As a former Department Head for the Navy’s LAO’s in the Washington, D.C. area, 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. A good rule of thumb is: if it can’t be completed in 45 minutes then the LAO can’t really help you.
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 Assistance Office.
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 Separation Agreements for both parties where there are no contested issues. They assert that the LAO is not advising either party but merely acting as a scribe in preparing a Separation Agreement (in which case 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 qualified to advise you on state family law issues and state law generally controls divorce and separation issues. Legal Assistance Attorneys don’t practice law in the state family law courts, therefore, they rarely have courtroom experience to draw on in advising the clients on what the state court might do in your case.
Moreover, many of the attorneys at the LAO are not licensed to practice law at all in your state and have never practiced family law. Typically, a young lawyer fresh out of law school joins the JAG Corps (and after completing 9 weeks of Justice School training – mostly on military criminal law and evidence issues) he or she is assigned to a duty station far from where he or she is licensed to practice law. The LAO attorneys cannot go to court with you, or even prepare court documents. Their representation is largely limited to providing advice and drafting letters during a 45-minute appointment.
However, the LAO attorneys can help you get dependent support under the military’s dependent support guidelines, or a military protective order if you require one. In addition, the LAO attorney should be able to assist a military service member in defending against a dependent support complaint or an MPO request sent to his or her commanding officer. The LAO attorneys can provide good information about military issues related to divorce or marital separation but (for the reasons stated above) should not be relied upon when discussing state laws regarding divorce and divorce issues are general governed by state law.