Law: A lawyer's call to arms: Daniel Hayes looks at the different approaches involved in pursuing a legal career with the services

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The sword is not part of a lawyer's usual armoury, except when he or she belongs to the armed forces.

The recruitment of lawyers varies depending on the service. The Army and the Royal Air Force both have full-time designated legal branches, and recruit already qualified lawyers. The Royal Navy, on the other hand, sends existing officers for legal training. Once qualified, naval lawyers find themselves working throughout the service.

'This system works for us,' says Captain Jack Bayliss, chief naval judge advocate. 'We already know the Navy backwards, and when we are doing legal work it gives us a lot of credibility with our customers.'

As an example, the flag officer at Plymouth naval base has, as his legal officer, a barrister whose previous job was as a ship's supply officer. Captain Bayliss does recognise the potential problems in this system.

'We have to pedal a bit harder than our counterparts in the other services,' he says. 'If you've had time away from a legal job, you may not be as current in your knowledge as you could be.'

Both the Army and RAF look to avoid such difficulties by their use of specialist legal branches. Even so, lawyers are not thick on the ground. There are 55 members of the Army Legal Service (ALS), while the RAF has just 20 qualified legal personnel. All are commissioned officers.

Recruitment policies in the Army and RAF are similar and, despite the lucrative lure of private practice, neither service wants for volunteers. In 1992, for example, the ALS had 250 applicants for just two places. Of these, 60 made it to an initial interview and the last eight were then dispatched to the Army's officer selection board at Westbury in Wiltshire.

Here, potential Army lawyers are put through a series of written and oral legal tests. If successful in these exercises, a recruit is first taken for a three-week induction course, in which uniforms are issued and basics - such as how to salute - are taught. Then it is on to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, or in the case of the RAF, to its equivalent college at Cranwell.

Here, lawyers are once again steered away from the rigours that characterise traditional military training. Instead, they join a more genteel course for professionally qualified officers, working alongside doctors, dentists and padres.

The process lasts four weeks for Army lawyers, who are then dispatched to an infantry regiment to learn about what happens at the sharp end of military life. This is a three-month process in which the ALS officer has no legal role, but is given nominal command of an infantry platoon - about 30 men - and participates in the regiment's regular exercises. The point of this is to gain understanding of the soldiers' work. As one ALS officer says: 'You will be advising soldiers, so you have to respect them.'

It is only after this training that the officer receives his or her first legal posting, becoming the junior member of an ALS team attached to a military headquarters in the UK or overseas.

Legal officers work in Germany, Cyprus, Hong Kong and Belgium, and can expect to be posted to any areas where the British Army is involved. Six officers are in Northern Ireland; four went to the Gulf.

There is no one currently in Bosnia, where the legal complexities of the situation are dealt with by lawyers attached to the United Nations. A war situation changes the emphasis of the role of lawyers. They may continue to deal with personal affairs, but are also called upon to advise on the conduct of operations and the implementation of conventions. 'Our system is structured to cope with war,' Captain Bayliss says, 'and we must ensure that international law is not broken.'

In the early days of a forces lawyer's career, the work may vary from the simple - such as advising a commander on a minor breach of discipline - to the complex, for instance prosecuting a serious offence in a court martial.

In the Army, defence work is unlikely to enter the equation, with errant soldiers normally represented by civilian lawyers. In the Navy, however, things are different.

The requirements of history have put more legal authority in the hands of naval commanding officers, so it is only the more serious cases that go to court martial. Here the prosecution is always carried out by a naval barrister, and the defendant has the option of being defended by another, free of charge. Most take up the option.

Naval barristers do not become involved in matrimonial cases, which provide an important slice of work for their counterparts in the Army and RAF. Lacking both professional indemnity insurance and special expertise, this work is referred to civilian solicitors.

Seniority as a lawyer in the forces brings a more prestigious range of activities. Senior Army officers become advisers on general legal matters. These include petitions to the Army board - the highest court for military grievances - concerning, for example, racial or sexual harassment, or appeals against court martial rulings. Senior lawyers also advise on rewriting Army regulations and, every five years, help to update the Army Act.

The Navy, with its more generalised approach, uses senior legal officers in roles that may encompass a whole range of administrative and planning duties. In addition, senior naval barristers are encouraged to become assistant recorders.

'This gives us cross-training on sentencing and additional expertise in running trials which we might not otherwise get,' Captain Bayliss says. 'In return, the Lord Chancellor's Department has access to people who can provide judicial time beyond that offered by full-time circuit judges.'

For lawyers leaving the forces, history suggests that employment prospects are good. The ALS boasts among its former members the first insurance and unit trusts ombudsmen, while the Navy numbers six circuit judges among former legal officers.

In the future, forces lawyers are likely to have to come to terms with many of the major changes that will be affecting their civilian counterparts. Recent unfair dismissal cases involving servicewomen who have become pregnant may be just the tip of the iceberg as far as military lawyers are concerned.

(Photograph omitted)