Unique Military Law School Marks 60 Years at U.Va.

August 01, 2011
August 1, 2011 — The classroom dynamic at the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School at the University of Virginia is very different from what might be found elsewhere on Grounds.

For one, it's likely the faculty member at the head of the class was once deployed to a combat zone to give legal advice to a military commander. And the make-up of the students – who attend class in uniform – is also atypical, according to Army Col. Dave Diner, JAG School dean. 

"The majority of the students are in the Army, but you have students from all of the services, and also visiting officers from countries like Egypt, Israel and Tunisia," Diner said. "All of these people could be in a classroom talking about international human rights, the rule of law or targeting operations. There's nothing else like that at the University."

The JAG School, a principal component of the one-of-a-kind Army Legal Center and School,  is marking six decades on U.Va.'s Grounds. The University and the Army agreed to establish the school on Aug. 2, 1951, and the first class was held later that month.

Now, more than 5,500 people train each year at the JAG Corps' regimental home on North Grounds, the only American Bar Association-accredited military law school in the country. Every Army JAG officer goes through the programs offered there. So do many JAG officers from other branches of the service, as well as lawyers from other government agencies and  foreign armies.

"We're also the only military law school in the world that grants a degree," said Fred Borch, a retired JAG officer who serves as the school's regimental historian and archivist. "We grant an LLM, or master's degree, in military law." The students in that 10-month program are typically experienced JAG officers bound for leadership positions, he said.

The school, which is operated by the Army in space it leases from U.Va., also hosts more than 300 students each year who have recently completed their law degrees and who attend one of the three basic courses offered annually, a course they must complete in order to become JAG officers.

The school also offers continuing legal education and training in over 30 subject areas to a variety of government and military personnel.

Brig. Gen. John Miller, who recently ended a two-year term as the JAG School's commandant, said the school benefits from its relationship with the Charlottesville community, the University and especially its next-door neighbor, the U.Va. School of Law.
"I think, historically, we're sort of quiet over here, and that's OK," Miller said. "But the community itself has reached out a lot in recent years, whether it's Flag Day celebrations or the Army birthday commemoration on the Downtown Mall. We feel like a part of the U.Va. community, the Law School community and the Charlottesville community as well."

The JAG School estimates that it has a $48.2 million annual economic impact in Charlottesville, not counting its leasing agreement with the University. That comes in the form of civilian employment, local spending on restaurants and housing, and tax payments. Direct spending accounts for about half that total, according to JAG School estimates.

For much of the country's history, there was no such thing as a military law school. Army lawyers learned the same way civilian lawyers did – through on-the-job training or apprenticeships, Borch said.

"So you might be an infantry officer in the 1870s, and you said, 'Hey I really like the law,'" he said. "You'd learn about the law and get into the field that way. That system was fine up until World War II."

In 1942, when war sparked a growing demand for military lawyers, the Army established its first military law school at the University of Michigan. It stayed there until 1946.

"Then, since we'd won the war and assumed we'd have peace for many years, we closed the school," Borch said.

When the Korean War began a few years later, the Army reopened a training facility at Fort Myer in Virginia and began looking for a university where it could establish a permanent school. This was partly to defray the cost of building a law library, Borch said. The two best offers came from the University of Virginia and the University of Tennessee.

In a June 1951 letter to Col. Charles Decker, who would become the JAG School's first commandant, then-U.Va. President Colgate W. Darden Jr. offered the school space for classes and offices, housing in the brand-new Hancock House and use of medical, restaurant and recreation facilities on Grounds.

In return, the University asked for a "price paid for like space in other parts of Virginia," according to Darden's letter. The Army accepted.

"We started out on main Grounds over by Clark Hall where the Law School used to be, and we were very much integrated into the Law School in those days," Borch said.

The school moved to its current facility next to the Law School on North Grounds in 1975, and is currently developing  expansion plans to accommodate its growing mission, Miller said.

Though no longer housed in the same building as the Law School, the two institutions have continued to collaborate over the years, with law students taking classes at the JAG School and vice versa. JAG School faculty members have also coached some of the Law School's extramural moot court teams, which compete in mock trial advocacy.

"Having the JAG School next door enriches the Law School community," Dean Paul G. Mahoney said. "Its combination of intellectual rigor and service to the nation is an inspiration to our students."

In addition to its basic, graduate, and continuing legal education course offerings for military lawyers, the school also trains the Army's paralegals, court reporters and law office managers.

Each year, the school also conducts several weeklong legal courses for Army brigade commanders. These commanders are each responsible for as many as 6,000 soldiers and for many of the Army's day-to-day operations around the world.

"That's a lot of time for some very, very busy people," Miller said. "They are a tough audience, and they will tell you if you're wasting their time, but we get very good feedback from them." 

Because its students come from the Army and beyond – the incoming graduate class includes 15 Marines, 10 Air Force officers and 10 Navy officers, as well as several international military lawyers – the JAG School creates a community that spans the world, Diner said.

"I was in Afghanistan, and an officer from Holland came up and was looking at me kind of funny," Diner said. "He said, 'I remember you, you taught me in the basic course!'"

Diner attended the JAG School for its basic and graduate courses before returning to teach as a faculty member and eventually becoming dean. Though he completed his undergraduate and law school studies elsewhere, he considers the JAG School his alma mater.

"These are not just students to us," he said. "We're going to be working with them. When they leave here, and we leave here, we're going to be out deployed in a unit somewhere, and they are going to be the soldiers with whom we work."

Miller, who also studied at the JAG School before returning to take its helm, said it serves as a sort of home for the Army JAG Corps – 4,500 active members, all of whom have passed through the school.

"When you get to go to Charlottesville, morale goes up, whether you're coming here for a week's course or longer," he said. "When you get to come here, it really is coming home for us."

The JAG Legal Center and School is planning a commemoration in October to observe its 60th anniversary at U.Va.

— By Rob Seal

Media Contact

Rob Seal

Director of Media Management and Managing Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications