Military Lawyers: A Sense of Duty
Meet a few Wisconsin- licensed lawyers who blend
civilian and military obligations.
by Dianne Molvig
|In 1999, as part of the Air Force JAG
Department, Steve McManus, Milwaukee, advised on the legality of bombing
missions in Kosovo, working from the bombers' base in England. Here, he
is aboard a KC-135 refueling aircraft.
Like many people, Milwaukee attorney Steve McManus had no idea what
military lawyers do, until he became one seven years ago. In fact, when
he was a law student in the early 1990s, back in the days before "A Few
Good Men" hit the big screen and "JAG" made its television debut, "I
didn't even know the military had lawyers," he admits.
That lack of awareness persists among law students, as well as
lawyers, and now McManus is among those trying to dispel it. As a member
of the Air Force Reserve, he visits Wisconsin and Chicago law schools,
where he recruits future Air Force lawyers and tells students what it's
like to be a military lawyer. The picture he paints is as varied as the
legal profession itself.
A military legal career blends criminal law, general practice, and
in-house counsel responsibilities. A military lawyer might defend
accused murderers, prosecute misdemeanors, review business contracts,
give advice on environmental matters, handle labor disputes, draw up
wills, counsel in divorces, and more - all during just a few years of
practice and while working for the same employer.
In addition, military lawyers serve specialized functions. For
example, during military strikes in Afghanistan, lawyers are advising
commanders in selecting bombing targets and types of weaponry, to make
sure U.S. forces commit no violations of the Geneva Conventions.
Duties vary depending upon location, individual expertise, the world
situation, which branch of the armed services a military lawyer is in,
and whether he or she is pursuing a full-time military career or is a
member of the Reserve (federal) or National Guard (state). As reservists
or Guard members, many State Bar members serve the military part-time
while holding down full-time civilian jobs as lawyers and judges. Some
choose to take on nonlawyer roles for the military side of their lives.
For example, in the Wisconsin National Guard, Madison attorney Tom
Rhatican commands a helicopter unit, and Rock County circuit court judge
James Daley is an infantry commander. Many Bar members, however, opt to
use their legal expertise in both the military and civilian realms.
For some, joining the Guard or Reserve was a natural next step after
a stint of active duty. Others have never been full-timers, but have
served in the Guard or Reserve for years, even decades. What motivates
them to be involved? How do civilian lawyers juggle their private
careers with their part-time military duties? What happens if they're
called up for active duty for weeks or months at a time? We talked to
several Bar members to find out.
Ready and Waiting
Like many reservists, Louis Epps isn't sure what lies ahead. It's
anyone's guess if and when he'll be called to active duty now that the
United States is at war. But one thing is certain: Epps is eager to go.
"I've been emailing the Guard Bureau telling them, 'I'm here. I'm
healthy. Come and get me.'"
Epps has been in the Wisconsin Air National Guard for 14 years,
following four years in the Air Force Reserve and, before that, nearly
five years as a full-time Air Force attorney. He's been deployed with
his Guard unit twice: to Japan, and to southern France, where his unit
supported missions to Bosnia. Both times Epps left his public defender
job in Milwaukee for several weeks. If he's deployed during the current
conflict, he figures he'll be gone three weeks, maybe longer. "From what
I've heard recently," he says, "they seem to be going for longer
The uncertainty can get to you, he admits. "But I feel ready now,"
Epps says, "and that relieves a lot of the stress. I know if I leave, I
won't dump on my teammates here at the office. They already have enough
on their plates."
Part of his preparation has been through his selection of cases. He's
avoided taking new long-term cases, such as homicides. And he's made
sure the status of his current cases is such that he could transfer them
to a colleague, if need be. "This is a great place to work," Epps says,
"because if you have an obligation like this, others step up and cover
Still, leaving isn't easy, he concedes. "The hardest part is worrying
about clients," he says. "You form personal relationships; you feel
responsible. Even though you know someone else is going to pick up a
case and do a good job, you don't want to leave before it's done."
For 18 years, Epps has been blending his civilian and military
obligations. His reasons for doing the latter? "I don't know how to put
this so it doesn't sound corny," he notes, "but I grew up in Milwaukee.
We were poor. I can't think of many other places in the world where I
would have had the opportunity to go to college and become a lawyer.
This state and this country have been good to me."
Landing in JAG
Steve McManus considered attending the Air Force Academy after high
school - until he hit an obstacle. "I'm color blind," he explains, "so
that prohibited me from flying. I dropped the idea altogether." Instead,
he eventually ended up in law school in Arizona. After graduating in
1993, he discovered that the military has full-time lawyers; one of his
fellow bar exam-takers had been a Marine attorney. McManus saw a route
to a military career, after all. He gained acceptance to the Air Force
JAG (Judge Advocate General's) Department in 1994.
He spent six-and-a-half years stationed in New Mexico and England,
gaining "incredible experience," he says, in multiple aspects of
practicing law. As just one example, "within my first three months, I
was trying a fully litigated court martial," McManus says. "I got trial
experience right away." In 1999, in the latter part of his active duty
tour, his job was to advise on the legality of bombing missions in
Kosovo, working at a base in England, from where the bombers flew their
Now McManus describes his experiences to law students, as part of his
recruiting duties as an Air Force reservist. In addition, like all
active reservists (as opposed to inactive members, who merely keep their
names on a roster), McManus reports for an annual two-week tour of duty
plus 12 additional days throughout the year. During this time, he
performs diverse tasks, as is typical for JAGs. For instance, he advised
security police at the base at General Mitchell Field on developing new
gate inspection procedures, and he handled a labor law case involving a
Meanwhile, he's also a full-time associate at an 11-attorney
Milwaukee firm. "When I did my two weeks of duty, I was at the base
every day, 7 to 4," McManus says. "I came to my office each evening to
stay on top of things here. My firm is willing to work with me." He's
betting he won't be activated because of the Afghanistan war. If he is,
his assignment probably would be to substitute for a full-time attorney
at the Milwaukee base who gets deployed overseas.
McManus feels ready for whatever happens. That stems in part from his
days as a full-time Air Force lawyer. "In the military," he explains,
"someone is always leaving for a new assignment, and someone else comes
in. So you constantly have to be able to hand off information to the
next person. That's how I've learned to operate."
|Jim Chereskin, now a sole practitioner in Florida and
member of the Naval Reserve, served much of his Navy active duty in the
Jim Chereskin's connection to the military began right after high
school. He joined the Marines because, coming from a northern Wisconsin
farm family, he needed financial help to attend college. After a tour in
Vietnam, he came back to his home state to go to college and the U.W.
Law School, from which he graduated in 1986. While a second-year law
student, he called a Navy JAG Corps recruiter one day "on a whim,"
applied, and got in. "I had a job waiting for me when I graduated,"
Then came six years of active duty, split between the Philippines and
Diego Garcia, an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. "If somebody
had told me in law school," he says, "that someday I'd be cabled down
onto a frigate to meet a client, or that I'd be hopping in an airplane
to fly 22 hours to see a client, I would have said 'you're crazy.'"
His last duty station was an Orlando, Fla., Navy boot camp. Now,
nearly a decade after his release from active duty, Chereskin remains in
Florida, where he's a civil litigation sole practitioner and a State Bar
of Wisconsin member. He's also in the Naval Reserve, with a status
called "individual ready reserve," which involves no ongoing training
requirements. The Navy would activate him only if a large-scale
mobilization were to occur. He's in the process, however, of
transferring to active status in the Army Reserve. Should he get a call
from the latter, "I probably would be doing legal assistance for Army
personnel in central Florida who are being activated and shipped
overseas," he says.
He can't predict how long his activation might last, but for a sole
practitioner, even a few-weeks' stint would require turning over at
least some of his usual load of 50 active cases to someone else. He's
lined up two attorneys to help, if needed. What happens to his practice
if he's gone for several months? "Realistically," he says, "I'd have to
start over. It's one of those things; if it happens, it happens."
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