There’s good news and bad news for those transitioning from a military legal career to the civilian legal job market.
First, the bad news: JAG recruiting websites for all branches of service state that JAG experience will make your move to a civilian legal career “seamless” or “effortless”. That’s not true. Entering the legal job market is difficult for everyone, and JAG officers have additional hurdles to overcome.
Now, the good news: JAG experience gives you some advantages over your civilian competition if you know how to present and maximize them. And, most importantly, your military background provides you with a built-in job search network that civilians don’t have.
- Translating Skills
Your experience may not be directly transferrable to a civilian legal job. Therefore, you must translate. Remember, it’s all about what you can do for the prospective employer!
Research the skills and duties required in your target position and highlight any related competencies in your background. Emphasize similarities of functions and deemphasize differences from military law. For example, in any kind of litigation, your experience in investigations, evidence gathering, witness preparation, oral advocacy and evidence presentation should transfer. Or, if you handled procurement, you have contract negotiation, drafting, and review experience. If you worked in employment or environmental law, or provided personal services to military personnel such as estate planning, domestic relations, or consumer protection issues, these skills are more easily transferrable because they deal with civilian laws and tribunals.
Human resources personnel and hiring partners give resumes only a quick scan before deciding whether the candidate is worth pursuing, so your suitability for the position must be readily apparent. Eliminate military jargon and acronyms from your written and oral communications and convert it into civilian language. Read job listings and practice area descriptions on law firm websites and use that terminology. For example, “military courts martial” can translate as “federal prosecution”; “special or general court martial” can be described as “felony or misdemeanor trial”.
Once you’ve written civilian versions of your resume and cover letter, have them reviewed by someone that never was in the military and is unrelated to a service member to make sure your documents are thoroughly “demilitarized”. Here's a sample resume to consider.
Focus and tailor each presentation for the position you seek. You probably will have several versions of your resume and cover letter. For each, emphasize the aspects of your background most similar to the skills required for the particular job. Eliminate and minimize any non-related information. Remember, this is a marketing tool, not a background check!
Recognize that your seniority level won’t necessarily transfer directly with one-to-one credit for your years of experience. Unless you’ve been doing exactly the kind of work in the military that you seek in the civilian legal marketplace, you may need to step back in order to prove yourself and fit more seamlessly into the organization’s structure.
In the service, you probably had sole responsibility for matters from start to finish. However, unless you open a solo practice, in a private law firm, your job may primarily involve legal research and writing. You then will hand the matter off to a partner, whom you might also help prepare for appearances and trials. Expect to have all of your work reviewed and edited by others, at least in the beginning. Once you demonstrate that you can match or outperform your civilian counterparts, you can move ahead at your own pace.
One skill essential to civilian law practice, but probably less so in the actual practice of military law, is legal writing. Most lawsuits never get as far as trial, but settle during or are decided during the pre-trial motion stage. Consequently, many law firms require candidates to submit samples of their written work as part of the interviewing process. They expect to see briefs similar to those the candidate would prepare in the course of their duties should they be hired. If you didn’t produce any significant written work in the line of your duty, you may need to think creatively about how to showcase your writing abilities, perhaps through a pro bono representation.
You may encounter false preconceptions or perceptions about your military service or your integration into the civilian workforce. You may meet or interview with people who have very little first-hand connection to the military whose experience and understanding of the military has been shaped by TV, movies, books or the press, where veterans are often portrayed as being more likely than civilians to face problems like unemployment, substance abuse, and mental health issues. You may also encounter interviewers who are more interested in your “war stories” or anything they perceive to be most exciting about your military experience. If during an interview, you feel like an employer is asking questions about your experience that are not directly relevant to the position, keep bringing discussion back to your transferrable skills and what value you can bring to their organization. Talk about your ability to work under pressure. Prepare examples of your adaptability and ability to work well with all types of people.
Just as you need to demilitarize your written presentation, you need to do the same with your personal presentation. If you’re in the process of transitioning out of the service, buy interview clothes and get comfortable wearing them. Grow your hair to civilian length as soon as possible. Minimize your reflexive urge to use “sir” and “ma’am”, as they’re not part of most workplace vocabularies. Also, practice your handshake, which may be rusty after years of salutes.
On the flip side, JAG veterans I’ve interviewed say that their military background always stood them in good stead in their civilian legal careers.
- Perception of Excellence
Veterans are assumed to possess valuable attributes such as leadership, discipline, resourcefulness; responsibility and dependability; persistence, and so forth. You’re accustomed to adapting to change and learning quickly on the job. Be prepared with stories demonstrating that you, indeed, have these qualities.
Describe your experiences in terms that are understood and transferrable to civilian environments, such as demonstrating supervisorial responsibility, teamwork, or resourcefulness. Show how your capabilities can benefit the potential employer, thus making you a value-added candidate, and setting you apart from your civilian competition.
- Built-In Network
The old adage “It’s not what you know, but who you know” holds true in the career context. Members of your network can provide job leads, advice, and potential clients to help you on your way. Your biggest advantage over your civilian counterparts is that military service gives you an automatic commonality with a huge number of potential mentors. You can reach out to former JAG officers, veterans, or reserve officers from your branch or any other branch of service. Whether you’re still on active duty or already transitioned out of the service, start building that network now via social media and personal contact.
Before reaching out to potential connections via the internet, clean up your online presence. Review your profiles on any social networking sites such as LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and their kin. Remove any potentially embarrassing information, comments, photos, music, or videos. Disconnect links to other sites that might show content inconsistent with your professional image. Set up civilian email and online accounts and websites, using photos in civilian clothes and a username that doesn’t refer to your military service. If you currently are on active duty, observe appropriate protocol, of course. Once your civilian online persona is ready, expand your network through social media by searching for and reaching out to connect with fellow military personnel, veterans, and reservists who are involved in careers related to what you seek.
Don’t forget to network in person, as well. Join organizations that interest you, including bar associations, community organizations, and your law school and undergraduate alumni associations. Consider joining the reserves if you haven’t done so already, but inform prospective employers of your time commitment.
When applying for positions, go where you’re understood and appreciated. Look for companies and firms with a number of former JAG officers, veterans or reserve officers from your branch or any other branch of service. A search on LinkedIn or a law firm’s website will reveal that information. Seek out geographic areas, organizations, and industries that are “military friendly”. Government offices in general or businesses catering to or located near military installations also are good bets.
GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS
In the civilian world, you must take control of every aspect of your career while, in the military, you don’t plan and manage your own career; you go where you’re ordered. The military provides a clear hierarchy and career path. Your pay, benefits, and clients are handed to you and your duties are set. You know what to wear, right down to the haircut. Once you’re in the civilian legal world, however, it’s all up to you. Everything differs depending upon where you choose to work and what you negotiate. The bad news is that you’re on your own. The good news is that you can create the career you want.
JAG veterans who made successful transitions to civilian careers say it was harder than they expected but definitely achievable. They learned to overcome obstacles and make the most of the advantages they gained from their military service.