Career Audit

From Fatigues to Pinstripes

  • Print.

For Keith J. Scherer, the best way to try criminal cases was to join the Air Force, where he handled tough sexual abuse and child pornography cases. After four years, he sought a job as a civilian criminal defense attorney in Chicago.

“The military background tends to impress a lot of people, but they don’t know what to do with it,” Scherer says. “Most criminal defense attorneys run their own shops. They have the firm the way they want it, and if they add someone, they want cheap labor.” He first worked in construction law before opening a criminal practice outside Chicago last June with two other former military attorneys. The focus of Gagne, Scherer & Langemo is defense of service personnel.

Although federal service is the most popular career move for ex military attorneys, many former members of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps open their own shops, according to U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Jeffrey C. Good.

Solo or small partnership practices, especially those that focus on criminal justice and federal administrative cases, are beneficial moves for former JAGs, says Good, who is based at the Coast Guard’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.“I don’t think it is as hard as starting a lot of practices. You already have developed an expertise.”

Networking with local criminal attorneys as well as with other JAGs is the key to building a client base, Scherer says. He suggests joining court or other government panels that appoint attorneys in criminal cases.

Federal service also is a natural fit for ex military personnel because they already are familiar with administrative statutes and government agencies, says Good, who heads the Pentagon chapter of the Federal Bar Association.

Good recommends several Web sites for lawyers seeking federal jobs (see box). His Pentagon chapter also sponsors an annual spring program called Jobs for JAGs, co sponsored by the ABA Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division. The division also publishes the Federal Legal Employment Opportunities Guide.

Government procurement work is another growing area for former JAGs, Good says. More than a dozen companies have asked him to help find ex JAGs who can shepherd them through the process of doing business with the federal government.

One Jag’s Path

John J. Copelan, a former jag, went into state, city and county government practice–another common choice. The bulk of his military experience was managing five other attorneys who provided legal services such as drafting medical directives, wills or powers of attorney and handling divorces.

Copelan, who holds a law degree and a masters in public administration, continued as a reservist until 2005.

“It’s a great way to develop trial and management skills,” says Copelan, a former chair of the ABA’s Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division and vice chair of the General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division’s Military Lawyer Committee.

Since his stint in the military, Copelan has handled civil litigation and procurement work for the city of Miami, and he was county attorney for Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The management skills he honed led him to become general counsel for Florida’s Department of Children and Families in Tallahassee, supervising more than 400 attorneys and 100 staff members.

“The JAG gives you a tremendous opportunity as a new lawyer to come in where you have a high volume, fast paced practice where you can develop your skills,” Copelan says.


Job Sites

Check these Web sites for federal job opportunities:

• The U.S. Office of Personnel Management

• The U.S. Department of Justice

• A private site

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.