Should I go to the Legal Assistance Office for Help with my Family Law Issues?

    As a former Department Head for the Navy’s Legal Assistance Offices (“LAO’s”) in the Washington, D.C. area, I believe that I understand both the advantages and the limits of the services these offices provide.  Appointments with a Legal Assistance Attorney are generally about 45 minutes long.  These counseling sessions are often valuable in giving service members and their dependents information that may prevent legal problems or at least make the client aware of potential legal issues.

    If you can take advantage of the free advice provided by the legal assistance office (“LAO”) on base, then do so but you should realize the limitations of the legal advice provided by the military’s Legal Assistance Offices.

    First of all, the legal assistance office will not meet with you if any of their attorneys have previously spoken with your spouse. The entire LAO is conflicted from providing advice to a spouse when they have already spoken with the other spouse.  Just like a lawyer cannot represent (or give advice to) both sides in a divorce (or other dispute), a law firm (including the LAO) cannot give legal advice to opposing parties in a divorce.

    Some LAO’s will prepare Marital Separation Agreements for both parties where there are no contested issues.  In those instances, the LAO claims it is not representing or advising either party but merely acting as a scribe in preparing the Marital Separation Agreement based on the parties’ instructions.  However, this means that neither party is represented by a lawyer.

    Legal Assistance Attorneys come in two basic types – the JAG attorney who is assigned to the LAO for a brief rotation and the civilian lawyer who is a permanent fixture at the LAO.  Both should be well aware of the military family law issues, however, neither attorney is well-qualified to advise you on state family law which generally controls divorce and separation issues.  Usually, Legal Assistance Attorneys don’t practice law in the state family law courts where they provide advice, therefore, they have no first-hand knowledge or experience to draw on in advising client on what the state court might do in a particular case.

    In addition to not being licensed to practice law in your state, many Legal Assistance Attorneys have never practiced Family Law, at all.  Typically, a lawyer fresh out of law school joins the JAG Corps without having practiced law.  After completing 9 weeks of Justice School training – mostly on military criminal law and evidence issues), he or she is assigned to a Legal Assistance Office far from where he or she is licensed to practice law.  Sometimes, the attorney will attend a one-week training course on legal assistance.  Usually these lawyers are learning Family Law (and many other areas of law) on the fly.

    In a typical day, a Legal Assistance Attorney meets with about nine different clients.  In the morning, the lawyer might meet with clients on immigration law, consumer warranties, a DUI, a military records issue and then provide counseling for a Will.  Then, in the afternoon he or she might counsel clients on child support, security clearances, the Physical Evaluation Board and a marital separation. While the attorney has some resources available to help with these issues, it is doubtful that he or she has significant experience in any of these areas.  

    But, it is not the mission of the military’s Legal Assistance Offices to resolve their client’s legal issues.  Instead, they mean to give client’s short-term, practical legal advice and draft short letters on their behalf.  If you are seeking ongoing representation, that is beyond the mission of the military’s Legal Assistance Offices.  However, military defense offices provide legal representation to service members accused of military crimes or facing discharge boards.  The military does not provide legal representation in civilian courts.

    Also, if important state rights are involved; like child custody, support or the division of marital property, then you should find lawyers who handle cases involving these issues in the local courts.  Think of it this way, you wouldn’t have your primary care physician perform cardiac surgery.  The Legal Assistance Offices provide general legal advice.  

    The LAO attorneys cannot go to court with you, or even prepare court documents for you.  However, I often “ghost wrote” court documents for legal assistance clients, but I happened to be licensed to practice law in the state where I was assigned.  The LAO attorney’s representation is largely limited to providing advice and drafting letters during a 45-minute appointment.

    The LAO attorneys can help you get dependent support under the military’s dependent support guidelines, or help you get a military protective order (“MPO”).  In addition, the LAO attorney should be able to assist a military service member in responding to a dependent support complaint or a Military Protective Order request sent to his or her Commanding Officer.  However, the diligence of Legal Assistance Attorney’s assistance in helping you respond to a dependent support letter or MPO request varies based on the lawyer’s schedule and motivation – remember they counsel about 9 clients every day.

    The LAO attorneys can provide good information about military issues related to divorce or marital separation but (for the reasons stated above).  But if you have Family Law issues which are determined in the local courts; like child custody, access and support, or the division of marital property and debts, then you should seek legal advice from attorneys who practice in the local Family Law courts.  The LAO attorneys should be the first step – not the final step – in getting legal representation for your Family Law issues.