Military Lawyer vs Civilian Lawyer: What’s the Difference?

In 2018 the Army had 545 pending court-martial cases. It takes an average of 136 days for each case to go through the entire process, from sentencing to convening authority. These cases go through a similar process to civilian court cases, but there are entirely different rules and timelines.

If you’re considering becoming a military lawyer, then you need to understand how your role and career will differ from a civilian attorney. While there are a few similarities, there are some significant differences that may sway your decision.


Keep reading to learn about how military and civilian lawyers differ.

When Is Military Court an Option?

The military has a set of rules and regulations that it expects its members to follow; these can vary significantly from civilian law. There are some cases where a soldier can violate martial law, but not break any civilian laws. In these instances, there is no case to bring justice in civilian court, so only a military tribunal can hear the case.

There are some offenses that, when committed, violate both civilian and military law. In these instances, the accused can face trial in either or both courts. The accused can face charges in state and military court, but not in a federal and military court.

Different Rules to Follow

When a civilian lawyer represents a defendant in a criminal case, there are a set of rules they must follow throughout the legal process called criminal procedure. This includes everything that governs criminal law judicial action.

  • 4th Amendment
  • 5th Amendment
  • Miranda rights
  • 6th Amendment
  • Sentencing

Military courts have a completely different set of rules called the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). All military cases will follow this code as it dictates military procedure. This code applies to the martial process for the Marines, Navy, Air Force, Army, and Coast Guard.

Army JAG Corp

When you go through civilian criminal court, you could get assigned a public defender or hire a private attorney on your own. Think of the military JAG attorneys as the public lawyers for the military. These are active military members who serve as attorneys and represent military members.

There is a crossover option. Many former JAG attorneys continue their legal practice after finishing their military service. These are civilian court-martial defense lawyers.

Similar to a public defender, you won’t get assigned a JAG attorney until you’re officially charged with an offense. In both cases, you can hire private representation at any time. The advantage of military lawyers such as is that they know and understand both civilian and military court procedures.

Different Training

To practice law, a person must go through the process to become a legal attorney. This means graduating from an accredited law school, passing a state bar exam, and becoming a member of that bar association. Civilian attorneys are free to start practicing law at this point.

Military lawyers must receive additional training. After a military member becomes a legal attorney, they must attend JAG training. This is where they learn how to defend a client in military proceedings.

The Appeals Process Is Different

The appeals process for both civilians and the military allows for someone unsatisfied with the court’s ruling to have the case reevaluated. For civilian attorneys, there is no one set path for appealing a case. A case could go to the appellate circuit court or the federal level.

Each military branch has a set process for appeals. It will go through a specific chain of command and take a regulated amount of time. There is no way to speed the process up, and there is no way to skip a link in the chain.

This difference in the appeals process makes civilian lawyers more adept when it comes to the appeals process. So your most significant advantage is hiring a civilian military lawyer who understands the military appeals process but has experience with the civilian process.

The Jury Is Different

Per the Constitution, a jury is made up of 12 jury members who are the defendant’s peers. Military juries can be anywhere from three to 12, which is much smaller. The exact number will depend on the court-martial case presented before the court.

The jury pool for the civilian court is regular Americans that the lawyers then choose from. Military juries tend to be commissioned officers, but the accused could request enlisted members.

The major difference when it comes to juries is that you can have a hung jury in civilian court. This isn’t possible in a military court because only two-thirds of the jury need to vote to convict. This is a major difference in how the court is run and will directly affect how the attorney approaches their defense strategy.

A death penalty case is the only time a military jury would need to have a unanimous guilty decision.

Military attorneys also have to contend with the jury delivering one sentence for all of the crimes their client committed. Civilian attorneys have to contend with a separate verdict and sentence for each crime the defendant is found guilty of.

Become a Military Lawyer

Anyone charged with a crime or offense has the right to a competent defense. This applies to both civilian and military offenders. Both civilian and military attorneys represent their clients to protect and defend the accused’s rights.

If you’re interested in becoming a military lawyer, prepare to join the military and go through additional training. Then after your service, you could become a civilian military attorney.

Browse our other law-related articles for a better understanding of the legal process and how it can affect your life.

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