Is There a Difference Between a Military Lawyer and Civilian Lawyer?

Is There a Difference Between a Military Lawyer and Civilian Lawyer?

Military courts and civilian criminal courts operate under different rules. Instead of following criminal procedure, military courts follow the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) . This code applies to all branches of service and all military cases.

If you face a court-martial, you need a strong defense. Understanding the difference between a military lawyer and a civilian lawyer can help you choose the best person to advocate for you in court.

JAG Lawyer vs. Civilian Criminal Lawyer

A JAG lawyer is an active military officer who represents service members in military court. It is similar to being assigned a public defender. The military assigns you a JAG attorney when you are officially charged with an offense. 

However, you have the right to retain private counsel to represent you in military court. You may still retain your JAG lawyer to work with your civilian criminal defense lawyer. 

Three Key Differences Between Military Lawyers and Civilian Lawyers

In addition to practicing in different courts, there are three key differences to consider when deciding whether to hire a civilian lawyer for a military case.

Military Lawyers Have Additional Training

To practice in a civilian criminal court, an attorney must obtain a Juris Doctor (J.D.)  from an ABA-Approved law school and pass a state bar examination. Once the attorney is a bar member, they can begin practicing law and representing clients in court.

However, military lawyers receive additional training before representing clients in military courts. JAG training teaches an attorney the rules of military courts and how to defend a client against military charges. 

Some civilian criminal defense lawyers are former JAG lawyers. Therefore, they understand the different rules and court procedures used in military courts.

They also understand civilian criminal court, which is helpful when a service member commits a crime that could lead to both court-martial and civilian criminal charges.

Jury Procedures Are Different in Military Court

Civil juries are made up of six to 12 jurors. Criminal cases consist of 12 jurors. The jurors must reach a unanimous verdict. The jurors are selected from individuals who meet the requirements to serve on a jury.

However, military juries are different. A military jury may only have three people. The exact number depends on the case. Most military juries are made up of commissioned officers, but the accused can request that enlisted members sit as jurors. 

Another significant difference between military and civilian juries is that only two-thirds of the military jurors need to vote for conviction, except in death penalty cases which require a unanimous vote.

Therefore, “hung” juries are not common in military proceedings. Knowing the prosecution only needs to convince two-thirds of the jury members in military court can impact a defense attorney’s courtroom strategy.

Appeals Are Different in Military Court

A defendant may appeal a verdict or court ruling to a higher court in a civilian criminal case. However, there is not one specific path for appealing every civilian court decision. 

In the military, there is a specific process for appealing all decisions. Each military branch establishes its specific process for appeals. A military or civilian attorney cannot speed up the military appeals process or skip any step in the chain of command.

Should You Hire a Civilian Criminal Defense Lawyer or Continue with a Military Lawyer?

The best choice is to hire a civilian defense attorney who has experience as a military lawyer. It is the best of both worlds and having a good defense law firm gives you a better chance of beating military charges. 

A few advantages of hiring a civilian lawyer for a military case include:

  • You obtain legal advice immediately if you hire a civilian lawyer. JAG attorneys are not appointed until you are officially charged. Therefore, you have no legal counsel during an investigation or interrogation. 
  • JAG attorneys may have minimal experience trying cases in court. You can choose a civilian attorney to represent you who has extensive trial experience. 
  • The government has vast resources to investigate and prosecute charges. Unfortunately, the JAG office may not have the same resources.
  • Your civilian lawyer has one priority – to protect your best interests. On the other hand, military lawyers are active service members. Therefore, they must respect the chain of command and may be restricted in what they can and cannot do while defending their clients.

If you face a court-martial, you need to take an aggressive approach to defend yourself in military court. That might include hiring a civilian lawyer to work with your JAG attorney.