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How Military Defense Attorneys Differ Than Civilian Lawyers

A judge's gavel rests on a book of law. (Dreamstime/TNS)
November 30, 2023

The role of lawyers varies depending on whether they’re civilian or military defense attorneys. While civilian lawyers cater to citizens in a traditional court setting, a military defense attorney operates within a specialized legal structure. The latter also takes clients actively serving who are facing court-martial charges. 

Besides the differences mentioned above, there are more details that many should know to understand both roles better. Let’s start by understanding each scope of work of military lawyers. 

Military Lawyers

Military lawyers or civilian-military lawyers handle legal matters within the military. One of the differences between military lawyers and others is how they receive compensation. Military lawyers earn from contingency fees. They’re paid a retainer or salary depending on how they offer their services. 

A military lawyer works similarly to civilian lawyers when comparing their daily duties. However, they would represent clients under military courts and law jurisdiction. These lawyers are exclusive to service personnel and can represent them in criminal and civil cases. 

Each lawyer can work within any branch of the forces, even if the department has Judge Advocate Generals, commonly known as JAGs. Personnel needing a lawyer may contact the military legal assistance office to obtain legal representation. 

JAGs’ educational requirements and process are similar to civilian lawyers, and they will practice law in a military court. This includes the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, Military Court of Inquiry, military reviews, and court-martial. Military Defense Attorneys must also have knowledge of general and military laws. Attorneys can pursue becoming a JAG when entering the military or complete the JAG requirements before entering. 

Military Law

Military law is entirely separated from civil codes. What the military considers as criminal or a violation may not be regarded as the same by civilian law. Not to mention, military regulations address issues specifically around enlisted service officers and personnel. 

The law addresses each case differently and conducts issues during active training and duty. The law also protects personnel’s dependents and spouses, including re-entering civilian society after the conclusion of tour duties. The Uniform Code of Military Justice regulates all military conduct. Any violation can lead to punishment from a commanding officer or a referral towards subsequent trial and court-martial. 

Military and Civilian Lawyers: Primary Differences

Although it’s clear that civilian and military lawyers practice in different courts, there are more differences between the two. Those considering hiring a lawyer must know these differences according to their court cases. 

Jury Procedures

Six to 12 jurors are present as civil juries, with criminal cases consisting of 12 jurors. Before reaching the final verdict, all jurors must make unanimous decisions. These jurors are selected individuals who fulfill the requirements to serve on a jury. 

Compared to military juries, only three people would be present as jurors. Like civil juries, the number differs according to each case. Military juries consist of commissioned officers, but the accused can request enlisted members to join as jurors. 

Unlike civil juries, which must reach a unanimous verdict, only two-thirds of the jurors must vote for conviction. However, there’s an exception to the death penalty cases requiring military jurors 

to vote unanimously. Due to this significant difference, military court proceedings rarely come to hung juries. This also affects how defense attorneys strategize in courts, as they only need to convince two-thirds of the jurors. 

Additional Trainings

Lawyers aiming to present civilian criminal court cases must obtain a Juris Doctor degree from an ABA-approved law school. They must then pass the state bar examination before practicing professionally as a bar member and take clients. This isn’t the case for military defense attorneys. 

Military lawyers will receive extra training before representing clients in court. Through JAG training, attorneys will learn military court rules and how to defend their future clients against military-related charges. 

It’s uncommon to find civilian criminal defense lawyers who are former JAG lawyers. These attorneys understand both rules, their differences, and how the court will progress in military courts (and civilian criminal courts). This is primarily helpful when a service member commits crimes that simultaneously lead to civilian criminal and court-martial charges. 


In civilian criminal cases, a defendant is allowed to appeal a court ruling or a verdict to a higher court. However, no specific path exists for appealing every civilian court decision. This is notably different in the military court, as there’s a particular process for how an individual can appeal for all decisions. 

Each military branch has a specific process for appeals. Civilian or military attorneys can’t speed up the appeals process in the military court or skip any step in the chain of command.