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JAG lawyer or law firm?
January 18, 2007 7:46 PM   Subscribe

Should I become a JAG lawyer/officer now or work for a law firm for a year or two first?

I just graduated from a top 10 law school and am studying for the Bar in CA. I'm torn between applying for Marine Corps Officer Candidate School to become a JAG officer this year versus going to work at a law firm for a year or two first. Here's my list of pros and cons for each . . . please give me feedback on it.

Law firm pros: make some money to pay off loans, gain some BigLaw experience which might make me more marketable in case I leave the military later, satisfy the family members who are like "Why the fu** don't you want to make money?", be completely sure that it's not for me before I take the big step of a 4-year commitment in the military, getting "paper" litigation experience outside of the criminal law field.

Law firm cons: Very boring 1-2 years in an office by myself reading and writing all day with no trial experience or client contact (AKA soul killer of me), my school has Loan Repayment Program and Officer pay is fine give the hours and responsibility.

I spent last summer at a mid-size lifestyle law firm where the people were great and the hours very manageable (1800 billable), but throughout the summer I could just see a future me gaining weight, being cooped up in office without a realistic probability of trial experience.

Any JAGs out there that can give me the straight scoop on what your work life is like?
posted by KimikoPi to Law & Government (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Law firm cons: Very boring 1-2 years in an office by myself reading and writing all day with no trial experience or client contact

At some firms, sure. Not mine. Do your research and don't buy into the OMG BIGLAW horror stories. (Trial experience is rare because trials are rare. Civil litigation is all about posturing and bargaining. Learn how to do this well, and trials are easy.)
posted by Saucy Intruder at 8:13 PM on January 18, 2007

In many cases, if you are now studying for the bar and you don't already have a big law firm job, you aren't going to get one. So don't count on that.
posted by Not in my backyard at 8:46 PM on January 18, 2007

what's the worst that could happen? that you waste a few years of your youth? I think you could handle that.

this isn't what anyone else recommends, this is about what holds the most promise of making you happy. what matters the most to you right now, making a decent paycheck or the appeal of being JAG? where do you want to be in a year, what do you desire to check off your list of to-do's? ask yourself questions like that and then jump into it.

lie is about making experiences. good or bad, they will all lead you to places and most will be well worth it in the end. make a decision and run with it and you will end up alright. you'll only regret what you didn't do.

IANAL but damnit, I'm happy.
posted by krautland at 9:41 PM on January 18, 2007

I can't really advise you on what being a Marine JAG is like. Amazingly enough, years ago, as a 41 year old law school grad, they offered me a JAG slot. I chose IP with a great firm but that wasn't my bailiwick either. I went back and got an MBA (degree number 4) and found that too many times clients still ignored my advice because they had an agenda they were dead set on following no matter what I had to say. I said screw it - life it TOO short. So now I live in Brazil and sell antique prints on the internet. My time IS my own and I don't worry about anyone else's real or imagined legal and/or business problems. Do I ever regret MY choices? Never. I've never taken a Rolaids in my life and no one can ever pay me enough money to do what I do not enjoy. Time is the ONL thing you can never get more than God allots to you. You just can't live life looking in the rearview mirror.

Take your impressions of your summer experience and how you were treated with a huge grain of salt. Most of the time those summer jobs are just a small window on reality. How were the 2nd and 3rd year associated treated? Interested in a partnership there? Find out the washout rate. Don't kid yourself, unless you are a rainmaker and seen as such, you are really fungible goods. You will know pretty soon if you are regarded as partnership material and on that track. Sad but true. Partners bill your time at $180/hr, pay you $75/hr, and they get a big chunk of the rest. Believe me, they are not real anxious to split that pie up any more than they need to. Get into those golden handcuffs by really relying on your salary, and you may find yourself unable to make a break later if you want to.

I suspect being a JAG can be a bit boring. You might spend your days writing wills for guys going to Iraq. Or on one side or the other in a military law court. You rolls the dice and takes you chances... I wouldn't really believe or trust anything that a recruiter told me I would be doing. That ain't no binding contract. My daughter was supposed to see Navy duty on an oceanography ship and spent 5 years on a munitions ship. Doh!!!!!!! And read the fine print about your real obligation. Today, a lot of military people are being blind-sided now because that X year commitment was really X+ years.

Bottom line is you are young. No decision is really "the wrong decision" at this point. It really is never too late to change what you do if you don't paint yourself into a corner. Do what YOU want to do. Tell your family you appreciate their concern and advice. Then give it the credence it deserves remembering that none of them will need to live day in and day out with the choice(s) you make.
posted by toucano at 10:42 PM on January 18, 2007

Arghh, my carefully worked out answer just went poof. Two quick points.

1. Hesitant to impose myself in anyone's family dynamic but unless they're you're signifigant other who cares what your family thinks about your passing up the big bucks, it's your life not theirs.

2. Marine Corps Judge Advocates are Marine Officers first and lawyers second, so that should probably play into your decision.

Besides lawyer stuff, in the Marines they also do things like lead infantry units.

It's the officer equivalent of the "Every Marine is a rifleman" ethos.

That's why they're not "in an office" all day.

If you don't want to do that you might want to consider the other services law programs. (Don't forget the Coast Guard's program.) In the other services, lawyers are staff officers who are excluded from exercising command. OTOH, that may be more office like than you'd like, with the office merely transposed to a ship, air base, or army forward operating base in Afghanistan.
posted by Jahaza at 11:09 PM on January 18, 2007

There are a lot of financial considerations at play. How good is your school's loan repayment program? Make sure you know *all* the details. Even some top-10 school have shockingly bad loan repayment. You may have to work up to 7 years as a JAG (or other govt/nonprofit position) in order to fully vest, and you might face having to pay it all back if you go back into the private sector too early.

Also, your loan repayment program might require you to plow a whole lot extra money you make at a firm into your loans if you are going to qualify for loan repayment later on as a JAG. That could make the financial reasons for working at a firm significantly less attractive -- you may not end up with any savings.

On the flip side, if you work at a higher salary in a firm, before you enter federal government service, even for just a year, you may get a significantly higher pay grade than you would if you entered government service directly. (This is true for judicial clerks, but I'm not sure it's true for military.)

Working at a law firm for a few years first will definitely help you transition back into the private sector if you want to do that later on. But that shouldn't be your only consideration, because you'll get so much great experience as a JAG and who know's what you're going to want to do later.

As for my own experience...with the grace of excellent loan repayment assistance, I've been able to completely bypass big firm life so far, and I don't think I'll ever end up there. It is admittedly mindboggling to think of the money I'm giving up, but honestly, the cool stuff I've gotten to do in just two years, and expect to keep on doing, makes it completely worth it. Remind yourself why you went to law school -- it wasn't to become rich, was it? If you can figure out a way to make a reasonable salary doing work that you want to do, go for it.
posted by footnote at 7:49 AM on January 19, 2007

Ignoring the financial aspect of it all, the question is what kind of lawyer you want to be.

If you want to be trial lawyer, you should work for a law firm that is going to get you into a courtroom. Not a motion practice, but a trial practice. And what kind of litigation do you want to do? You're much more likely to find this at a smaller or medium-sized firm which does exclusively general or matter-specific litigation. Sometimes, to get those kinds of jobs at good firms for that kind of thing, a year or two in a large law firm will help you a lot, in terms or training and general understanding of the process.

If you want to be a military lawyer, then join the military. I don't know, but I suspect, that being a JAG will not be that much like being a civilian trial lawyer. You will learn information and skills that may or may not be useful to you in a civilian setting. Do it because you want to be in the military, not because you want to be a trial lawyer.

What did you do for your summers?
posted by jcwagner at 9:40 AM on January 19, 2007

My summers I worked at the U.S. Attorney's office then at a mid-size IP litigation firm (more motion practice than trial practice).
posted by Kimpossible at 6:52 PM on January 19, 2007

A little more follow-up - I know lots of "trial lawyers." Even they spend lots of time in motion practice - it's just that there is a greater chance that they'll ultimately take these cases to trial.

If you really enjoy the actual process of being in a courtroom and arguing about things and getting a ruling one way or the other, this concept of being a trial lawyer may appeal to you, even if you're not actually in trial that much. I has watched several of my trial lawyer friends come to really enjoy what they do, because they enjoy the competition and the intellectual battle of it all. While they relish occasionally taking cases to trial, having a jury or a judge decide the questions of fact of the case is generally not nearly as emotionally satisfying to them as it is being able to demonstrate superior lawyering through the arguing, drafting and other legal skills exemplified in a broad motion practice.

The law student's ideal of a full "trial practice" is largely a fantasy. It's a very small segment of all lawyers, even all litigators, who spend the majority of their time "in trial," and those that do are skewed either towards the very elite - trial specialists who take the major cases of others to trial - or the far other end of the spectrum - general criminal litigators dealing with a wide variety of criminal offenses for the destitute or nearly

If you're dead set on joining up as a lawyer, just do it. But don't do it because you want to be a trial lawyer or a litigator. And I very much doubt that your one or two years in private practice are going to be particularly useful to you if you are a JAG.
posted by jcwagner at 10:34 AM on January 22, 2007

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