Twenty-year-old Private First Class Krista Bullard hadn’t signed up for this.
As a paralegal specialist in the U.S. Army, her regular duty station was behind a desk, manning a keyboard and doing hand-to-hand combat with file folders and law books.
But by January of 2006, the Army had been in Iraq for nearly three years, which was about two years longer than anticipated, and sectarian violence was surging. The 37th Transportation Group, Bullard’s outfit, was being stretched to provide logistics support to combat units around the theater, running an average of 50 convoys a day through Iraq and Kuwait.
So when the Group’s command sergeant major called for volunteers to help out on an undermanned convoy, Bullard had stepped up.
And now her HMMWV was taking fire from both sides during a roadside ambush.
Bullard was alone and exposed up in the turret on top of the truck, but she also had the biggest gun: a .50 caliber M2 machine gun, a weapon that spits out rounds that weigh as much as your cellphone at nearly three times the speed of sound. Without hesitation, Bullard engaged hostiles on either side of the road, detonating explosives at one position that caused a secondary explosion and silenced the enemy fire.
Most paralegals wouldn’t even have had their second cup of coffee yet.
Job Description for Paralegal Specialists… Both In and Out of the Line of Fire
Bullard was the first female paralegal specialist to be awarded the Combat Action Badge, but not the first military paralegal… the unpredictable nature of guerrilla warfare has forced more than one legal specialist to take up arms in extremis.
But paralegals have important jobs to fill in the military even when they aren’t in direct action.
Paralegal specialists are often called upon to conduct legal research, process cases and legal documents, draft opinions and documents, maintain the law library, and interview witnesses. Paralegal specialist jobs include providing support in any number of areas, including family law, contract law, fiscal law, criminal law, administrative law, operational law, and international law.
Other job duties within the paralegal specialist job description may include:
- Providing support to unit commanders, lawyers and judges
- Providing documents for non-judicial punishments and courts-martial
- Preparing line of duty determinations and separation board proceedings
- Providing services for family law, including powers of attorney, wills and separation decrees
- Conducting research on judicial and administrative rulings, determinations, opinions and decisions
Serving primarily at the battalion level in the Army and Marines, with Wings in the Air Force, and primarily at shore bases for the Navy (although some sea-duty aircraft carrier billets are available), paralegals ensure that their units conform to the legal requirements of U.S. law, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and the laws of armed conflict as outlined in various international treaties and conventions, including the Geneva Convention.
Military Paralegals Have an Important Hand in Military Justice
Paralegals assist military attorneys in prosecuting and representing service members accused of violations of any of these laws. Many serve in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps, the military equivalent of the Justice Department, working for judges, prosecutors, and investigators.
Many of these cases are heard in courts far different from their civilian counterparts and involve regulations that would shock modern civilian sensibilities. Discipline is paramount to the military, and the UCMJ contains provisions to outlaw behaviors such as:
- Criticizing superior officers or civilian leadership of the country
- Disobeying any lawful order
These infractions can lead to a court-martial, a military proceeding overseen by a judge, and often trial before a jury composed of military officers. The processes, procedures, and standards of evidence can be radically different from civilian courts, but military paralegals fill the same role in assisting attorneys and judges as they do in the civilian world. They may assist in locating and interviewing witnesses, preparing briefs and motions, and assembling evidence and exhibits for display at trial.
More frequently than courts-martial, service members face non-judicial punishment, known as Article 15 hearings (or the captain’s mast in the Navy) after the section of the UCMJ that authorizes them. These hearings are optional in that the accused service member can opt to stand before a court-martial instead, but the limited degree of punishment and the fact that Article 15 judgments are not treated as criminal in nature is an advantage for the accused.
Because it is not a formal trial, the accused won’t necessarily have legal representation. The commanding officer hears all evidence, decides the case, and determines punishment. A paralegal assigned to the unit will assist the commander in ensuring that all the proper legal forms are observed.
Paralegals Prepare Units for Combat Assignments
Military paralegals are some of the last people that combat troops see when heading out on deployment. Units headed overseas are processed with the help of legal staff who help to ensure their transition will be smooth and their absence at state-side bases are accounted for.
Paralegals meet with every single soldier to go over their legal affairs, making sure documents like wills and insurance policies are up-to-date and in force, going over powers of attorney that may be left with family members staying behind, and reviewing assistance options for families who may be missing their head of household for a year or more. They also deal with sticky questions of family law when separations or divorces come up for troops heading overseas.
Paralegals also participate in briefings on the Rules of Engagement and Status of Forces agreements that may be in effect for the deployed troops. These rules govern when and what sort of force may be used in the course of the mission, and to what extent troops must conform to and abide by local authorities and laws.
Each Service Has a Unique Take on Paralegal Services
Military paralegal jobs in each branch of service involve similar tasks, but the role is defined differently, and has separate qualifications for each. The titles, Military Occupational Speciality (MOS) classification, and ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) test scores are all different.
- Army – Paralegal Specialist (27D) – Clerical (CL): 105
- Navy – Legalman (B630) – Verbal (VE) + Math Knowledge (MK): 105
- Marine Corps – Legal Services Specialist (4421) – Verbal (VE) + Arithmetic Reasoning (AR) + Math Knowledge (MK): 100
- Air Force – Paralegal (5J031) – General (G): 58
For the most part, paralegals can expect to serve on bases, either in the United States or internationally. Army and Marine paralegals attached to combat or logistics units can expect to be deployed with their parent unit. Navy Legalmen are subject to a rotational system that alternates shore duty and sea duty over 36 to 48 month periods.
In all services, paralegals billeted outside the JAG corps can expect to assist personnel with legal matters outside the scope of military justice, including:
- Family law issues
- Property claims
- Matters of discharge and enlistment
- Briefing personnel on their legal rights as both service members and civilians
All these positions are enlisted billets, which limits the advancement and pay rate you can expect to achieve. The jobs all offer standard progression through the enlisted ranks, with progressive responsibility and pay commensurate with those positions, but the long-term career progression is considerably more limited than civilian paralegals enjoy.
How to Become a Paralegal Specialist: Education and Training Requirements
In some ways, it’s much easier to become a military paralegal than to become one in the civilian world. If you are selected for paralegal training, your education will all be provided free of charge, with room, board, and courses all fully paid for. Even better, you will be getting paid during the process, and enjoy full and free medical care, retirement planning, and every other benefit offered to service members.
The downside is that the position is never assured and comes with all the other aspects of military life: mandatory basic training, strict adherence to the chain of command, not to mention all the rules and regulations governing almost every aspect of your personal and professional life. You can be assigned anywhere in the world and must serve out the term of your enlistment or face dishonorable discharge and disastrous consequences in any future civilian career you might have hoped for.
The first step to becoming a military paralegal is to score well on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test. This standardized test is usually offered to high school seniors and consists of general knowledge and aptitude questions that recruiters use to assess your potential.
The Navy does not allow enlistees to move directly into the Legalman rating; you have to apply after joining, with the chance that your application may not be accepted.
The other services may offer you enlistment contracts that specify the paralegal MOS. You are almost always subject to reassignment due to military requirements, however. In practice, this happens rarely in the modern military unless you fail the training or otherwise become a disciplinary problem.
Legalmen and Air Force paralegals are expected to obtain associates degrees during their term of service. All courses are paid for, and the credential stays with you as you move into the civilian world. The combination of education, experience, and the discipline and attitude that come with military service are a high recommendation for many civilian employers looking to hire former military paralegals.
Resources for Paralegal Specialists
Salary Statistics for Paralegal Specialists
Although there are no statistics regarding paralegal specialists, a number of job listings for paralegal specialists within the Department of the Army show the salary range to be between $53,500 and $69,545. Similarly, the National Association of Legal Assistants, through their 2016 National Utilization and Compensation Survey Report, reported that the national average salary for a paralegal was $61,671