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There's no life like it

|Written By Richard Cleroux
There's no life like it
Navy Lt.-Cmdr. Gina Connor, 41, sits with Obidullah Sediqi, the chief prosecutor for the Kandahar High Courts in Afghanistan

Where else can you practise law and get the thrill of being shot at? Consider a career as a military lawyer with the Canadian Forces.

Navy Lt.-Cmdr. Gina Connor, 41, is back in Ottawa after six months as legal advisor with a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar. Was she was shot at? “We don’t talk about operations,” she says dutifully.


But she did have an incredible time. And she offers up a career as a military lawyer as something women in law school might want to consider — at least for the ones who are willing to stay fit, obey military discipline, and want exciting lives. “It’s a way of getting out from behind your desk,” she says.


There were about a dozen on her team, including a doctor, medics, engineers, architects, diplomats, aid workers, and some police. They trained for six months before going to Afghanistan with courses in language, local culture, weapons, and operations. None of it was easy. Challenging is a word that fits.

Connor comes from a military family. Her father was in logistics. She joined the forces in 1985 and served as a regular soldier for 11 years, travelling around the world. Not bad for somebody who is 5-feet, 2-inches tall and weighs 100 pounds, she jokes. In 1996 she left the regular forces to be a reservist and attend law school.

Graduating in 2000 from the University of New Brunswick, she articled with Burchell MacDougall in Halifax and then joined the Judge Advocate General branch as one of its 132 full-time lawyers. “To be a soldier is the highest calling, and to be a lawyer and uphold justice . . . well, it doesn’t get any better,” she says. “I am proud of what I do.”


Forget about the American television show JAG. Defending soldiers at court martial is a very small part of the job. Advising officers in the field is a big part, as is administration. In Afghanistan, as part of the reconstruction team, it was all about helping local people through getting international organizations to deliver legal training programs to Afghanis in Pashtun, making sure a new courthouse is built properly, explaining to a local architect the importance in a courthouse of an anteroom where judges can retire, or even ordering up comic books in Pashtun to explain the law to a people in a country where 80 per cent of the population is illiterate.


It wasn’t easy. Connor was required to know Canadian common law, military law, military regulations, Afghan national law, unwritten tribal law, and Sharia law. She had been told Afghan men would not shake her hand or talk to her, she says, but that never happened. She had no trouble working with Afghan men and never had to wear a veil. “I’m no different than a male soldier. We are working in an official capacity. I’m in uniform all the time. I don’t wear a veil.”


She would return any time to Kandahar. Right now in Ottawa, she is with a branch called the Directorate of Law for Intelligence and Information Operations. Pushed to explain, she replies, “I’m in psychological operations and electronic warfare.” Pushed even further, she fudges: “Mostly I deal with the electronic warfare, computer networks, and also intelligence issues in the directorate that I work in. We provide strategic legal advice to commanding officers that have those responsibilities.”


She won’t say more. They told her not to. Sounds exciting though. Beats traffic court in Nepean.
She has advice for young women studying law: “Think outside the billable-hour box. Keep your mind open to alternative types of law. There are tons of wonderful opportunities around the world practising law with international agencies — like the United Nations or the International Criminal Tribunal.”


Some come to military law at their own pace, for their own reasons. Lt.-Cmdr. Pierre Comeau, 53, fell in love with Alberta at 16 and joined the regular forces as a flight technician in Cold Lake — a little French-Canadian guy from Montreal who wanted to learn English. Eventually, he decided he wanted to be a lawyer and enrolled at the Université de Moncton. The Forces didn’t pay his way. “I did it on my own dime,” he says. He graduated in 1987 and articled with Milner Steer (later Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP) in Calgary. He was called to the Alberta bar in 1988.


Comeau went to work as in-house counsel with The Brick in Calgary and did everything: corporate-commercial, foreign trade, employment, and immigration. He stayed there two years, then started his own law firm, the Patriot Law Group. But at 45, the lure of the military beckoned again. “Call it a mid-life crisis,” he says. “I had been very successful in private practice and I wanted the adventure of being in the military and being deployed overseas.”


A recent Decima Research study revealed that risk and adventure — not money or security — are what most recruits seek in the military. As a result of the study, the Canadian Forces changed its advertising, and since a greater emphasis was placed on the twin appeals of risk and adventure, coupled with the lure of new equipment and compassion, the number of recruits has doubled.


Age was not a problem for Comeau. But he still had to do boot camp, even at 45. He recalls, “To be a lawyer in the military, you have to be as fit as any other officer.” All JAG lawyers are officers but they are not staff officers part of the regular chain of command. “We take our orders from superior legal officers,” he said. “Of course we take instructions, especially in the field, from non-lawyer officers.”


The JAG lawyers see staff officers they advise as their clients. “Our clients are never our judges,” he says. “Their views can’t affect our career advancement.” It has to be this way, he says, “to insulate the legal officer from any temptation to be weak and vacillate in giving unpleasant advice for fear of hurting his promotion.”


A JAG lawyer has complete solicitor-client privilege. The advice given stays between client and lawyer. A legal officer is never required to reveal what a staff officer asked as advice, says Comeau. Otherwise, staff officers would hold back asking, for fear it would be used against them “if the staff officer were obliged to spill the beans afterwards.”


“We’re unique in the armed forces and unique in the legal profession, in that respect,” he says. “We’re all members of a provincial law society as well as being in JAG, so we have to respect the rules of our various law societies.


“The JAG is not for someone who wants to play GI Joe,” he says. “And you never have anything to do with money. If your professional objective is to handle money, don’t come into the JAG branch,” he says. “There are lots of things for which money is not a substitute; adventure is one of them.”


His greatest adventure came in January 2006, when an e-mail arrived from the JAG headquarters in Ottawa. “They said, ‘Look it, Pierre, we need a bilingual guy for the Congo — a deputy legal officer for the largest peacekeeping mission on earth.’” He accepted right away. After a six-month training course, he was headed for Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was there from July 2006 until February 2007, flying into hellholes, being under fire some of the time, trying his best to bring some measure of law and civility to the warring factions in a country where one out of every two people is a male under the age of 18 with one or no parents (making them prime targets for child-soldier recruitment).


Eighty-five per cent of the country is vegetation — there are no roads outside towns — so the only way around is by UN air. The UN is half the economy in that country; the electricity does not always work; runways are not lit up; there are no night flights; and aircraft are shot at all the time, he recalls. It’s not a pleasant place, he adds. The capital, once called Kinshasa la Belle, is known today as Kinshasa la Poubelle. Still, he loved every adventurous minute. “Never have I accomplished more rewarding work in my professional life than in Congo,” he says.


He liked it so much that he went to help Gen. Roméo Dallaire last year with his child-soldier initiative in Ghana. “These are things you never get on civvie street,” Comeau says.


Life is quieter now back in Edmonton dealing with military justice issues, administration, and some deployment operations. But it won’t be for long. At 53, Comeau has asked to go to Darfur as a military lawyer. “I must be one of the oldest JAG guys in the military,” he laughs, “but I have no intention of quitting.” Through it all, Comeau has been able to keep his French, and is a founding member of the Alberta French-Speaking Bar Association.


It is a myth that military lawyers are not well paid. Most junior officers start at about $60,000 a year. If they are deployed out of the country, they don’t pay income tax, which means quite a bit more take-home than at an ordinary law job. “When I was in Congo, I was putting $15,000 a month in my jeans,” says Comeau. “I got five weeks holidays [even went on a safari in South Africa with his wife] plus all the usual military benefits and a six-figure pension at age 60.” He remembers private practice. “Even when my rate downtown was $300 an hour, I didn’t make that much,” he says.


A military lawyer with a captain’s rank makes between $5,038 and $7,187 per month; a major (equal to a navy lieutenant-commander) makes $7,694 to $10,113 a month. That’s in Canada. Military lawyers who choose not to go overseas may make less than in private practice but, then again, they get full military benefits. They don’t have the billing pressures of large private firms, nor do they have to work incredibly long hours. It all works out.


Navy Lieut. Brent Walden was also born in a military family. As was expected of him, he joined the officer program of the Canadian Forces at age 16 and headed off to Collège militaire royal in Saint-Jean, Que. In his third year, he switched to Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., to complete an engineering degree in 1993.

Walden went into combat engineering — working with mines, explosives, and bridges — enough excitement for a lifetime. His work took him to the Golan Heights and around the world. He came back with an interest in, of all things, environmental law. This led him, at age 29, to the University of Calgary Law School, where he paid his own way, opting for the reserves rather than the regular forces.


He articled with Fraser Milner Casgrain and stayed on doing general commercial litigation and energy regulatory practice. But the lure of a full-time military career was too strong. He signed up with the JAG in 2006 and moved to Ottawa, where he ended up in the Forces’ grievance-process law section, settling pay, compensation, and promotion issues. Not all in the military is killing and being shot at. There are desk jobs — satisfying ones — in law.


His advice to law students considering a military career: don’t decide right out of law school that the military is the law career for you. He signed up for four years, which gave him an option, should he prefer something else, to switch more easily.


For someone interested in corporate law, Walden says, military law is perhaps not the best step, because legal firms tend to hire their corporate lawyers right out of law school. But for someone who likes to travel, craves adventure, and enjoys operations and military administrative law, it’s worth every minute. Being a military lawyer may not pay as much as a being a big corporate lawyer, he says, “but you don’t have the same pressures as you do on the outside, and the hours are not so incredibly long.”


All three found their own way to their military law career. For them, there’s no life like the Canadian Forces, however long it took them to find it.


All you ever wanted to know about the JAG is on its web site: www.forces.gc.ca/jag/main_e.asp


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