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From A Few Good Men to JAG to NCIS, the American public has gotten plenty of exposure to the concept of the military justice system over the past few decades. Of course, the dramatic, high-stakes courtroom showdowns you see on TV are just as fictionalized as Law & Order.
But don’t let that eclipse the fact that the United States military Judge Advocate Generals corps in each branch have important and sometimes exciting roles in protecting the country and regulating the most powerful military in the world.
The military has its very own set of laws: the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
That fascinating world of military law and order mirrors the civilian justice system in many ways. And one of those is an insatiable need for paralegal services.
Apart from the ripped-from-the-headlines stories, military legal assistants and services handle a lot of tasks that have direct applications in the civilian world:
Many of these are tasks that either don’t take a full-fledged lawyer or that lawyers require expert assistance to perform. And that’s where military paralegals shine—both in helping service members and laying the groundwork for a full career in legal work.
Explore Your Military Training and Degree Options
Every Branch of the Service Needs the Legal Services that Paralegals Perform
You don’t have to be in the service very long before you discover one of the most critical secrets to our country’s defense: paperwork.
Every unit in every service floats on an absolute sea of forms, maintenance records, and manuals.
There are around 3000 official DoD forms in use, from the venerable DD-1 Officer’s Commission form to Form DD3179 Problematic Sexual Behavior Non-Clinical Referral Tool form. And that’s before you even get to all the service-specific paperwork.
The DoD currently lists nearly 200 manuals, guides, and documents detailing everything from Electromagnetic Compatibility Features Certification Process and Requirements to Nuclear Weapon Accident Response Procedures.
All those forms are about making sure that everyone is following the rules and regulations.
Where you have rules, you have lawyers. And where you have lawyers, you need legal staff. Secretaries, administrators, paralegals… the Judge Advocate Generals of each service need plenty of support staff.
The kind of work these staff perform is right in line with the same things that are needed in any civilian legal office, corporate legal department, or judicial system:
In essence, paralegals are highly specialized professionals that help grease the wheels of the justice system… whether that’s military or civilian law.
How a JAG Job Can Get You Paralegal Training as Part of Your Service
Paralegals are widely recognized and used in the legal profession throughout the United States, but there is no universal licensing scheme or agreement on exactly what their training should be.
That works in your favor if you join the service: for military paralegals, your qualifications are determined by the service and the training you receive prepares you with exactly those skills and knowledge. Where JAG lawyers generally have to go to college and law school before they are commissioned, anyone can enlist and seek assignment to a paralegal billet.
Military Paralegals in Every Branch Receive Basic Paralegal Training for Free
Although each of these Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) may have a different title, every branch of the service recruits and trains enlisted personnel to fill the role of paralegal. The amount of formal schooling you get will vary by service.
With the noted exception of the Coast Guard, which offers a pathway to a full, formal college degree as a paralegal, these courses focus on meat and potatoes skills for paralegals. The coursework includes:
Exploring the Next Frontier of Law as a Space Force Paralegal
Military paralegals can get into all kinds of interesting and detailed areas of law that will impress civilian law firms. The law of war offers explorations of international legal issues that can also apply in trade, immigration, and other hot areas of civilian practice.
But there is no area of the law as out-of-this-world today as space law. And Space Force paralegals are right at ground zero for developing expertise in this blazing new field.
The Outer Space Treaty forming the basis of international space law was ratified in 1967. It was largely spurred by increasing military uses of space. With the establishment of the U.S. Space Force in 2019, many of the obligations and legal hot potatoes in this exciting field fell into the lap of the new service.
Space Force continues to rely on Air Force JAG Corps staff for legal advice and real-time counsel on critical space mission activities. They also help shape policy and future capabilities planning in outer space conflict zones.
This is no longer an exotic and rare field of practice. With private companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and Blue Origin increasingly pushing out toward the high frontier, paralegal experts in space law are both in-demand and hard to find. A military background with Space Force puts you in exactly the right place to surf this trend to the stars.
Ongoing Training Is Available in All Legal Specialties for Military Paralegal Specialists
Like most service members, paralegals don’t stop learning once they are on the job. You will probably have the opportunity to attend advanced courses in specialized subjects during your term of service.
In most cases, these programs are run by the same training units as conducted your initial military paralegal schooling. But they can take you more in-depth through courses such as:
Some of these classes may even be accepted for college credits later on by military-supportive universities or through CLEP, the College-Level Examination Program. CLEP is offered free of charge to all military personnel through DANTES, the Defense Activity for NonTraditional Education program.
Real-world Training Is a Tradition for Paralegals, and Military Service Can Help
The experience you get as a military paralegal will be at least as valuable as any formal training. Just as you will in a civilian law office, you’ll be working alongside lawyers on real-world cases. Interviewing, investigating, and filing paperwork that absolutely must be correct on the first go will become second nature.
And you’ll also get a lot of client contact doing things that are surprisingly common in civilian legal practice. Military members aren’t immune from the usual legal needs that come up in civilian life. Unit legal services support teams help soldiers and sailors draft wills, create powers of attorney, and handle immigration, custody, and divorce proceedings.
Online Credentialing Opportunities to Get You Certified Before You Leave the Service
COOL is available in every service and is one of the great untapped benefits most service members don’t know about. DoD maintains a database of civilian licenses and professional certifications that correspond to military jobs. With the approval of your chain of command, you can receive up to $4,000 toward the costs of tests, coursework, or certification fees to get a relevant license or cert.
Needless to say, certifications are a big deal in the legal world. Some of the opportunities you will find in COOL are aimed directly at paralegals, such as:
…and dozens more.
And of course, when you are discharged and move into civilian legal practice, the certification stays with you.
Paralegal Certification vs Paralegal Certificates: What’s the Difference?
The profession of paralegal is one of the ones where you really need to understand the difference between having a certificate and being professional certified. Despite the similarity in the terms, and sometimes in the qualifications, they’re not the same thing!
A certificate program in paralaw is offered by an educational institution. They are awarded like a diploma after you complete a specified course of study, often requiring that you pass tests in each class, just like any other kind of degree.
Professional certification is offered by an impartial professional body that sets standards for the field. Qualification for certification may include taking and passing tests, having a certain level of education, completing a set level of experience, or any combination of those factors.
A certificate usually speaks to your knowledge and ability to take and pass paralegal coursework. A certification, however, is more like an endorsement of your ability to do the job. Employers may require certifications for some paralegal jobs.
Private Sector Paralegal Roles Run From the Courtroom to the Boardroom
There are a lot of different kinds or paralegal jobs in the service, but that’s nothing compared to what you will find in the private sector. Every type of legal practice uses paralegals in one way or another. You can choose to work in a general capacity in law offices that handle all kinds of cases, or you can specialize in an area such as:
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), paralegal positions will expand at a rate of 12 percent over the next decade, faster than the average rate of job growth in the country.
You’ll find that some areas of practice are more friendly to paralaw practitioners than others. In the field of immigration law, for example, the limited ability of many clients to pay combined with the high levels of complications and paperwork mean that paralegals are very common. In some of these fields, they may even open and run their own practices, although they are restricted from the actual practice of law.
The good news is that the basic skills you get in military legal jobs will translate directly into most of these positions. Legal writing, research, and basic filings are all well within the capabilities for any paralegal.
A Moderate Educational Investment Comes with High Salaries for Paralegals
When it comes to bang for your buck, it’s hard to beat paralegal jobs. With only an associate degree to start, the 2021 median salary according to the BLS still came up to $56,230 per year.
With veteran’s educational benefits on your side, you can do a lot better than that, though. The top ten percent of paralegals, the ones who go on to earn bachelor’s degrees and get some experience in the field, earn more than $88,640.
You’ll already have that experience by the time you are discharged, and your options for earning the right degree to crack that top ten percent are wide open at the right military-supportive colleges.
How To Find Military-Supportive Schools for Paralegal Degree and Post-Degree Certificate Programs
Your military paralegal training will put you out on civvie street with a set of qualifications that other prospective paralegals will envy. And you will have received all that training free of charge!
But that’s not always enough to get you a job as a paralegal in the civilian world. Employers want to see college somewhere on your resume. That can be in the form of a certificate program or a degree, but either way, it means finding the right program to polish up your credentials.
GI Bill® and Other Veteran Support Programs Form the Foundation of Military Friendly Paralegal Schools
Clearly the biggest marker of a military-supportive school is acceptance of your GI Bill® educational benefits. Offering up to 36 months of full tuition and fee payments, the GI BIll® is probably the most valuable benefit that most veterans are eligible for.
With extras like housing costs and books covered, you can earn a paralegal degree or certificate for almost no money out of pocket. But only if you choose a university eligible for that funding.
On top of the basic GI Bill® benefits, some schools go further. The Yellow Ribbon Program is a partnership between the VA and participating colleges who pitch in to help cover costs for students paying private or out-of-state tuition. This is a big help if you plan to relocate or take advantage of a program at an elite private college.
Other signifiers of military-supportive universities include:
Not every school will have every one of these services or policies, and those that do may implement them in different ways. But you know what to look for to make sure you are going to get the support you need as an individual to get through your paralegal program.
Choosing a Paralegal Certificate or Degree Program That Builds on Your Military Training
There are a wide range of paralegal programs available for training today. In fact, the demand for legal services has really exploded the number of paralegal college programs available.
But you will have to choose carefully when it comes time to pick the right program for you. With the different kinds of organizations offering paralegal certifications, you want to make sure your curriculum lines up with the certification you plan to earn. And you will need to choose the type of program that makes sense, whether it’s a full degree in paralegal studies or a post-degree certificate.
Should You Pursue a Paralegal Degree or a Post-Degree Certificate?
Even though the military was happy to get your started in paralegal training right after bootcamp, the civilian world is a little different. Legal training and educational standards are high. Although paralegals are often qualified through certificate programs, as a practical matter you need at least an associate degree. In fact, those certificate programs usually assume that you have earned a two-year degree in some field before you start them.
There are good reasons for this.
A lot of what happens in legal practice involves communication, organization, and critical thinking skills.
Legal reasoning is basically just common sense informed by legal knowledge. And that’s a skill that is only developed through a traditional liberal arts education.
A post-degree certificate allows you to earn a degree in another field and then get the specialized paralegal training you need for a job in a law office. These are most common among people who want to develop a different level of knowledge in a field outside law, or who make the decision to become a paralegal after earning a degree in another major.
What Level of Degree Makes Sense for Paralegal Training?
While an associate degree or certificate program is definitely the standard today for paralegal education, there are increasing numbers of paralegals who opt for a higher degree.
It’s natural to look to more education as an edge in the job market. For veterans, this is an easy choice since GI Bill® benefits will easily get you a four-year degree free of charge.
There are still not very many bachelor’s degrees dedicated to paralegal training, however. It’s more common to pursue a general studies or major in a field related to the area of law in which you plan to practice. For example, if international law is your jam, a bachelor’s in international studies follow by a post-degree paralegal certificate may be the way to go.
You’ll even find a bare handful of master’s degree programs for paralegals. But part of the draw of paralegals is that they are able to charge less than lawyers because they don’t have to spend as much time in school. Elevating education levels to advanced degrees works against that advantage—but with your military education benefits, it might make sense for you.
Paralegal Programs Can Build on Your Military Legal Training
Paralegal degree and post-degree certificates will include a lot of the same kind of coursework you received in the service. Because they have more time to spend, though, you’ll get a broader and more in-depth education in subjects such as:
There are also bound to be more courses in specific areas of the law. These include:
Many paralegal programs also offer internship opportunities. Although you probably have plenty of experience doing real-world legal work by the time you get to this stage in your education, these will give you a chance to see how work in a civilian environment differs from military legal practice. It also offers the opportunity to make connections and build your network for employment after graduation.
A Mission-Oriented Focus Sets Veteran Paralegals Apart
Although all your training and experience as a military paralegal gives your resume a concrete edge in job searches, the advantages you have as a veteran don’t stop there. The very fact of your service gave you some qualities that law office managers love:
Paralegals with a military background have a reputation for getting the job done. And that’s a reputation that will lead to new career heights and fat paychecks with the right degree on your resume.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Paralegals and Legal Assistants reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed June 2022.