BEAUFORT, S.C. --
It is no secret that becoming a lawyer is difficult; long hours devoted to studying, the bar exam, demanding clients, changing laws and deadlines. The list goes on. While many individuals would rather choose the path of least resistance, lawyers often choose their profession because they like a challenge. Then there are the exceptional few who seek an even greater challenge and decide to become U.S. Marine Corps lawyers.
“One of the major incentives as I see it is that you get to be a Marine Corps officer,” said Capt. Ross Milligan. “You get the pride, the honor and knowing that you have overcome an immense challenge that very few people can do. That you have competed for a spot for your place to be recognized as a leader of Marines.”
Capt. Ross Milligan currently serves as the Officer Selection Officer with Recruiting Station Tampa. However, Milligan is a Marine Corps lawyer by trade, making him a valuable resource for those considering the Marine Corps Judge Advocate General program.
There are several different programs that the Marine Corps uses to select Marine lawyers, but the majority of candidates commission as Marine Corps officers through the Platoon Leaders Course – Law. This program is for individuals who have been selected as officer candidates, but have not yet graduated from law school. The other major program is the Officer Candidate Class - Law. This program is for those who have already graduated law school and have passed the bar exam.
The OSOs will regularly visit with colleges to educate students about the opportunity to serve as a Marine Corps officer. 1st Lt. Mary Berney, a native of Las Vegas, Nevada, was a law school student at Florida International University College of Law when she was first introduced to the Marine Judge Advocate General program. Berney then went on to graduate law school in May 2019 and pass the Florida bar exam.
"While I was in law school, employers came to do on-campus interviews," said Berney. "I decided to meet with every branch of service because I had not really been exposed to the different branches and was not familiar with what made them special. When I met the Marine OSO, I was blown away and loved the idea that lawyers got to do the same training as all of the other officers.”
Berney went to Officer Candidate School in September of 2020 and commissioned in November of 2020. She is currently serving as a Marine lawyer on the trial counsel at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California.
“I wanted to serve, but I didn't want to be just a lawyer in uniform," said Berney.
The Marine Corps provided Berney with an opportunity that the other branches of service could not. The Marine Corps is the only branch that requires all officers to attend the same entry level training as candidates serving in other military occupation specialties.
“These programs are very competitive,” said Milligan. “When it comes to selecting Marine Corps officers, less than half that make it to the board are selected to attend Officer Candidate School. The attrition rate for OCS is near 30% for those that were selected. There is simply no entry level school that is more difficult in the [Department of Defense].”
An individual who seeks to become a Marine lawyer needs to be both physically and mentally fit. In order to ensure that only the most qualified candidates are selected, OSOs look for specific character traits.
"One of the big differences between being a Marine Judge Advocate and being a Judge Advocate in the civilian sector is that you are a Marine first..." 1st Lt. Mary Berney, Marine Judge Advocate
“I look for someone who wants a challenge,” said Milligan. “Someone who is dedicated to the core values. As long as a person is committed, they can make it through the program. Even if they are physically not there yet, we can get them there if they are dedicated. What’s more difficult to do is to find someone that has that right mental attitude that is going to persevere through the pain and hardship.”
Leading up to OCS, the OSOs hold training events to prepare candidates both mentally and physically for what lies ahead.
“The weekly physical training sessions were huge — it was great to check in with other candidates to see where you are in comparison,” said Berney. "The group PTs were where we could push ourselves even harder."
If a candidate is able to make it through the selection process and OCS, they will return back to school to complete their law degree or continue onto The Basic School and the Naval Justice School, depending on whether they are using the PLC or OCC program. Once all schooling and training is complete, the individual will then receive orders to serve in the Marine Corps as a Marine lawyer.
“The job of a Judge Advocate varies,” said Milligan. “The first station I served at was Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, and I served in several different roles to include legal assistance, a defense, and a Deputy Staff Judge Advocate.”
Practicing law as a Marine Corps officer is a unique opportunity for those who seek a challenge to grow as a leader in the field of law and as a Marine.
“One of the big differences between being a Marine Judge Advocate and being a Judge Advocate in the civilian sector is that you are a Marine first, so you are still required to do your yearly physical fitness test, combat fitness test, rifle qualification and pistol qualification," said Berney. “Another difference is that as a Marine Judge Advocate, you are getting opportunities to litigate in a courtroom faster than many get the opportunity in the civilian sector.”
In the Marine law program, new attorneys are given immediate trial experience, leadership development and experience, and the ability to expand their practice into specialized areas of law: operational law, international law, cyber law, or criminal justice.
“New Marine Corps Judge Advocates, as of now, either go to a military justice billet or a legal assistance billet," said Berney. "Each of these billets provide skills applicable to the civilian world of practicing law.”
Serving as the OSO for RS Tampa, Milligan now serves the Marine Corps in a different capacity. Milligan screens and processes qualified individuals to serve our Nation as Marine Corps officers.
“Finding qualified young men and women in the Marine Corps and making those officers is incredibly rewarding,” said Milligan. “Knowing that I am finding them and molding them into the next generation of Marine officers.” To get in contact with your local Officer Selection Team or to learn more about the Marine JAG program, visit https://rmi.marines.com/6mcd.
“You don’t want to wish for an easy life, you want to wish that you can overcome the challenges put in your path,” said Milligan. “Achievements are a reflection of obstacles overcome.”