A Great Calling

Col. Robert Preston offers insights into the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

Interview by Eric Quitugua

The U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps—one of the largest law firms in the world and the oldest firm in the United States—was founded by George Washington on July 29, 1775, with the appointment of William Tudor as the first judge advocate general. Five years later, Congress authorized the Navy JAG, and thereafter JAGs were established in the Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines. The Air Force JAG comprises about 1,300 uniformed lawyers, 800 uniformed paralegals, and 900 civilians who are attorneys or legal support.

Robert PrestonCol. Robert Preston, the Air Force JAG director of professional development and functional manager and career field manager, manages JAG standards and processes, officer assignments, and more. The Texas Tech University School of Law graduate has been a JAG since 1994 and has worked assignments stateside, as well as in Southeast Asia and Italy. From the Pentagon, Preston spoke to the Texas Bar Journal about his experiences and what future JAGs can expect as they begin their law careers with the Air Force.

What do you look for in prospects? What qualifications should they have?
The neat part about being a judge advocate is that, of necessity, you have to be a military officer, and so we look for a lot of the same kind of attributes of people who serve the military in other capacities, which is a real focus on service—some interest perhaps in travel and adventure. And people who value mobility and change.

From a standpoint of lawyers, we really don’t have a typecast to say that people should study only military law or something like that when they go to law school. We have a pretty wide-ranging practice, and so what we’re looking for from candidates, whether they be law students from whom we get about half of our accessions every year, are people who have what we call the basic blocking and tackling skills of being good writers, good advocates, and people who can stand on their feet and argue a case on behalf of the government in a federal court or in a military courts-martial. We’re looking for people who are adaptable, who might be interested in tackling more than one area of practice. We feel like we offer—especially to young people—some good opportunities to build skills and tackle several areas of practice.

What can entry-level advocates expect when they begin their careers in the Air Force?
For one thing, you are a commissioned officer in the United States Air Force; we put you through training that any officer would have to learn to be part of the military and effectively serve as an officer. From that you go on to training to be a judge advocate. We have what’s called the judge advocate’s staff officer course, where you learn all the basics of practice as a judge advocate. I think something that’s desirable about being a judge advocate is that we don’t put anybody in a position we haven’t trained them for. As people move along in their career, they’re given more training to accomplish the missions that are more complex as they move up the ladder.

Our basic areas of practice, what we call the base level when people come in as junior judge advocates, are really three things: (1) Legal assistance—young judge advocates help Air Force and other service members and their families with our version of legal aid; (2) Military justice—we train all judge advocates to be advocates in the military courts-martial and either be prosecutors or defense counsel in the future and in the distant future as they become more senior military judges; and (3) Wing commander—they work more or less as the adviser to an installation commander in environmental law, labor law, and government contract law, kind of the transactional and regulatory law that occurs at the base level.

Then quickly, because they’re military officers, they will deploy, supporting U.S. forces in overseas operations. So they may also do what we call international and operations law, what you might be familiar with as international law but focused on the law of armed conflict and the Geneva Conventions, as well as what we call operations law, which is the U.S. legal authority by which we conduct military operations in overseas environments.

When did you become a judge’s advocate and what motivated you to become one?
I am a Texas lawyer. I was admitted to the State Bar of Texas in 1994 after graduating from Texas Tech University School of Law. I originally enlisted in the military as a United States Marine and went to school on the Hazlewood Act. As I was finishing law school, some of the avenues that I had been interested in seemed to be closing because the market was bad. I took this opportunity and was selected in the JAG Corps as a law student. When I was admitted to the bar, I came on active duty in the Air Force. I’m an example of one of those folks who started off in those general areas of practice that we do—I did courts-martial when I was young, both prosecuting and defending them, and went on from that to do some work in government contracts, which is a big deal for the Air Force. I was later selected to receive an LL.M. in international and comparative law, which became my specialty for the Air Force for almost 10 years and took me to Italy several times and to the Middle East. I’ve been able to do pretty interesting things with that degree. And then for a variety of reasons, after doing a number of jobs in leadership and management, I was brought to the job I’m talking to you from right now, which is our office of professional development, where we do the cradle-to-grave human resource management for the JAG Corps.

Going in, did you have any expectations?
My expectation was to serve my country, certainly, but also to get some good experience. I never expected to stay for 20 years or more—in my case, 24 years. It turned out to be a rewarding career choice. I liked the variation in practice. I liked being able to explore areas that I never would have been able to get into had I gone into private practice or stayed in one geographic region. For example, being able to do international law for a decade was something I probably would not have been able to do coming out of law school and staying in Texas. Some of the experiences of deploying to the Middle East for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom and things like that have been rewarding.

Looking back, what would you say is a case you handled that you’re the most proud of?
It’s hard to say. There are many efforts that I’ve been part of that I’m pretty proud of. The most recent one I’m both proud of for the efforts that the team put together and also because I think it illustrates some of the opportunities you get as a JAG is a case in which I was the co-lead for the team that defended a highly classified bid protest for a plane called a long-range strike bomber. It was about a $20 billion contract, and we successfully defended that bid protest against a couple of major government contractors. It was rewarding to bring together a large team of government attorneys and contracting specialists to carry that thing across the finish line for a very important plane—what we call a capability for the Air Force.

What do you take away the most from your career?
We had a controversial case that was frustrating and we were having a tough time persuading our client to do something we felt was appropriate. It was going to take, frankly, going over that person’s head. As I was wringing my hands about that, my boss said to me, “You know, the best part about being a judge advocate is we have the luxury of doing the right thing.” That’s not only a desirable thing to have, it’s your honor-bound duty. You’re a military officer and you represent not only your agency, that is the Air Force, but your country. You really have a sense of purpose and integration with a higher calling, if you will, at least for me, than if you were doing something that was commercial.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received in your career?
That’s a tough one. I would say the best piece of advice I have received would be to keep a focus on the client and the client’s mission, never forgetting that the law is not an end unto itself, that you’re doing this for people. When I’ve been successful, it’s because I remembered that we’re not an end unto ourselves but we serve others, in this case the Air Force client.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering becoming a judge advocate?
It’s a great opportunity for the right person, but it’s very much about whether you’re the right fit for the organization rather than the organization being the right fit for you. I would urge people to talk to as many others as they can, research as much as possible, and figure out if it’s something that you would like to do. The other piece I would say is that people should not rule themselves out because they don’t come from military families or don’t come from a military background. We want the Air Force and the services to be open to everyone who feels a calling to serve. We find that there are people who have no affiliation with the military whatsoever who become outstanding military officers whether that’s as lawyers or other things. It’s a great calling for the right person.

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