I was in a similar position as you. While not at a T14, I was at a T25 with two solid Chicago BigLaw offiers. I turned them down for the 2L summer internship and my active duty application.
My reasons for joining, probably like most other officers, are multifaceted.
The first is ideological. I truly believe in service to ones country and I take great honor and pride in holding an Air Force Officer’s Commission. . It seems very few of my peers that share my demographic background have any desire or interest in serving in uniform. While there are no doubt plenty of reasons for this, I think it is BS. So it is both personal and more general, in that someone from my background has enjoyed considerable advantages growing up in this country. I feel that I should be the first one to pay that debt back.
The second relates to alternatives. I have always been someone who makes a “Pro/Con” list when making a big decision. I considered my alternative life in Chicago BigLaw and had far more cons than pros. The pros were the substantial salary, being close to my family and friends, and working in a city that I loved and knew. The cons are the ones that everyone associates with BigLaw: poor quality of life, tedious work for the first few years, high levels of junior associate attrition, etc. None of my friends in Chicago BigLaw loved their jobs; the best case types were the “it could be way worse” crowd and the worst case was truly hating life. They were there for a solid resume line and to pay their debts down.
So it is not like I had the Willy Wonka-esque Golden Ticket and threw it away to serve with the AF. I’m sure I would have been happy enough in a firm but, in my view, I was not making a massive sacrifice in walking away from it. Connected to that relates to my career timeline. The law firms are always going to be there. My window to serve active duty is limited. I can either do JAG now, or never. Private practice, in some form, will always be an option throughout my life. What’s the hurry?
There are also a lot of practical reasons why I joined. I want to be a trial attorney and it is hard to beat the experience JAG provides. A close friend who is an ASJA at Lackland AFB knocked out 16 trials last year. While I’m sure I could get something similar from the State’s Attorney or Attorney General, I decided against working for Cook County/Illinois early on.
I also have no idea what I ultimately want to do. I think I will love criminal trial work (military justice in JAG parlance), maybe I won’t. I’ll be working tort claims, med mal, military ethics, labor, environmental, etc, as a JAG. I think the wide exposure is a good idea in terms of my skills as an attorney but it will also serve me will in fleshing out precisely how I want to focus my career.
You mentioned travel as a reason for joining. While that will be a perk, it was more the fact that JAG forces me to relocate to a different part of the country for 4 years that I liked. I lack the stones to simply pick up and move to a new state, irrespective of the bullshit of getting another law license. JAG takes me out of my comfort zone and will let me experience another part of the country. I doubt I would have ever left Chicago had I gone with private practice. Now I get to spend my late 20s in Las Vegas.
The money thing is a major issue. I’m in decent law debt. I will not have any problems paying this off on my O-2/O-3 salary, but I will not exactly be living large. As the saying goes, you’ll never be rich as an officer, but you’ll always be comfortable. That said, there are tons of monetary perks along the way that take the sting out of the lower salary.
Taxes are a very important thing to consider when deciding between private practice and the military. You will make way more on paper in BigLaw, no question. You will also be in a very high tax bracket. Do the math and see how much your take home paycheck will be.
Military is the inverse. Smaller paycheck on paper but bigger take home. Military pay comes in three forms: Basic Pay, which is fully taxable and then your housing and food allowances (BAH & BAS, respectively), which are not taxable. As a result, you remain in lower tax brackets and get a sizeable amount of money which is 100% tax free. As a second year Captain in Las Vegas (which has a comparatively lower housing allowance compared to major cities like DC) I would make about $46,000 in my basic pay. Take the standard deduction plus loan interest and everything else, and my tax obligations are pretty low. I then get another $19,000 or so, totally tax free and not considered per my W-2. Also keep in mind that I am not paying any state income taxes in Nevada (this also applies to a lot of states: Illinois, Texas, Florida). Again, I’m not going to be living a models and bottles lifestyle with that level of money, but I have a respectable nut left over after all my expenses are accounted for. Take this, in the context of that level of money while serving your country as an armed forces officer, and it’s a great deal (in my opinion). You are also guaranteed annual basic pay raises in the tune of 3.5%-5%.
There are also a lot of other little money savers like next to nothing car insurance, 100% free medical care, incredibly low rates on all forms of loans/mortgages (I’ll be taking advantage of a $25,000 loan from USAA at 2% to get a jump on paying down my loans), etc.
Also consider that you have bullet proof job security. Even my friends in the major Chicago firms (Jenner, Sidley, Winston, Kirkland, Mayer, etc) are shitting their pants right now in this economy. It may get better, it may not, but there is something to be said for a great job that is not subject to the whims of the firm chairman looking to boost his Profits Per Partner in an economic crunch.
This is probably a bit rambling at this point, so I’ll cut it off. Walking away from BigLaw, esp with the options you likely have with a UVa JD, is not easy. For what it is worth, when I was a 2L intern at Wright-Patt AFB, we had to UVa law grads that I ran into working on base.
Feel free to email me (Illini.JAG@gmail.com
) or post other questions, I’ll do my best to get to them.