https://hbr.org/2020/03/the-best-leaders-are-versatile-ones.
12. Lifelong Learning Resources, The Judge Advocate Gen’s Legal Ctr. & Sch., https://tjaglcspublic.army.mil/lifelong-learning (last visited July 1, 2020) (The U.S. Army Judge Advocate General, Lieutenant General Charles N. Pede, and the Regimental Command Sergeant Major (CSM), CSM Osvaldo Martinez, both encourage this mindset of lifelong learning and have gathered materials posted to “Lifelong Learning” of The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School public website.). Id.
13. See Coronavirus: DOD Response, U.S. Dept. of Def., https://www.defense.gov/Explore/Spotlight/Coronavirus/ (last visited July 1, 2020).
14. #JAGRCSMChallenge 3-15 April 2020, U.S. Army JAG Corps, Facebook (Apr. 15, 2020), https://www.facebook.com/ArmyJAGCorps/?__tn__=%2Cd%2CP-R&eid=ARB1Q1dGNXQmeb_c7JGMAroMCx4bk1sWG0W4D4DsEt9g5THqzJEBR6H7DhRqTzf480XnLDZkWsorBcPB (containing Regimental CSM Osvaldo Martinez’s COVID-19 Fitness Challenge, #JAGRCMSChallenge).
15. See, e.g., U.S. Army Cadet Command Public Affairs Office, U.S. Army Cadet Command Makes Changes To Summer Training Programs In Response To COVID-19, Army.mil (May 12, 2020), https://www.army.mil/article/235542/u_s_army_cadet_command_makes_changes_to_summer_training_programs_in_response_to_covid_19.
16. ADP 6-22, supra note 4, para. 8-12.
17. See Arruda, supra note 10 (explaining four ways to become more versatile, one of which is to “[b]ecome a forever learner”).
18. FM 7-0, supra note 8, para. 1-3. Training—whether to become expert or versatile in whatever is being trained—“is the cornerstone of readiness.” Id.