JAG offers lessons learned to in-house counsel

He wears a uniform and has a legal team that makes decisions about life-and- death scenarios, often on the other side of the world, but Maj.-Gen. Blaise Cathcart says most corporate law departments can adopt his formula for in-house success.

Speaking to the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association’s national spring conference in Toronto last week, Cathcart, the Judge Advocate General of the Canadian Forces, talked about leading a globally deployed team of in-house lawyers.

“We have a long relationship with the CBA but one of the things I’ve been trying to do is reach out to this side of the house because frankly I find we have much more in common in the way that we practise inside the office of the JAG to in-house and corporate counsel than our colleagues in private practice,” he said.

As JAG, Cathcart acts as legal adviser to the governor general, minister of National Defence, Department of National Defence, and the Canadian Forces on matters of military law. He says his team is trained to be “in the position to give legal advice quickly, correctly, frankly, and fearlessly.”

He emphasized his team of legal officers are viewed as “independent.”

“My legal officers work for me — not the commanders they advise. They have a degree of independence that allows them to courageously give advice the client may not want to hear,” he said.

Cathcart explained the most demanding scenarios potentially involve deadly force halfway around the world, such as advising an Air Force commander on whether to authorize an airborne Canadian Forces CF-18 aircraft to attack a “pop-up target of opportunity.”

“I recognize these are extreme cases but if we can meet the demands of these scenarios, we will be well positioned to meet no less important demands associated with less austere or dangerous environments,” he said.

The office of the JAG employs 160 full-time, regular force legal officers, 60 part-time legal officers, and 100 legal support staff.

“We are a small group of lawyers who have a large client organization, a huge geographic footprint, and a broad scope of practice. We call ourselves low-density and high-demand,” said Cathcart. “As you might imagine, increased operational tempo for the Canadian Forces as a whole means increased legal tempo for our lawyers.”

In early 2011, Cathcart’s office had 17 legal officers deployed supporting combat operations in Afghanistan and in the vicinity of Libya. They were also mentoring legal officers in Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the development of their own military justice systems.

Currently in his third year of a four-year appointment, Cathcart shared his formula for success.

Lesson 1: Find and recruit the right people
“This may sound trite but the obviousness of this rule leads to a risk that we treat recruiting and hiring as a routine practice and not what it truly is, which is the first step in building our organization for tomorrow. We need to treat every new hire as if they are one day going run the organization. We should do our best to hire those who demonstrate potential as lawyers, as managers, and importantly as leaders,” he said.

Lesson 2: Invest in the education and training of your people
“Seek and identify future stars from within. Our succession plan is designed to continually develop the legal officers.” Some officers in the JAG office receive fully subsidized education at the masters-degree level in international, air and space, and constitutional law. About 25 per cent of all officers in the JAG have post-grad degrees in law.

Lesson 3: Build a strong team
“One of the sure-fire ways to get dedicated and high-performance people is create an atmosphere of mutual support and confidence,” said Cathcart. “This is especially important when your team is small or geographically dispersed.”

Lesson 4: Know the client and the business
“For me and my team the client is the Crown; the executive branch of the Canadian government. We have to understand their goals.”

Lesson 5: Trust your people
“There’s always a risk that a young legal officer alone halfway around the world in the middle of the night is going to make a mistake. That is unavoidable but can be mitigated by applying lessons 1 to 4.”

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