If you are a military member and you get into trouble, you are generally entitled to be represented by an active duty JAG as your defense attorney. You are also allowed to hire a civilian defense counsel. If you hire a civilian defense counsel, you generally have the option of either keeping your active duty defense counsel on your defense team or dismissing them.
An active duty defense counsel gets assigned to help you through a court-martial, Article 15 (non-judicial punishment), or involuntary separation action. An active duty defense counsel may also represent you on smaller adverse actions, including a poor performance report, a letter of reprimand, a promotion delay action, and an administrative demotion action, to name just a few.
So why might a military member want to hire a civilian defense counsel? As a JAG, active duty defense attorneys are likely smart and hardworking (but there are exceptions). More importantly, however, like all attorneys they may be very experienced, very inexperienced, or anywhere in-between. If you do your research and hire a civilian with a track record, then you know you have experience working for you. And that helps maximize your chances. Further, just like with a public defender, your active duty defense attorney works with the same prosecutors and the same command chain at your base all the time. This means that they sometimes have to pick and choose when and for which clients they can be super aggressive for - because they do need to maintain a good relationship with commanders and prosecutors. A civilian defense attorney has no such issues.
Remember, by adding a civilian defense counsel in a UCMJ or other adverse action, then you still have the choice of keeping your active duty JAG as well. This creates a defense team who can work together. This can have loads of benefits – and not just double the resources, double the manpower, and double brainpower. You get diverse attorneys who can edit each other’s work and ideas, which often leads to a better product. Think O.J. Plus, your active duty JAG may have deeper insights into some specific local tendencies and personalities, while your civilian defense counsel has more litigation and courtroom experience.
If you are ever in a situation where your military career or even your life or liberty are at stake, you may want to speak to a civilian defense counsel before going it alone with your military defense counsel. The consult is generally free and it should lay out your options so at least you make an informed decision.