Many countries have a legal branch of their military to serve as counselors and conduct military trials. A judge advocate general, or JAG, is a lawyer or judge employed by a military organization. Typically a trained officer, a judge advocate general may serve in a variety of capacities under orders from the military.
The concept of a legally-minded military branch is quite an old one; the United Kingdom has had a JAG branch since the mid-17th century. Although originally the judge advocate general was mainly concerned with internal matters within the military, the rise of international law and treaties has expanded the role of a judge advocate general considerably. Other countries that feature a similar branch include the United States, Canada, Israel, India, and Denmark.
Although requirements vary between military branches, most JAGs must be qualified lawyers who have graduated from law school and passed required legal exams, such as the bar. They typically receive basic military training and attend officer training courses. This course of study can be quite rigorous and requires both physical and mental fitness in order to pass. Once qualified, a judge advocate general can be appointed to many different positions around the world.
Some JAGs serve primarily as military advisors. Some of the areas they are involved in include crafting international military treaties and law, examining and providing guidance regarding rules of engagement, and cooperating with government officials on a variety of subjects. With deep understanding of both military and civilian law, these professionals are typically experts on difficult cases that involve both jurisdictions.
A judge advocate general can provide legal services, advice, and help to members of the military and their families. In the case of a military trial, members of the JAG corps are appointed as attorneys for both prosecution and defense, while a highly experienced and senior member serves as the judge. Rather than choose their clients, like civilian lawyers, judge advocate general lawyers are assigned work. Regardless of their own feelings on the case, a JAG must serve as the military orders to ensure proper procedure and a fair trial.
Most judge advocate generals serve a period of active duty that varies depending on which military employs them. In the United States, most JAGs agree to serve four years of active duty, with options to extend that employment longer. Many JAGs remain in the position for their entire career, working up through the ranks of qualified officers to achieve positions of high responsibility and prestige within the organization.