Stewarding the Profession–
A Command Perspective
All judge advocates (JAs) are charged with stewarding our dual profession of legal professionals and Soldiers. Two captains in the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps are uniquely situated to instill the JAG Corps’s four constants—Principled Counsel, Stewardship, Mastery of the Law, and Servant Leadership—in hundreds of JAs and paralegals as they begin their careers in the Corps. Captain Grace Smitham is the recently departed commander of the JA Officer Basic Course (OBC) Student Detachment and was charged with leading new JAs into their roles as leaders and Army lawyers. Captain Justin Kman is the recently departed commander of the Paralegal Advanced Initial Training (AIT) (J Company) and was charged with ensuring the Army’s newest paralegals are equipped to execute the mission and develop into tomorrow’s leaders. Captains Smitham and Kman share their experiences and thoughts on how their missions steward the profession and develop the Corps’s newest leaders.
“Drive It Like You Stole It”: Commanding the JAOBC
As I took command of the Student Detachment at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School (TJAGLCS), my predecessor’s parting encouragement to me was “Just drive it like you stole it!” I knew what he meant—I trend toward being a risk-averse rule follower, so this new role brought me well outside my comfort zone. I evaluated the incredible team and organization I had inherited, knowing it would take some time to identify areas where I wanted our team to leave its mark on the organization. Visions arose of exciting new Army Combat Fitness Test workouts under Charlottesville sunrises; building coaching and mentoring relationships through quintessential OBC social events; and finding ways to share all the lessons that I had learned (and things I wished somebody had told me) when I was brand new to the Corps.
Two weeks into our second cycle, that car I had stolen hit a brick wall and—as TJAGLCS transitioned to COVID-19-response mode—organized physical training shut down, the health of our teammates became the top priority, and all classes and communications went virtual. A year later, we’re emerging into a new normal. What never faltered was the agility of our staff and faculty who 1) ensured that no obstacles would stand in the way of delivering the quality instruction we all know from TJAGLCS and 2) prepared our newest JAs to enter the field. But what continues to stand out in my mind is the way these events have positively shaped the newest stewards of our Corps. What was lost has been replaced with experiences that have significantly marked the transition of new JAs into our Corps, and the impact of the lessons they have learned along the way are tangible.
Lesson 1: Take Care of Yourself So That You Can Care for Those Around You
Recent OBC graduates have received an introduction to the Army that may feel more abrupt than advertised, entering a quarantine bubble at the Direct Commission Course that did not truly end until OBC graduation. Many of our new leaders have been separated from family and loved ones during significant and trying life events—something that we get used to as our years of service go on but is often a substantial and emotional change for those who were civilians only a few weeks before. Through the ups and downs, it has been incredible to see these students build resilience, find outlets to manage stress and promote wellness, and strengthen themselves so that they can reach out and provide support to each other on the hard days. They have come together to share their talents and ensure the continued health of their peers—leading yoga classes, planning outdoor adventures, and finding ways to virtually connect quarantined students with what is happening in off-duty hours. The collective empathy and concern they have shown for their teammates in times of isolation, quarantine, sickness, and loss should fill our Corps with excitement and confidence; knowing these JAs understand they have joined a team sport and will bring these traits to bear to the benefit of their current and future organizations is inspiring.
Lesson 2: Embrace and Leverage the Diversity of Your Team
At the start of each course, the cadre collect biographical sheets for each student and compile a student directory. The results are humbling, highlighting the incredible diversity of backgrounds and experiences our new JAs bring to our Corps. We see some new lawyers with years of prior military service, others who have worked as attorneys or judges for decades and are seeking new ways to serve, and some who are brand new law school graduates embarking on their first career. Some have medical degrees, others speak multiple languages, but all have something to contribute for the improvement of our organization. The fantastic student detachment team injects another layer into training, providing the perspectives on what to expect in the first years of their career as a paralegal noncommissioned officer and a legal administrator warrant officer. And then we leverage the students—frequently switching up class leadership roles to share leadership opportunities with as many as possible and demonstrating that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. Through this exercise, we are all continually reminded that each individual can leverage their strengths and experiences to successfully influence others.
Lesson 3: Flexibility, Creativity, and Evolution
Our newest JAs have been forged in what has felt like an ever-shifting landscape of COVID-19 restrictions, but they have never failed to make the most of their experiences. From the initial switch to complete online learning from individual hotel rooms (which felt like solitary confinement to many), to where we sit now with a hybrid of online and in-person instruction (and the occasional step back into quarantine as conditions warrant), the OBC classes have learned first-hand that rapidly-changing operational environments require quick assessments and decisions (which are often based on limited facts available but always with some impact). They have also seen that successful organizations are not static, but must remain in a state of constant evolution to meet the mission, overcome challenges, and continue to operate in the near term to ensure future successes. And, they have already contributed to the development of those who will soon follow in joining our ranks, sharing frequent and honest feedback with cadre and faculty alike that helps us to improve upon each iteration. These JAs will continue to choose to do hard things while 1) knowing that it builds character, 2) understanding that the Army often puts us in situations we would not have chosen for ourselves, and 3) seeing that the reward is often achieved in retrospection—especially when we recall and internalize the lessons learned for future application.
As our team trains new officers, there are many questions that have only one right answer—they are the kind of issues that will get you an on-the-spot correction. Then there are those questions, the core of our profession, where we advise and counsel what’s legal, what’s appropriate, and what’s wise. And then, there’s the space in between: finding new ways to build the team and take care of each other; adapting to circumstances that aren’t ideal; and getting creative with ways to accomplish the mission. That said, we are confident that these are the lessons our newest JAs will continue to share as they join your teams.
Instilling Moral Courage from the Start: Commanding AIT Soldiers
Days before taking command of the Army’s sole Paralegal Advanced Individual Training (AIT) Company in July 2019, I heard a phrase that would be repeated to me dozens of times throughout my tenure at Juliet Company: “Don’t be afraid to take off your JAG hat, and put on your commander hat.” I quickly realized this was code for, “don’t be indecisive, don’t be afraid to take calculated risk, and don’t follow the letter of the law to the detriment of the mission.” While prudence and caution are hallmarks of some of the best JAs, I hope that I also imparted on my fellow logistics commander colleagues the many reasons why one should not take off their “JAG hat,” even while in command. While I prepared to relinquish command this summer, I hope now that the “JAG hat” is synonymous with moral courage, ardent professionalism, and unpretentious—but necessary—organizational criticism. I hope further that these virtues are reflected in both the 40 cadre and the over 1200 AIT students that have passed through Juliet Company over the last two years. Quite simply, I hope that the “JAG hat” is a symbol for what is right in our Army and that the Soldiers arriving to Offices of the Staff Judge Advocate will wear it with pride.
Moral Courage: “We Are the Standard!”
The young paralegals that pass through Juliet Company will display an unwavering sense of moral courage. At 0530 every morning, around 120 students stand at parade rest on Stillions Field on Fort Lee, Virginia, unflinching as they await the call to “attention.” At this command, a resounding, “We Are the Standard” erupts from the sole JAG Corps formation in a sea of quartermasters. The company motto is cliché for some, cheesy for others, but ultimately serves as the guide for all legal professionals. Each of those soon-to-be-certified paralegals is asked a question from day one: if we are not the standard, who is? If we do not hold ourselves beyond reproach, both morally and ethically, what right do we have to assist or advise our commanders on actions that will take away rank, pay, or quite literally someone’s liberty? On week one this motto is, at best, a throwaway line vigorously bellowed in an effort to avoid the watchful eye of a drill sergeant. By week ten, however, that motto becomes something more: a purpose and a foundation for the future career of each and every 27D that passes through Fort Lee.
Professionalism: Emotions and Sound Judgment
The cadre that pass through Juliet Company will display ardent professionalism even in the most trying moments. Our cadre form the lifeblood that pulses through Juliet Company—dedicated, nominated, and hand-selected drill sergeants and instructors that give their dusks, dawns, and everything in between to our AIT Soldiers. Our cadre are the epitome of professionalism, but they often learn the hard way how to balance raw emotion and professional judgment. It is the latter that differentiates our NCO leaders from our junior enlisted Soldiers. Each and every cadre member has a moment in their Juliet Company career where an emotional response to an AIT antic starts to boil beneath their steely exteriors. For some, it arrives on their first “pick-up” day; and for others, it happens on a random weekend at 2300, minutes before lights out. In these moments, cadre learn that only if we provide the utmost respect and professionalism to our most junior Soldiers, only then can we demand from them a constant pursuit of perfection as a person, a Soldier, and a future paralegal. In this manner, nothing an AIT student does or says should ever be taken personally. Instead, emotions drive our cadre and serve as the engine for their successes in life; however, sound professional judgment must guide them and serve as their rudder. The senior NCOs that pass through Juliet Company, and on to their subsequent paralegal roles, will display sound judgment at every opportunity.
Organizational Criticism: “A Storm Is a Brewin’”
Ten weeks after arrival, graduation day comes for the vast majority of our 27D hopefuls. There, they will hear words of wisdom from a guest speaker on what to expect when they leave the friendly confines of Hotel Juliet. When they hear me speak on graduation day, they often hear some rendition of an anecdote known warmly as, “A Storm Is a Brewin’.” The title happened to be a former junior paralegal’s catchphrase for rapidly expanding legal action trackers in the brigade legal office. In this quick but true story, as those actions piled up, and as a storm was most certainly a brewin’, I tell our graduates about a newly-minted 27D that found herself in the center of a battalion command and staff meeting. It was at this meeting that a battalion commander wanted to take an action that would fly in the face of ethical regulations. After a chorus of “yes, Sirs” echoed around the large conference table, a small but mighty, “I don’t think that’d be a good idea, Sir,” was the only voice willing to disagree with the table full of officers and senior enlisted Soldiers. The voice? A private first class, less than one year out of AIT. Often, these new paralegals may be the only voice of reason, the only voice of respectful criticism, in an otherwise staunchly loyal unit. Trust that the Soldiers that will join your offices will be ready and willing to have the hard conversation when the time comes.
Moral courage, professionalism, and a willingness to respectfully criticize: While we cannot promise that these three tenets will be perfected in each and every Soldier that passes through Juliet Company, we can ensure that the foundation for all three has been formed on solid ground. That sturdy foundation is a testament that the leaders who develop and teach your future Soldiers are a product of decades worth of proudly wearing the “JAG hat.” TAL