“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”William Shakespeare
Lawyers are associated with bad things happening. Why else would someone need a lawyer except to deal with something bad? The answer is, lawyers often help bad things from happening.
If you need a will, power of attorney, a contract reviewed or paperwork notarized, did you know you are entitled to free legal assistance? Each military service provides legal assistance to servicemembers and spouses. While some services may be limited, there are other resources also available to you. Please keep in mind that legal assistance is for non-criminal matters, so criminal matters will be addressed in a later blog.
Each military service offers attorneys through the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. These attorneys, known as judge advocates, are graduates of accredited law schools. Judge advocates are also required to pass a state’s legal bar examination and to be a member in good standing of the state’s legal bar.
You may ask yourself, how will I know if I need to speak with an attorney? First, be proactive. For example, if you are contemplating entering into a contract, consult with an attorney before you sign. Having the contract reviewed before you sign it protects you. The attorney will explain the contract to you and advise if there are any provisions that should be of concern. Another example is receiving a collection notice in the mail. Make an appointment with a legal assistance attorney so you fully understand your rights. A good rule of thumb is if you think you may need an attorney, trust your instincts and make an appointment to see a legal assistance attorney.
If I speak with a legal assistance attorney, will my conversation be forwarded to my spouse’s chain of command? After all, I don’t want this to affect my spouse’s career. The answer is no. Communications with a legal assistance attorney are protected under the attorney-client privilege. The American Bar Association defines attorney-client privilege as the protection of “confidential communications between the client and the lawyer made for the purpose of obtaining or providing legal assistance, to encourage full and frank communication and thereby promote broader public interests in the observance of law and administration of justice.” Bottom line, your conversation with a legal assistance attorney will remain confidential.
How do I locate the closest legal assistance office? There is a great Government online resource to locate the closest legal assistance office. Go to the Armed Forces Legal Assistance website (https://legal assistance.law.af.mil) and enter your state or zip code. The website will then give you a listing of the closest legal assistance offices. Remember, if the closest legal assistance office is a different military service, you may still be seen. Call and schedule an appointment.
There may be times when the closest legal assistance office may not be able to see or assist you. Are you out of luck? The answer is no. There are other options you should explore. First, access the American Bar Association Military Pro Bono Project website (https://www.militaryprobono.org/newcases/) and read the requirements for obtaining a civilian attorney who will assist you for free. If you meet the requirements, contact the closest legal assistance office and request a referral. Referrals must come from the legal assistance office, not from individual servicemembers or spouses. If you are not successful in in obtaining an attorney through the Military Pro Bono Project, contact the closest legal assistance office and ask for their referral list of Reserve or National Guard judge advocates. Legal Assistance offices should have either a directory of Reserve/National Guard judge advocates or a list of those who will help servicemembers and spouses for free or at a reduced cost. Be persistent, and you will find the help you need.
Now that you know the resources that are available to you and the fact that judge advocates are there for you, be proactive and reach out before problems occur, as attorneys are great assets in keeping bad things from happening.
Be on the look out for future blogs that will discuss specific legal issues often encountered by servicemembers and military spouses. The future blogs will help you to protect your family and you!
Kerry L. Erisman is a military spouse, Dad of two awesome teenage boys, Army retiree after 28 years of active duty service, attorney, and Associate Professor with American Military University. He writes and teaches on important military spouse issues including leadership, critical thinking, and education. This blog is the first in a monthly series designed to inform military spouses of legal issues that may affect them and where to turn for assistance.