The Definitive Guide to JAG Careers: Coast Guard & Marines Edition

These Definitive Guide JAG posts are consistently the most popular content on this site. My former colleague, Katelynn McBride Barbosa who created this blog, did an amazing job summarizing the key information for each branch. It’s been a few years, though, and some things have definitely changed. I have attended the Marines Corps Educators Workshop and had an immersive experience in all things Marines. So I am going to update and expand the information provided.

If you’re interested in knowing how the branches are different, how JAG hiring works, and what life as a military lawyer is like, read this series of posts (which are all updated for 2020). Also, check out our JAG Info Sheet which provides key basics for each branch plus current recruiting contacts (in the Job Search Toolkit). And talk with members of the NDLS Military & Veterans Law Society to hear more about their experiences. Want to talk with recent alumni who are current JAGs? Let me know, and I will connect you.

It’s not a secret to any NDLS student that I am a huge fan of JAG. I think it is an amazing career path with so many advantages. JAG attorneys get terrific hand-on substantive experience, including courtroom experience, right away. Entry-level pay is over $60,000, a sizable portion of which is not taxed, and many other terrific benefits. The military emphasizes the whole person, not just grades. As a JAG, you will be part of your military family which is an amazing community and support network.

Coast Guard

What does the Coast Guard do?

The Coast Guard is a unique branch of the military responsible for an array of maritime duties, from ensuring safe and lawful commerce to performing rescue missions in severe conditions. Nearly 42,000 men and women are actively serving in the Coast Guard to defend America’s borders and protect the maritime environment. The Coast Guard is the only military branch not under the Department of Defense. Instead, they are under the Department of Homeland Security. If there is a war, the Coast Guard is part of the Navy. The Coast Guard has 11 codified missions, some of which include search and rescue, navigation, which includes managing buoys and lighthouses, drug interdiction, and environmental issues. The Coast Guard focuses on protecting the homeland and operates only in the U.S. They have law enforcement capacities rather than war capacities.

On an average day, the Coast Guard:

  • conducts 45 search and rescue cases
  • saves 10 lives
  • saves over $1.2M in property
  • seizes 874 pounds of cocaine and 214 pounds of marijuana
  • conducts 57 waterborne patrols of critical maritime infrastructure
  • conducts 24 security boardings in and around U.S. ports
  • screens 360 merchant vessels for potential security threats prior to arrival in U.S. ports
  • conducts 14 fisheries conservation boardings
  • services 82 buoys and fixed aids to navigation
  • investigates 35 pollution incidents
  • completes 26 safety examinations on foreign vessels
  • conducts 105 marine inspections
  • investigates 14 marine casualties involving commercial vessels
  • facilitates movement of $8.7 billion worth of goods and commodities through the nation’s maritime transportation system

What is the Coast Guard JAG?

The Coast Guard Legal Program is a “full-service” legal support organization, providing legal advice and counsel for any and all requirements the service’s decision-makers need. This is done within 10 general legal practice areas:  Criminal Law/Military Justice, Operations, International Activities, Civil Advocacy, Environmental Law, Procurement Law, Internal Organizational Law, Regulations & Administrative Law, Legislative Support and Legal Assistance. Judge Advocates may appear both as prosecutors or defense counsel in courts-martial and before a variety of administrative hearings. Coast Guard Judge Advocates also assist the Department of Justice and U.S. attorneys in prosecuting and defending both criminal and civil cases. In some areas, Judge Advocates are designated Special Assistant U.S. Attorneys to prosecute criminal cases in Federal Court.

The Coast Guard is smaller than the other branches. There are only 42,000 people in all of the Coast Guard so naturally, there are fewer JAGs. The Coast Guard only has 200 active duty attorneys. Only 150 are operating as attorneys and the rest are attorneys serving in non-attorney roles. Coast Guard attorneys are officers first. Unlike the other branches, Coast Guard lawyers do not wear anything on their uniforms indicating lawyer status. Instead, Coast Guard officers can be assigned to any position within the Coast Guard.

Unlike most other branches, Coast Guard lawyers can ask to try something else that isn’t law. Almost all Coast Guard attorneys come in without prior service through a direct commission.

Also unlike branches, the Coast Guard has no overseas presence and a JAG’s chances of being stationed overseas are remote. Unlike the Navy, JAGs are not stationed on ships either.

As a Coast Guard JAG, your first duty station assignment will be to a legal office in one of the Coast Guard’s District Offices (Boston, Miami, New Orleans, Cleveland, Seattle, Juneau, or Honolulu); Atlantic Area (Norfolk, VA) and Pacific Area (Alameda, CA); Legal Service Command & Detachment (Norfolk, VA or Alameda, CA); the Coast Guard Academy (New London, CT); or in Coast Guard Headquarters (Washington, DC).

Judge Advocates receive a broad spectrum of experience and a high degree of responsibility from the time they report to their first assignments. New Judge Advocates commission as a Lieutenant (O-3) and will receive an initial four-year assignment as a Coast Guard attorney.

What are the eligibility requirements?

In order to qualify as a direct commission applicant, candidates must:

  • Not have reached their 41st birthday by September 30 of the year when the selection panel convenes;
  • Be a U.S. Citizen;
  • Be eligible for a Secret Clearance;
  • May not have more than 3 dependents (your spouse is considered your dependent, regardless of military status);
  • Be a graduate of, or a third-year law student in, an ABA-accredited law school;
  • Hold either admission to the bar of the highest court of a State, the District of Columbia, or a U.S. Territory, or provide an affidavit that you are registered or will register for the bar exam at your first available sitting;
  • Meet all financial obligations, and not have a debt to income ratio in excess of 80% (ratio of debt to projected income at applicant’s highest accession level, O-3);
  • Be of outstanding moral character;
  • Pass a commissioning physical;
  • Not have tattoos or body markings that are inconsistent with the CG tattoo, body marking, body piercing, and mutilation policy. (This is true of most branches but others don’t always state it explicitly).

How do you apply to be a Coast Guard lawyer?

Law students in their final year of a JD program and licensed attorneys are eligible to serve as Judge Advocates for the US Coast Guard through the Direct Commission Lawyer (DCL) program. You can contact a recruiter at any time. (Consult the NDLS JAG Info Sheet for the current JAG recruiter assigned to Notre Dame.) Third-year law students can initiate an application as soon as the previous third-year class graduates. The earlier one starts an application, the more opportunity for consideration and selection in that fiscal year. Once considered and selected, training will begin after the July bar exam dates. Read more about the application process here.

The application deadline is October 26. Here is the DCL flyer for Fall 2020. There is only one selection panel each year, and the October 26 deadline applies to everyone.

The Coast Guard is smaller so cannot be as present on campuses. Part of their philosophy is that everybody is a recruiter. If the Coast Guard comes on campus, they do informational interviews. They do not take any reports of these interviews or track anything to an application. Formal interviews take place on a Coast Guard base and the first step to getting an interview is contacting a recruiter.

Once your application package is complete, your recruiter will schedule you for an interview with a panel of Coast Guard officers who will provide a recommendation on your potential to become a CG officer. Recruiters coordinate interview boards with local CG units. Be prepared: this is a formal interview. In a formal Coast Guard interview, there are three panel members, one of whom is a JAG, and the interview lasts 90 minutes-2 hours depending on the interviewers.

How do you apply for a summer internship with the Coast Guard?

The Coast Guard offers unpaid internships to 1Ls and 2Ls. Interns will work alongside active duty Judge Advocates and civilian attorneys within the Coast Guard legal community. The program provides an excellent opportunity to learn about the U.S. Coast Guard and its legal community, while gaining insight on its Direct Commission Lawyer process. Interns must complete a security background check and are required to spend a minimum of 10 weeks interning at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C. or U.S. Coast Guard legal field offices throughout the country, including: Boston, MA; Portsmouth, VA; Norfolk, VA; Miami, FL; New Orleans, LA; Cleveland, OH; Alameda, CA; New London, CT; Seattle, WA; Honolulu, HI; Cape May, NJ; or Juneau, AK.

An application, several documents submitted as a single pdf packet, is emailed to the Coast Guard Judge Advocate email distribution list: See full details here. The application deadline is October 31.


What do the Marines do?

The Marine Corps is one of the most elite fighting forces in the world. The Marines are a part of the Department of the Navy and operate in close cooperation with U.S. Naval forces at sea. The Marine Corps’ mission is unique among the services. Marines serve on U.S. Navy ships, protect naval bases, guard U.S. embassies, and provide an ever-ready quick strike force to protect U.S. interests anywhere in the world.

The Marine Corps is the nation’s 911 force. Thousands of Marines are always deployed aboard naval amphibious ships ready to respond to an international crisis. This ability to mobilize quickly has allowed the Marines to become the United States’ ready-reaction force.

Marines are exceptionally proud to be Marines and once you are a Marine, you are a Marine for life.

The Marines are the hardcore branch of the military. To get into the Marines, even as a lawyer, you must be in exceptional physical shape.

What is Marine Corps JAG?

The Marine Judge Advocate Division has 400 attorneys. You will most likely serve as a prosecutor or defense counsel in courts martial during your first tour but after that, Marine lawyers have the opportunity to practice law in such diverse areas as operations law, family law, environmental law, international law, labor law and appellate practice.

Marines are proud to say that “every Marine is a rifleman.” Unlike the other branches, Marine lawyers are given the same officer training as anyone else so that, if need be, they can perform as an infantryman.

I went to the Marine Corps Educators Workshop a few years ago and was immersed in officer training and Marines life at Quantico. (It was beyond exciting! If I were in my twenties and in shape…) JAG officers learn how to engage in hand to hand combat, how to use a rifle, how to strategically plan and execute missions. There is a strong emphasis on leadership skills and adaptability. This USMC description says it all:

“Officer Candidates School (OCS) is where mind, body, and character are screened, evaluated, and honed to a razor-sharp point. Success here is measured not by how well you follow procedure, but how well you lead in conditions of uncertainty. Decisiveness, judgment, initiative, and moral courage are tested in the midst of chaos, exhaustion, indecision, and scrutiny.
These are the initial battles that must be won—and will only be won—by those who have the mettle to step forward, the resolve to continue through every adversity, and the presence to lead in front of the world’s most revered fighting force. Those who complete OCS not only find a true sense of purpose and belonging, but also earn the privilege of wearing the Marine Officer uniform with pride.”

Marines are always Marines first and lawyers second. There are strict physical fitness requirements.

The initial term of service is three years of active duty, and newly-commissioned Marine Officers graduate from Officer Candidate School as Second Lieutenants.

As a Marine Corps Judge Advocate, you will immediately be given the responsibilities of maintaining your own caseload and advising Marines on legal issues. Additionally, the training you receive as a Marine Corps Officer will prepare you to be a leader from day one. While most new civilian attorneys research cases tried by others, you will be building your skills and acquiring real legal experience in the courtroom. You will be guaranteed a judge advocate assignment for your first tour but you may request a non-legal assignment next if you like.

The major Marines Corps bases and air stations are located in DC, Quantico, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, Hawaii, Georgia, Missouri and Japan.

What are the eligibility requirements for Marine Corps JAG?

  • Must be at least 18 years old at the time of application
  • Must not have reached 28th birthday at the time of commissioning
  • Must be a citizen of the United States
  • Must pass a physical examination
  • Must attend and graduate from Officer Candidates School (OCS)

How do you apply to be a Marine Corps Lawyers?

Contact an Officer Selection Officer (OSO). Notre Dame has a designated OSO whose contact information can be found on the JAG Info Sheet in the Job Search Toolkit. Unlike the other branches, the application process is not done online. Your OSO will guide your physical training regimen and prepare you for the challenge of becoming “a battle-proven leader among the Few.”

The Marine Corps holds two boards per year, spring and fall. Interested students should contact the OSO to determine the next application deadline and whether or not spaces will be available. The earlier you enter any Corps program, the more time you accrue in service since time in the program while in law school counts as time in service for pay purposes.

As a 1L or 2L, you can apply to the Platoon Leaders Class. Upon acceptance, participants must complete a 10-week course during one summer at Officer Candidate School in Quantico. Upon completion of OCS, they are sworn in as second lieutenants and placed on inactive duty in the Marine Corps Reserve pending completion of law school and passage of the bar.

3Ls can apply to the Officer Candidate Class program.

Physical fitness, commitment to service, and dedication to the Marine Corps mission are substantially more important than grades when it comes to getting selected.

How do you apply for a Marine Corps summer internship?

There is no Marine Corps summer internship program. However, if you go to Officer Candidate School during 1L summer, you may apply for active duty and be assigned to a Marine Corps base or unit and assume legal duties for 2L summer.

If you are an NDLS student, feel free to contact Ali Wruble to discuss questions and your application. If you attend another law school, please reach out to your law school’s career services office.

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