The Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG Corps) places company-grade judge advocates (JAs) in many different roles, but some are necessarily more independent than others; meaning, in those roles, JAs have just a technical supervisor and must make many decisions on their own, without a team to truly consult with to make the decision together. Whereas in a traditional Office of the Staff Judge Advocate (OSJA), many captains have a division chief, deputy, and staff judge advocate they can run their work products by before those legal products go to the client, usually the commanding general. Three such roles can become particularly isolating for attorneys: special victims prosecutors (SVPs), special victims’ counsel (SVCs), and defense counsel (DCs).
Not only can the work they do be particularly lonely, but the topics and issues these attorneys deal with are serious and emotionally draining. This article talks about the challenges of serving as an SVP, SVC, or DC—connecting the subject matter they deal with every day and the isolation they may be feeling in those positions to possible negative effects on these JAs. Unique to SVCs and DCs is the fact that they represent a client, which—in light of attorney-client privilege—can make those jobs even lonelier. The purpose of the article is to shed light on and acknowledge these challenges, mainly so JAs enter these positions knowing of the difficulties isolation and client representation can present. Lastly, this article closes with tips for both attorneys assigned to these jobs as well as for JAG Corps leaders, including those who supervise SVPs, SVCs, and DCs and those who mentor them.
“One Is the Loneliest Number”1
When JAs first enter the Army, they are, of course, organized into teams, who are placed in squads, who are in platoons, etc.—they’re on teams of teams. At the Judge Advocate Officer Basic Course, they work out in teams, they go through exercises together as teams, and they’re taught by teams in departments at the Legal Center and School. Being a JA is, quite literally, a team sport. At a typical first assignment, a new JA will join an OSJA: another team. Many of the first duties of a new JA will be on teams: administrative law, national security law, and even general crimes prosecution teams. Following this usual introduction to the JAG Corps, and once adequately experienced in military justice, JAs might become SVPs, SVCs, and DCs. This is where one can be truly the loneliest number.
With their direct supervisors located in the National Capitol Region at the Trial Counsel Assistance Program, SVPs are organized regionally and cover other installations in a regional alignment.2 They are commonly situated at larger installations, traveling to smaller posts to try special victim cases in their jurisdictions. Day in and day out, SVPs deal exclusively with murder and sex crimes.3 This can take its toll, especially when an SVP has no similarly situated peers within hundreds of miles. Reviewing the facts of their assigned cases almost always entails exposure to graphic details, whether it is statements of victims or pictures of injuries, among other traumatizing evidence.
Like SVPs, SVCs are regionally aligned and almost always work out of a legal assistance office on their assigned installation.4 Their mission is “to strengthen our support of victims of sexual assault and enhance their rights within our military justice system”5 and their clients6 are all victims of sex-related offenses and, also like SVPs, there are no other cases they deal with during their stints as SVCs.7
Many SVC clients are not located at the same installation as their SVC, and if they are when they report, they may not remain there throughout the long investigation and court-martial process. With delayed reports, expedited transfers, and the normal course of a military career, it is likely that an SVC will become geographically separated from their client during the course of their representation. Due to this separation, SVCs are constantly traveling.8 There is a preference, both from Congress and the SVC Program Office, that client meetings are conducted in-person when possible.9 While traveling may sound fun at first, it quickly becomes a strain on the SVC’s time and energy. While away from the office, SVCs are likely alone, which means they have limited ability to interact with other members of the OSJA.
On the other hand, when SVCs are not traveling, they are often dealing with issues that put them in direct conflict with their peers or leadership at their home installation as they represent their clients. Whenever there is a victim who is being ostracized, retaliated against, or their case is not going forward, there is a JA on the other side who is likely a peer of the SVC, or perhaps even their SJA. While the vast majority of these interactions are handled professionally, this is still a difficult situation for any JA to navigate as they zealously represent a client who doesn’t have these same concerns.
An additional area that creates a feeling of isolation is professional ethics. The practice of an SVC is just over five years old,10 which creates the challenge of an absence of legacy of case law and experience to guide an SVC’s actions. Couple this with the fact that many SVCs are not co-located with their technical chain for advice and non-SVC Chiefs of Legal Assistance rate them. While an SVC can interact daily with counterparts in their OSJA, professionally, there is not the same camaraderie as those serving in other long-standing positions.
In Trial Defense Service (TDS), you’re off on your own—sometimes truly on your own if you’re in a one-person TDS branch or field office—with a senior defense counsel (SDC) and a regional defense counsel (RDC), oftentimes not co-located with the DC. There are usually other DCs and a few paralegals in your TDS office, though; however, in your client representation, it’s you and the client, and you’re embarking on this journey together. What is particularly difficult at times about serving in TDS is the feeling that you’re fighting an uphill battle every day, where the deck is stacked against you, credible evidence against your client, a client who is usually not a model Soldier/officer, and sometimes fewer resources than the government has to deal with a case.
In addition to that feeling of being outnumbered, a DC is not “on the team” or “one of the good guys.” The installation OSJA is the team, and TDS just isn’t an integral part of that. Defense counsel can attend the professional development sessions with their peers, they can be friends with the prosecutors, they can even be part of all the OSJA social events; yet, the fact remains that DCs’ mission is to represent their client—or, as some view it, essentially to undermine the government and what it’s trying to do in the pursuit of justice. Those feelings of exclusion can wear on a JA; it’s probably why DC assignments are usually no more than two years. Every story clients come to TDS with is sad; every story is fraught with negativity and terrible situations, all leading to their presence in your office. This can be a lot for DCs to deal with and manage on their own.
Tips for JAs Fulfilling SVP, SVC, and DC Roles
As honorable as it is to assist a victim of an assault to obtain justice or to represent a Soldier accused of such a crime, these are admittedly difficult jobs. They’re taxing on a JA’s mental health with the repeated exposure to trauma, as they take up much of an attorney’s emotional energy in dealing with such a case. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you serve in these positions:
- Set up and enforce healthy boundaries. You want to be emotionally available to a victim or client, but you do not want to take on that person’s emotional load. Their problems, though concerning to you as a caring, thoughtful person, are truly theirs—not yours. It is so important to actively keep that boundary engaged (professional standards help).
- Rely on your squad. It’s a trendy term right now, but you need a squad in your life to turn to when you want to unburden yourself, let off some steam, or just sit with at the end of the day. Your squad can be your family, your friends, your colleagues, your boss, or all of these. Identify people in your life you can rely on to help yourself disengage from a victim’s or client’s tumultuous situation.
- Exercise. Though you may believe you cannot squeeze in a workout due to your workload, that is almost never true. Make time to get a sure-fire dopamine hit from the high of sweating it out, even if just for short period of time. Exercise can be a wonderful release for any frustration you may be feeling about a case; exercising with a buddy is even better.
- Do work-unrelated things. Like exercising, embarking on activities that have nothing to do with work is important to keep that healthy distance from work and to hold on to yourself through intense work periods (like in the middle of a case). Once again, you may not think you have time to take your dog on a long walk or to sit down to read a book. Make the time; it reinforces to your mind that you are separate from the case and what is going on there.
- Consult your supervisors and/or mentors. More experienced JAs have been through what you are going through; that’s a fact. Make use of their experience by asking their advice, asking them to simply sit and listen, asking them for help. The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone.
- Be honest with yourself about yourself. How are you really feeling? Have you noticed that you are no longer participating in hobbies or social events? Take time to do an honest self-inventory to ensure you are practicing self-care.
Tips for Supervisors and Mentors of SVPs, SVCs, and DCs
- Regularly check in on your SVP, SVC, or DC subordinates/mentees. Connect with them through email, a text, social media, or by stopping by their office. They may be buried so deep and carrying such a load that they either don’t realize they need your guidance or they believe it’s pointless to ask you for it. Simply being present or available to them in some way can open up a JA who is feeling isolated or even hopeless. And, when you check in, don’t only speak about work, because it will be harder to see the drain. Ask about their weekend—if they are not doing anything outside the office that could be a flag.
- Keep tabs on your subordinates/mentees through their peers. Asking friends and colleagues of an SVP, SVC, or DC how things are going can let you know when you need to reach out for support.
- Make them take leave. Real leave. Not the kind of leave where you come to work in your civvies. And, have a coverage plan so someone else covers the work that they can give up. Use or lose leave is a significant problem in the trial world and should be unacceptable for leaders.
That’s it. Only those three things are what you need to do to keep this vulnerable population of JAs from suffering vicarious trauma or too burdensome an emotional load to carry on their own. Do not hesitate to connect your subordinate/mentee with professional assistance; knowing the rules on what has to be reported on security background checks will ensure you advise well on where to seek help beyond just yourself.
Dealing with the types of cases that SVPs, SVCs, and DCs litigate is intense. Some JAs have excellent coping mechanisms, and some must work on these to perform their jobs well, without a lasting effect on them. The takeaway for practitioners is that you might feel alone, but you never are. The JAG Corps has set up three excellent organizations: TDS in 1980, the SVP Program in 2008, and the SVC Program in 2013. All of these have an internal support system for you to rely on, but you may feel at some points in interacting with victims and clients that your organization’s support system is failing you. Or, you may feel too disillusioned to reach out. These may feel like the loneliest jobs in the JAG Corps, but “one” doesn’t have to be the loneliest number when you use the tips in this article, know that your leaders and mentors care tremendously for you and your well-being, and, yes, remember the takeaway: you are not alone in this. TAL
1. Three Dog Night, One (Dunhill Records, 1968), https://www.songfacts.com/lyrics/three-dog-night/one. The full lyrics go on to explain that “[t]wo can be as bad as one. It’s the loneliest number since the number one.” Id.
2. Information Paper, SUBJECT: Army Special Victim Prosecutor (SVP) Program, LTC G. Bret Batdorff (24 Feb. 2016), https://jpp.whs.mil/Public/docs/07-RFI/Set_6/Responses/RFI_Attachment_Q119_USA.pdf (“To ensure the Army adopted the best practices in the field of sexual assault prosecution, the Secretary of the Army, in December 2008, authorized the creation of 15 Special Victim Prosecutor (SVP) positions within the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAGC). In 2011, The Judge Advocate General increased the number of SVPs to 23. Presently, there are 24 SVPs dispersed across the Army’s 21 largest installations.”).
3. Memorandum from Lieutenant General Charles N. Pede, The Judge Advocate General to Judge Advocate Legal Services Personnel, subject: Special Victim Prosecution Program-Policy Memorandum 17-05 (1 Dec. 2017).
4. U.S. Army Special Victims’ Counsel Program, Special Victims’ Counsel Handbook Fourth Edition (9 June 2017) [hereinafter SVC Handbook].
6. Special victims’ counsel clients are “adult and child victims of sexual assault and abuse.” About the SVC Program, Special Victim Counsel, https://tjaglcspublic.army.mil/svc (last visited Nov. 14, 2019). This informational website also includes an interactive game for child clients to learn more about the SVC Program and “to guide children through the military justice (MJ) process—orienting them to persons, places, and processes involved in their journey.” Id.
7. Army Special Victims’ Counsel, https://www.jagcnet.army.mil/SVCounsel (last visited Nov. 14, 2019).
8. See Captains Nicholas K. Leslie & Aaron R. Matthes, A Roadmap for Leaders of SVCs, Army Law., Issue 4, at 41 (2019), https://tjaglcspublic.army.mil/a-roadmap-for-leaders-of-svcs.
9. 10 U.S.C. 1044e(e)(3)(A) (2018).
10. Colonel Louis P. Yob, The Special Victim Counsel Program at Five Years: An Overview of Its Origins and Development, Army Law., Issue 1, at 65 (2019), https://tjaglcspublic.army.mil/the-special-victim-counsel-program-at-five-years?inheritRedirect=true.