There are three primary ways to become a court martial lawyer serving in the military court system. Most court martial attorneys come from the military itself and are serving on active duty. It is typical, as well, for a military attorney to become a court martial lawyer after leaving the service and beginning work as a civilian. Also, an attorney without military service but with experience in trail law and knowledge of military court procedures become a court martial lawyer.
Regarding active duty military attorneys, each active duty branch of the United States military has a legal authority known as the Judge Advocate General (JAG) which enforces the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The JAG is responsible for filing charges much as with civilian district attorneys. Military courts are administered by the JAG. Prosecuting and defense attorneys for courts martial also are provided by the JAG.
To become a court martial lawyer through the JAG, an individual typically makes a commitment to a specific branch of the military for a set number of years of service and then is sent to law school at the military’s expense. It also is possible for an individual to become a court martial lawyer by serving in the military in a non-legal capacity, applying to join the JAG service, being accepted and then being sent to law school. Military members retain many of the same legal rights they have as civilians, among which are the right to an attorney, so that in all courts martial, a JAG defense attorney will be appointed, even if the accused elects to hire his or her own counsel.
With military members accused of crimes being able to hire outside counsel, a non-military attorney can become a court martial lawyer when retained for that purpose. Many accused individuals prefer to hire civilian attorneys who have experience as JAG prosecutors because of their knowledge of the system. The military legal system is similar to but different than the civilian system and some people who have been charged with crimes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice prefer defense counsel with specific military legal experience.
It is not required to have military experience to become a court martial attorney. An attorney licensed to practice law in his or her home jurisdiction can practice before military courts. Civilian participation in a court martial is limited to serving as defense counsel as the various JAG branches in the military take responsibility for prosecuting alleged crimes.