Editors note: This article is presented by Karthik Venkatraj. He asked three other law students with military experience to share their stories as well (following his).
Karthik Venkatraj is a 1L at the University of Colorado Law and a First Lieutenant in the Colorado Army National Guard. Karthik plans to continue his service in the Colorado Army National Guard and hopes to specialize in privacy law.
After reading almost every article on transitioning military experience and hiring veterans, I was presented with a question I thought I would never hear—one that I had lectured my own soldiers on. This allowed me to reflect on the continuing challenges within the military community in transitioning into jobs within the private sector, and particularly jobs within law.
How does military experience translate into a law firm job?
For the legal community, the concept of JAG is one that translates quite easily into a law firm. But, what about officers and enlisted soldiers in duties and roles outside of JAG? How does leading a platoon—the basis of military leadership —translate into a law firm associate with unique skills and talents? Or, how does serving as a Battalion Intelligence Officer during natural disaster relief affect one’s law school experience and perspective? Rather than simply listing a point-by-point analysis, I hope that a series of diverse narratives across services and ranks will help add clarity. But before launching into a broader discussion on military experience and its implications for the legal community, I wanted to share my Army story.
My parents immigrated from South India in 1982 to pursue a better life for themselves and their future family. After renting a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, my mother found a job as a nurse’s aide and my father cleaned cages at a veterinary clinic and carried x-rays. Ten years later, my father obtained his PhD from NYU and my mother completed her MD. Through their struggles and successes, my parents reminded me and my siblings that their story would be possible only in this country. They taught my brothers and me to look for opportunities to give back to our country. After 9/11, I knew that the military was my opportunity to give back, and so, at age 19, I began my career as an ROTC cadet at Texas A&M University.
I was part of the SMP program, where I trained with a National Guard unit while doing ROTC. After training with the National Guard unit, my plans to go Active Duty changed. In the National Guard, I found farmers, computer engineers, consultants, police officers, riggers among other professions that wanted to serve their country while pursuing civilian careers. Oftentimes, their civilian careers and finances were affected by a National Guard training schedule that is on par with Active Duty components. I was enamored with the idea of leading soldiers from all walks of life within a military concept hearkening to the Massachusetts Bay Colony of 1636. I graduated as a Distinguished Military Graduate and turned down Active Duty to pursue a career in the Guard.
Since then, I’ve done a brief stint working on policy in the Pentagon and completed a number of assignments ranging from working on the platoon level to battalion staff within the Colorado Army National Guard. I plan to pursue a career in the National Guard along with a civilian career in law. My service has been inspired by my parent’s story and my desire to preserve opportunity inherent within the exceptional principles and values that inform our nation and made my parent’s journey possible.
So, how do military skills merge with the legal world?
A Commitment to Mission—Whether leading a platoon in Baghdad, filling in ranks far above your duty description while applying for law school, helping to coordinate relief efforts in wake of the Boulder floods during school, or training the Iraqi military to perform in a novel way, junior and senior leadership must be committed to a mission.
The Ability to Multitask —Briefing high-level officers at the battalion and theater levels, while being solely responsible for the lives of men and women and maintaining millions of dollars of government equipment, articulates some of the basic duties of junior and senior leadership. The National Guard includes these duties and responsibilities along with a civilian career.
Never Quit Attitude—As trite as it may sound, this attitude seems to be quickly vanishing from society. When evaluating the best and brightest in the NCO corps, the first thing I look for and expect is the ability “to make things happen.” These are the same expectations that are levied on my colleagues and me as officers and senior NCOs.
Quintessential Problem Solvers—From junior NCOs to officers, challenges are continually placed on leadership to perform, whether operating in an overseas deployment, natural disaster or in a garrison environment. Operating in the most basic of situations, junior leaders have been able to coordinate relief operations, train foreign soldiers, and lead their own soldiers into combat.
Leadership—Although it may seem obvious, leadership is truly unique in the military. The ability to lead is quintessential to entrepreneurship, and although there is an overbearing perception that the military is as formulaic as legal writing, junior officers and NCOs have been forced to innovate in continually changing operational environments.
Commitment to Serve—Where else can a 22 or 23-year-old sign for millions of dollars of equipment and be placed in direct charge of men and women? A commitment to serve informs the narrative of service members as they are placed in a capacity to be directly responsible for the welfare of their fellow service members. This duty spurns a commitment to serve, which is a powerful asset for a law firm.
What I thought was cool at age 13: tanks, guns, helicopters, fighter jets, video games where I could control war, and movies about war. What I wanted to be when I grew up: a lawyer.
These had nothing to do with one another. Neither one seemed to have any particular hold over my destiny at the time. Flash forward to American History class in 2001. The topic that week, in September, was Vietnam. Remembering that day in hindsight became my own eerie version of real life falling into literary patterns worthy of fiction. By 2007, I had finished the first leg of my journey toward the coveted law degree: community college was in the can. However, rent and life’s other expenses didn’t leave much money for the price tag of a university education. Conveniently, a Marine Corps recruiter had just begun calling and aggressively recruiting me, dazzling me with the promises of glory and military pageantry, all with the bonus of free college at the end.
By the summer of 2008, I found myself in Basrah, Iraq’s second largest city. Our small team was embedded with the Iraqi Army and tasked with turning them into a competent, Geneva Convention-obeying outfit, which would form a pillar of stability in Iraq’s new post-Saddam democracy. Suddenly, the education I had put on the back burner assumed an acute relevance. For the Iraqi soldiers, the law merely represented their struggle to keep their monopoly on the use of force; for many of the civilian leaders, the law represented vast patronage networks and the swirling mix of tribal, government, and religious loyalties. History will judge which interpretation wins out; for me, the fight itself became the emphasis. As many (or even most) veterans struggle with the idea of a failed mission, a futile war, or a mistaken policy, the thought of doing one’s duty in the fight itself becomes the only solace, whatever the outcome.
On my first deployment, my commander signed a memo stating that I could maim anyone who told me the ending of the Harry Potter series before my copy of the seventh book got to Iraq. He also signed letters of recommendation for my college applications and helped me research law schools. Despite the fact that I was one of the lowest ranking soldiers in his company, he encouraged me with stories of his own schooling, and the long route he took to become an officer. When I got my letter of admission for college, and again for law school, there was no one I was more proud to tell.
On my second deployment, the Task Force Executive Officer took a personal interest in every one of his soldiers, and let me read his War College textbooks. The week before the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy ended, we had a conversation about how he would love and support his kids even if they were gay. A week later, I stormed into his office to complain about the public comments that were being made about the repeal, and he rose to the challenge. We were the only task force in theater to issue a clear statement that harassment and discrimination would not be tolerated —something the repeal and legislature didn’t actually enact.
My “deployment dad” for the third tour was a Major in the Mississippi National Guard—and the proudest Mississippi State fan you’ve ever met. I was an enlisted soldier with a desire to attend law school. The first day we met, I was negotiated to extend with his unit, but still get home in time to start law school. “We will have you out of here for school no matter what.” That was his firm promise to me. Due to my position, I was the lowest ranking person in any briefing. Pretty soon, my boss stopped introducing me to people with my job title, and started saying: “This is SGT Black. She’s going to law school next year.” I didn’t even have a letter of acceptance at that point—so when it came, he was bragging all over Kuwait and Afghanistan. He even started soliciting retainers for me! And yes, I was sent home with an early release from theater to ensure I had time to go house hunting.
I mention these three men because sometimes the military, its issues, and its laws overshadow the individuals who make it up. We all have our own reasons for serving. I will be returning to the military and serving in the JAG Corps because of men like this who encourage every member to serve to their fullest. Hopefully, I will someday be in a position to ensure someone else gets to serve in just the right career for them.
Matt Johnson is a 1L at the University of Colorado Law. He served as an Army field artillery officer at Fort Riley, KS and deployed to Iraq from 2010 to 2011. He plans to work in business law after graduation.
My military experience was invaluable during my transition from the Army to the University of Colorado Law School. The Army taught me many important life lessons and made me into a much more focused and well-rounded person, and I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to serve.
The most important thing I learned in the Army was how to truly work as a member of a team. While deployed to Iraq as a field artillery officer, I served as a platoon leader in charge of roughly thirty soldiers and was responsible for leading them on various missions and patrols in eastern Baghdad. I was fortunate to work with a great group of noncommissioned officers (NCOs), all of whom were very experienced and competent. Many of them had already completed multiple deployments to Iraq, so I quickly learned that I always needed to listen to their advice when we were on patrol. They helped me develop into an effective leader by teaching me the value of careful planning and showing me how to lead by example. I always had a great relationship with my NCOs, and our ability to work together allowed our platoon to have a great deal of success during the deployment. After we returned to the U.S., my platoon sergeant (the senior NCO in the platoon) told me that I was the lieutenant he enjoyed working with the most during his Army career. That statement really meant a lot to me, and I look back on it with a great deal of pride today.
I hope that the lessons I learned about teamwork while in the Army will help me in the future as I pursue a legal career. Namely, I want to make sure that I will always listen to and learn from others so that I can be a successful lawyer.