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“What It Takes To Defend The Little Guy”

This summer, we have the pleasure of mentoring  a bright law student wishing to pursue a career in military and veterans law.

 Our starting point with him is to consider what it takes to defend the “little guy” in the military arena.

Rule # 1: There is a price to be paid.

There are few marching songs for the defense.

·         Stories abound of individuals  who have successfully won court-martial acquittals or reasonable discharges for clients.  Typically, the story goes, these litigators are rapidly transferred to the  government side of the house.

·         Has anyone ever heard of a successful prosecutor being transferred to help the defense?

·         Old riddle:  what do you call a successful senior defense counsel in the military?  Answer:  O-5.  O-5…not O-6.

We can’t help but think of the case of Commander Swift, a diligent Navy attorney who actually got his Guantánamo-based client’s appeal to the United States Supreme Court.   Think what you will of the clients at GITMO:  Of all the lawyers assigned there, Commander Swift was the only one to win meaningful relief.   A list came out of Navy JAGs to be promoted – he was not on it.

So yes, there is a price to be paid.  Being a good defense counsel may lose you friendships, promotions, and the respect of the “law and order crowd” [you know,  “How can you defend THOSE people?”].    Defense lawyers signing up for the long haul need to recognize reality: If you want to do more than process your clients through the system, there’s likely a price to be paid,

Rule # 2:  Have a reliable legal philosophy. 

No one wants someone who is simply escorting military accused/respondents/applicants through the system.  To go against the considerable  odds, time after time, the dedicated defender  needs a working philosophy about his/her calling.

When we set up a civilian practice, we thought it would be smart to have a Mission Statement  .  It spoke to ambition — becoming a top dog in the business — getting universal recognition — winning the hard cases  — earning  laurels from grateful clientele.

Later, we thought that much too egocentric.  Perhaps  a slightly better focus suggested itself — to ‘gain wisdom, and then use that wisdom for the client.’

Even that seemed a bit stuffy and over the top .

 It’s a work in progress, but today we’re comfortable with a philosophy grounded in the language used in the “steps” of the folks in Alcoholics Anonymous.   Once the drinking stops, their goal, spiritually, centers on being of use to their fellows.  Some pertinent words are:.

God, I offer myself to Thee — to build with me and do with me as Thou wilt.  Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will.   Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of Life….


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