Let’s address the obvious question: If the government gives you a free attorney, why should you pay for one? The fact that you’re visiting this site may mean that you already have some sense of the good reasons to hire a firm like ours. We want to address some of the hidden costs of not hiring a good attorney to help you with your military case.
We give a more detailed answer below, but the simple answer is that when you’re up against the government, and the government is trying to take away your job, your freedom, and your future employability, you need the best possible legal defense. With so much at risk, you need an experienced trial attorney to represent you. All things considered, if you lose your case it will cost you significantly more in the long run than it would have cost you to hire an experienced attorney. If you lose at trial you will likely go to jail. In addition, if you lose at trial or at a board you may suffer the following costs:
- You will lose your job
- You will lose out on future jobs
- You will lose your retirement
- You will lose your military housing benefits
- You will lose your medical benefits
- You will lose – or have to pay back – your enlistment bonus
- You will have to pay back the cost of your military academy education
- You may have to register as a sex offender
These concerns may sound extreme, but they’re based on our years of experience with the military justice system. We’re not trying to scare anyone into giving us money. We simply want military members to know about these real costs. Most of the time, the people who call us have never considered these issues. It’s up to you whether, knowing these potential costs, you want to take your best shot by hiring a good civilian attorney, or whether you are comfortable with your appointed counsel alone. But no matter what you eventually decide to do, it’s important to us that you understand these risks fully before making that decision.
Unfortunately, we have to deal with these issues in our line of work, and almost every day we get calls from people who lost a military case, usually by pleading guilty, and have been unable to find work – as many as 30 years later. The bad news for them is that there’s rarely anything you can do to fix your record after a military conviction or OTH separation.
You also need to be aware that you are not necessarily entitled to a free attorney. Often, you won’t get one until you have been charged. Government defense attorneys often can’t make time for people who haven’t been formally notified that they are being charged with a crime or being sent to a separation hearing. Often, appointed attorneys are so busy – in addition to their legal work they need to perform military duties – that they can’t afford the luxury of a consultation for people who aren’t in definite, official trouble. That means that if you haven’t been formally charged or aren’t at least under investigation, you might not be entitled to discuss your situation with a free attorney. This is a serious problem because you need to get yourself an attorney as soon as possible.
You can hire a civilian military lawyer at any time. Ideally, this will be at the first sign of trouble. You should never wait until you have been interrogated or formally charged before talking to a defense attorney. At the first sign of trouble, you should hire an attorney so that you will be defended every step of the way.
What we always advise our clients is this: If investigators arrest you or merely say they want to talk to you, demand to speak to an attorney and refuse to answer questions. Do not fall for any threats or promises. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that by getting a lawyer you’ll only make things worse for yourself or make your commander angry. Do not fall for the promise that if you come clean things will go better for you. No matter how small the case may seem to be, we encourage people to invoke their rights in order to ensure they don’t get taken advantage of, even if they’re innocent.
If you wait until you have been interrogated or have been formally charged to get an attorney, you will be working from a severe disadvantage. The sooner you get an attorney, the better chance you have at derailing the case. Numerous times, we have stopped a case from getting charged. At a minimum, by hiring an attorney you will keep from making things worse for yourself.
Remember that the odds are stacked against you from the beginning. When you go up against the military justice system, you have to realize that it’s not a fair fight: the government has unlimited financial resources and unlimited investigative resources. In spite of the legal presumption of innocence in a court room, you should expect to be presumed guilty by your chain of command and everyone in the legal office. You can’t expect mercy or pity from the prosecution or the command.
You won’t get the benefit of the doubt, and even when the law and the facts are on your side you can’t count on the government to do the right thing. Your congressman won’t care, and neither will the IG, and even if they did care they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
In almost every case, the only real weapon you have is your defense attorney. That doesn’t just apply to people who have been wrongly accused. It applies even more to people who did the crime, even those who admitted it.
Obviously, you want the best possible legal defense. Since you’re visiting this site, we assume you realize that it’s ideal to have an experienced civilian military lawyer lead your defense team, even if you like and trust your appointed counsel. The bottom line is that you’ll have to weigh the costs and benefits of hiring a civilian attorney, just as you have to weigh the costs and benefits of going with your appointed counsel only.
The essential question is whether you can afford a civilian military in the first place. Some people genuinely cannot afford it. Professional, experienced military trial attorneys are not cheap, and it will take a real financial sacrifice to hire one. However, we have found that most people facing serious trouble can find the means to get a good attorney.
It’s extremely rare that a wealthy person will be in the military and almost as rare that a military member will have wealthy parents. The people who hire us and other civilian firms are from working-class families. They’re not loaded with money but they find a way to hire an attorney. They may have to be willing to use their credit cards, reach out to family members, sell their car, or take out a second mortgage. They will have to make real financial sacrifices to hire an attorney, but it can be done, and in most cases it should be done. The costs of not hiring an attorney, which we’ll get to in a moment, are just too high to ignore.
The main reason military members choose not to hire a civilian attorney is that the government provides an appointed attorney to the defendant, free of charge. In civilian justice systems, defendants have to qualify financially in order to get a court-appointed attorney. But in the military, every member is entitled to free appointed counsel. If you’re getting a free attorney, you don’t necessarily have to give up your cars or guitars or HD TV – or call your parents – to pay for an attorney.
However, it is highly unlikely that you will get an appointed attorney with as much skill and experience as a good civilian military attorney. We know of cases in which appointed military attorneys with zero trial experience were assigned to be lead counsel in extremely serious felony-type cases such as murder and child pornography. That’s not good for the military justice system, and it’s not good for you.
We readily acknowledge that there are some excellent appointed attorneys in the military. We learned our trade in the JAG Corps and we’re proud of our ongoing association with JAGs in all branches of service. It’s up to you to determine whether your appointed JAG has the experience and personality you want representing you, but as you make that determination you should take time to weigh your appointed attorney’s background against the background you would have working for you if you hired a good civilian attorney.
You may want to hire a civilian attorney but, as you probably understand, it costs money to do that. Most good firms require between $4,000 and $10,000 as an initial fee. A serious trial can cost more than $25,000 in legal services. Even a special court-martial or administrative hearing can cost more than $10,000. On the one hand, that’s a lot of money. On the other hand, too many military defendants look at the cost of legal services alone and ignore the long-term costs of losing their case.
For example, an E-4 could forfeit $50,000 in pay and benefits if he loses at court, and that’s his loss for only one year and without considering all the other consequences of losing.
As we noted above, if you lose at trial you will likely go to jail. In addition, if you lose at trial or at a board you will suffer these costs:
You will lose your job. For an E-4 with 5 years in service, this would cost approximately $25,000 in lost income alone for only one year. Factor in annual raises for cost of living, years in service, and advancement in rank, and the figure would go up significantly. On the other hand, if that E-4 spends $25,000 on a civilian attorney, wins the case, and stays in the military until his 20-year mark, the cost of saving his career would work out to about $4.50 per day over the remainder of his career in current dollars. It’s impossible to put a dollar figure on what your freedom is worth, but you can use a military pay chart to figure out how much income you stand to lose, based on your rank and years in service.
You will lose out on future jobs. Not only will you lose your current job in the military, but your future job prospects will also be severely limited. Most employers do background checks these days, and a military conviction or OTH separation will show up on the report. For example, if you lose a drug case, you will likely be unable to get a security clearance with any civilian employer. For anyone separated through a court-martial or with an OTH, all of the good work you have done in the military will be cancelled out, so that your years spent in the military will actually become a huge negative on your résumé.
You will lose your retirement. For a senior NCO this will cost several hundred thousand dollars, and in some cases more than a million dollars.
You will lose your military housing benefits. This may include any chance at getting a VA loan. For an active duty family, military housing benefits can be worth between $12,000 and $24,000 per year.
You will lose your medical benefits. Getting medical insurance through a civilian employer or on your own will likely cost more than $12,000 per year.
You will lose – or have to pay back – your enlistment bonus. This could cost you between $4,000 and $80,000.
You will have to pay back the cost of your military education. If you attended a military academy, you will likely have to pay back the full cost of what the government spent on you – a cost that it usually well over $100,000. If you don’t pay, the military can sue you once you have been separated from the military and ruin your credit.
If you lose a case involving a sex offense, you will have to register as a sex offender. In addition to the severe social stigma this will cause, your job opportunities will be extremely limited. You will not be able to live near schools or playgrounds; you will not be able to be around children; your name and address will be plastered all over the internet. The harassment won’t end there, because you will be one of the police’s usual suspects every time there is a sex offense in your neighborhood.
It’s an entirely personal question whether you want to hire a civilian military lawyer and whether you can afford one. We hope the information on our website will help you sort through the issues so that you can make a fully informed decision.
Note: Hiring a civilian attorney won’t guarantee that you’ll win, and no attorney should ever promise how a case will turn out. You can’t guarantee victory by hiring a civilian attorney, and there are appointed attorneys who do very good work and win their fare share of cases. But in our experience, people who choose to hire a good civilian military attorney are generally far better off and have a much better shot than those who don’t.