Why Hire Civilian Counsel?

This is a great question, and each person’s case is different.  Frankly, you may not need or want a civilian military lawyer.  On the other hand, having a civilian attorney may be preferable or even an absolute necessity if you want a decent chance to secure your freedom and protect your good name.

The question is simple: Should you spend your hard-earned money for a civilian attorney when military defense counsel is provided for free?

Note: If you are an active duty member of the armed forces facing a court-martial, nonjudicial punishment, administrative separation/discharge, or any other adverse action, stop reading this and contact your installation’s JAG defense counsel office. The quicker you bring them onto your team, the better they can prepare. Even if you hire civilian counsel, your uniformed counsel remains on the case and are an invaluable resource. So, talk to them first, then return here and continue reading. This is especially important if you have been accused of military sexual assault, as your uniformed defense counsel is the most up-to-date on all the latest rules in this ever-evolving segment of the law.

I evaluate each case on its own merits, and it may be that I recommend that you not spend money on a civilian defense attorney.  This situation is not unusual, and I will be completely upfront and candid with you if that is my opinion.  On the other hand, I may have a plan or course of action that is preferable compared to that of your detailed military counsel (the one provided by the government).

When I was still in the Army and working as a defense counsel, I encouraged my clients to obtain civilian counsel.  Why?  Because that is exactly what I would do if I faced a court-martial, separation, or other adverse action.  It was not that I doubted my abilities.  On the contrary, I felt that I could fully represent each client and secure a positive result.  The fact is that I would want to have a team of attorneys working for me, my family, and my future–not just one who was appointed to represent me. Two heads (in this case, two lawyers) are always better than one.

For those of you who are no longer members of the military, much of the information on this page does not apply to you. Unfortunately, the ability to seek free defense/representation with JAG ends when your service ends, unless you are retired.

Here are a few factors that explain why considering civlilian counsel is imperative:


I take the cases I want to take, and I purposely keep my number of pending cases low enough to enable me to have personal interaction with each client and time to fully prepare their cases.  When I worked in the Army Trial Defense Service, I took every case that came through my door because that was my job.  This meant that I divided my time between 10-20 pending cases (not including administrative separations, nonjudicial punishment, and other adverse administrative actions).  Now, I only take a new case if I know that I can give it 100% of my effort and ability.

2 for the price of 1

You could accept one free attorney, or your could have two for the price of one.  If you choose to hire a civilian defense attorney, you usually keep your detailed military counsel (uniformed counsel) at no charge.  This means that you have the power to assemble a team of attorneys to help you through a very difficult time in your life.  Servicemembers deserve a team to represent them.

You choose a civilian lawyer, but your assigned counsel is chosen for you.

Your detailed defense attorney is appointed to your case based on who is available at the time.  No consideration is given to personality, experience, time, or your preferences.  You get who you get, and that generally remains unchanged.  In selecting a civilian defense attorney, you have the power of choice, and you can pick someone with the right personality, experience, time, and anything else that is important to you.

It is critical that you find a military lawyer who is the right fit for you. Their personality must be compatible with yours, and teaching you about the process is an extremely important task. So, it is important to find someone who you know will educate you on the process and the roadmap to success.


At the time I left active duty as a Major and  Senior Defense Counsel, I was told that I would never be in the courtroom again due to the amount of time I already spent as a prosecutor and defense counsel (in short, I’d already “checked the block” in the courtroom).  Knowing this, most military defense counsel have fewer than 5 years of service as an attorney and sometimes less as a member of the Armed Forces.  The more I represented clients in the courtroom, the more confident and competent I became, and those are attributes that can only be obtained through time and practice.  You deserve representation by someone who is backed by years of experience.

Civilian counsel are not part of the Armed Forces

My priority is trying to secure a positive result for my client.  Period.  Civilian counsel are not deterred by rank, a chain of command, or a supervisory chain of responsibility. Civilians are not worried about the next evaluation report or upcoming promotion. Having said that, not all uniformed lawyers are worried about these things, but some are–especially those who are just “doing their time” as a defense lawyer.

No Boundaries Advocacy

Within the ethical rules that apply to all attorneys in the United States, I do what is necessary to fully represent the interests of my client.  Military assigned counsel are often subject to restraints on representation by their chain of command, such as limitations on approaching members of the press.  I have no chain of command. I work for my clients’ interests. That’s it.

Having said this, I must say that some of the best defense attorneys I have met were members of the military trial defense services (uniformed defense counsel). They were dogged, zealous, and smart. At the same time, I’ve met several that didn’t care about their job or clients. Additionally, the uniformed services’ defense lawyer training and support is second to none. For legal subjects such as military sexual assaults, which have radically changed in the last few years, uniformed military lawyers have the most comprehensive and up-to-date training on the law and its application to the military. For all of these reasons, the popular notion that uniformed military lawyers (JAG lawyers) are not “real lawyers” and somehow subpar compared to their civilian counterparts is unfortunate, untrue, and misguided.

I chose to become a member of the Trial Defense Service and was selected as a Senior Defense Counsel. I enjoyed both the job and the challenge, and I had the privilege to work with some amazing fellow lawyers. However, some of my peers and subordinates had no interest in defending service members. They looked forward to the next assignment, hoping to return to the job of prosecuting cases.

When I was still wearing a uniform, I knew which uniformed defense counsel I’d request if I faced trial or adverse action. At the same time, I also knew which civilian lawyer I’d hire for the same purpose. Would I want two (or more) lawyers working to protect me? You bet. The OJ Simpson trial proved that a team of lawyers, working effectively, can provide an amazing and effective defense.

So, how do you choose the right civilian military lawyer/civilian counsel?

Here are a few factors that you should consider, though no individual factor should be an automatic disqualifier:

  1. How long has the lawyer been practicing military law?
  2. If an individual claims to be a military lawyer, how much of their practice is devoted to military law? Do they focus only on military law, or is it just a small part of their practice?
  3. How do they feel about working with uniformed military lawyers? They must realize the importance of forming a high-performing team.
  4. How much do they charge? How much will the total fees be? Is there a logical method behind their fees, or did they just pull a number out of their ass?
  5. What is their military background? Were they only a military lawyer, or did they serve in the military in another capacity (like an Infantryman, Pilot, Tanker, Mechanic, etc)?
  6. Is the military lawyer familiar with your branch of the Armed Forces? Do they know the difference between a Staff Sergeant in the Army/Marines and a Staff Sergeant in the Air Force? If not, this could be a sign of trouble. Nothing is worse than watching your civilian military lawyer say “Good Morning Major” to a Sergeant Major.
  7. Most military lawyers will not be geographically close to you, especially the ones who focus more than 75% of their practice on military law. Have they leveraged technology in a way that allows their office to follow them to your location? This is important in the modern practice of law.
  8. Do they understand their role as teacher? A good military lawyer will teach you about the process you face. Does the lawyer appear to have the skills to teach you what you need to know in order to be a savvy and helpful client?
  9. A good lawyer puts his client to work. Facing a court-martial or other military legal process is like having an additional job. Your lawyer should have a plan on how you will be utilized during the journey.
  10. How many other cases will your lawyer be balancing at the same time he/she is handling your case? If your lawyer has 5 other pending courts-martial at the same time he/she plans to take your case, they will be dividing their attention a lot. You need a lawyer who will give your case personalized attention. After all, that’s what you are paying for.

If you feel that hiring civilian counsel is the right thing for you, your family, and your case, feel free to Contact Us.

ActionPros to Hiring Civilian CounselCons to Hiring Civilian Counsel
Court-Martial- Creating a team
- Likely to have years of experience.
- 2 for the price of 1
- Might not work well with uniformed counsel
- May not be as up-to-date as uniformed counsel
- May lack understanding and experience with military
Administrative Separations- Creating a team
- For military defense offices, these are priority 2 cases. Civilian counsel have no priority 2 cases.
- Civilian counsel usually has more time to spend on these case.
- Uniformed counsel may better understand the officers who are making decisions.
- Civilian counsel may not understand that these boards make decisions mostly on equity.
Nonjudicial Punishment- Civilian counsel will go with you to the hearing.
- Civilian counsel will usually spend more time in preparing a case, written evidence, and developing strategy.
- Commander may have already made up his mind, and nothing will change it, not even a civilian lawyer.
- Commander may be offended or angered by the presence of a civilian in these matters.
Discharge Upgrades/Record Corrections- Uniformed counsel not an option.
- Will appear with you at hearings.
- Those with experience at these boards have insight into how these boards think.
- Most civilian counsel have no experience with these matters. To many civilian military lawyers, these cases are secondary and are prioritized behind other matters.
- Some veteran service organizations will assist in preparing these cases for free.