Sunday, 16 February 2020

Advisor to Advocate Tips for a Smooth Transition from Base Legal to an ADC or SVC Position

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This article was originally published in the 2017 edition of The Reporter, Volume 44, Number 3. Additional resources have been added to enhance the digital version.

“What do you recommend I do?” the Security Forces squadron commander asked me after I advised him on an array of options to discipline a young Airman caught drinking underage in the dorms. In this moment, I felt trusted. I felt needed. I was in my second assignment at a base legal office and I was finally feeling confident in my role as an advisor. I had established relationships. Although each case is unique, I had a working knowledge of the range of discipline that was appropriate in different circumstances.

Fast forward a few months and I am on the phone with a medical squadron commander. I am now a brand new Special Victims’ Counsel (SVC). In a kind tone, the squadron commander tells me he is not going to do what my client wants and there is no more conversation to be had. I hang up the phone and try to compose myself. How did I go from trusted advisor to an annoyance? Squadron commanders used to want to hear from me. They used to call my number when they needed help. And now, here is a squadron commander indifferent to my advocacy.

For the record, many advocates have wonderful relationships with command and I have personally experienced many great interactions with command as an SVC. There are squadron commanders who have embraced my advocacy and made decisions that benefited my clients based on it. Squadron commanders do still call my office. And when you find success as an advocate, there truly is no better feeling. I have come a long way since that phone call with the medical squadron commander. Yet I share that story to highlight the fact that the transition from base legal to advocating for an individual can be difficult. It can be disheartening at times. Below are a few tips I found helpful, especially in my first six months as an advocate, following a base legal office assignment.

In base legal, your primary role is to advise commanders… in your role as an advocate for an individual, your primary duty is to your client.

Know Your Role and Talk to Others About Your Role

This seems simple—know your job, know where you fit in to the process. In reality, it is something you may have to remind yourself of on a daily basis when transitioning from an advisor to an advocate. In base legal, your primary role is to advise command.[1] When you are called upon to make a recommendation, you do so with the best interests of the Air Force in mind. However, in your role as an advocate for an individual, your primary duty is to your client.[2] Once you form an attorney client relationship, you are ethically bound to represent your client’s interests.[3] What your client desires must become what you desire—even if it is not in the best interests of the Air Force. Given this, you need to understand that commanders will likely not do what your client wants them to do if it runs counter to the needs of the Air Force.

This is a shift from what I experienced in the base legal office, where commanders often follow your advice. Knowing that you are representing the best interests of the Air Force and that you have a well-rounded view of military justice norms, they feel comfortable following your recommendation. Although you are not the ultimate decision-maker, this can leave you with a sense that you have a fair amount of control in the ultimate result. Alternately, as an advocate in an Area Defense Counsel (ADC) or SVC role, you must zealously assert your client’s position at different points in the process[4] but you have very little control over the outcome. Nevertheless, once you come to terms with ceding control, advocacy can be liberating.

As you explore your new role as an advocate, it is also important to remember that you still advise—just not to command. You are an advisor to your client. As an advisor, you must provide your client with an informed understanding of his or her legal rights and obligations, and explain the practical implications of such rights and obligations.[5] All of the skills you built advising in a base legal office are just as important in an ADC or SVC position: it may not feel as “important” as when you were an O-5 or O-6’s go-to-JAG, but it is just as important. Embrace the fact that you represent an Airman who is seeking your advice and expertise. To them, you are their protector. That is your role—and it is critical to our justice system. Try not to measure your self-worth based on the rank or gravitas of your client.

Another tip is to make your role clear to the decision-maker. Whether you’re advocating to command, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), or the legal office, one of the worst things that can happen is the decision-maker has no idea what you do or why you’re contacting them. To complicate matters, as Mark Goulston and John Ullmen note in the Harvard Business Review, we often act as if the person we are advocating to is already on our side.[6] This means you explain your role and make it clear that you represent your client’s interests—while also demonstrating you understand the challenges the decision-maker is facing.[7] Understand the barriers the decision-maker has to overcome to get from “A” to “B.” Be prepared to offer solutions that empower the decision-maker,[8] but also benefit your client. As General Stanley McChrystal noted when discussing the military efforts against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), “if we don’t get a culture where [actors are] informed by information and empowered to use their best judgment, we fail.”[9] The same arguably rings true for our military justice system. As discussed above, as an advocate, you must offer solutions, but then cede control of that final result and let the system work.

And for a shameless plug for networking, every opportunity to speak at trainings and briefings is an opportunity to explain your role to decision-makers, potential clients, and military justice actors. Even if you don’t automatically build trust and understanding through these forums, speaking at these events will build your public speaking skills—which are vital for effective communication and leadership.[10]

Stay Positive and Don’t Take Setbacks Personally

To be quite honest, I did take that phone call with the medical squadron commander personally. And I can assure you that doing so only added to the stressors in my life. I complained to my co-workers and husband about it, which made me angrier. I let that commander’s dismissive attitude affect me. With time, I eventually forgot about it and moved on. A few months after that phone call, I was in a situation where I was supposed to meet with him one-on-one about a case. I worked really hard to not give him any indication that I had taken our previous phone call personally. We ended up having a long, productive conversation and now work closely together. He is more responsive to my client’s needs than ever before. If I had refused to meet with him and held a grudge, it would have served as a detriment to my client and my professional development. So even when you feel like the worst advocate ever, try not to hold it against the decision-maker. I truly believe we are all trying to do our best day in and day out. When a decision is made that you disagree with, think about those obstacles that the decision-maker had to overcome to get from “A” to “B.” Try to understand which barrier was too big to overcome, learn lessons from it, and then move on.

As Airmen, we hear a lot about resilience. In fact, we have entire work days dedicated to building resilience. Per the Department of the Air Force, resilience is “the ability to withstand, recover, and grow in the face of stressors and changing demands.”[11] Resiliency is ever-important when you practice advocacy in an ADC or SVC role. One ADC told me that it wasn’t necessarily the courts-martial that weighed heavily on him—but rather the day-to-day battles where a Senior Master Sergeant receives an LOR that the commander decides to place in his Unfavorable Information File (UIF). That Senior Master Sergeant will now not make Chief and he is crying in your office. Or a Staff Sergeant receives a referral Enlisted Performance Report (EPR) for something out of his control, and the commander refuses to meet with you. Those battles begin to weigh on you. It feels like you are constantly swimming against the tide. Find what contributes to your resiliency and practice it. Make time for resiliency-building, whether it is exercise, worship, journaling, etc. You may find that you are a better advocate when you set aside time for activities that build your resilience.

As Abraham Lincoln famously said: “I walk slowly but I never walk backward.”[12] Success may not come easily when you begin to advocate as an ADC or SVC. In fact, it is very likely that you will have to redefine success altogether. Nevertheless, approach each day as an advocate as a new opportunity to do something positive for your client. Try to engage in incremental goal setting and keep progressing forward, no matter what comes your way.

Be Self-Aware

One of the best pieces of professional advice I ever received is to know your boss. If you are emotionally intelligent and self-aware, you can walk in to your boss’s office and be able to tell almost instantly whether it is a good time to approach him or her with an issue or whether you should come back at a different time. As an advocate, it is important to know the habits and tendencies of the person you are advocating to. As trial and defense counsel in a court-martial setting, we meticulously research panel members so we can predict their response to argument and case presentation. We must retain this mindset when we advocate to military justice actors outside of the courtroom in an ADC or SVC role. Research the decision-maker. Talk to their executive officer to get a sense of what he or she responds well to and what they respond negatively to. Try to find out how they like to make decisions. Do they utilize the “OODA Loop”?[13] Do they make lists? Do they prefer to be briefed by various entities or advisors before deciding?

Self-awareness is critical to finding success as a leader[14] and also as an advocate. To be self-aware, you must be aware of yourself and the impact you are having on others.[15] It is vital that you understand the impact your advocacy is having on the decision-maker and know when to push that individual and when to back down. This will set you up for success when you practice advocacy.


With each Permanent Change of Station (PCS) season, many of you will move from the base legal office to an ADC or SVC role. If the transition is difficult for you, know that you are not alone. Learn your role, build your resiliency, and maintain self-awareness at all times. Best of luck to you for a smooth transition and I hope you experience both the personal and professional joy that can come with practicing advocacy on behalf of an individual.

About the Author

Captain Ashley D. Norman, USAF

(B.S., University of Nebraska-Lincoln; J.D., George Mason University School of Law) is a Special Victims’ Counsel assigned to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

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[1] The Judge Advocate General’s School, The Military Commander and the Law p. 10 (2016).
[2] See Model Rules of Prof’l Conduct Pmbl. (Am. Bar Ass’n 2000),
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Mark Goulston & John Ullman, How to Really Understand Someone Else’s Point of View, Harv. Bus. Rev. (22 April 2013),
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Gen. McChrystal on Fighting ISIS, Creating “Radical” Transparency in Military, CBS News (11 May 2015),
[10] See Martin Zwilling, Every Entrepreneur Needs to Master Public Speaking, Forbes (23 November 2012),; see also Audra Bianca, The Importance of Public Speaking Skills within Organizations Chron, (last visited 6 February 2017).
[11] U.S. Dep’t of Air Force, Intstr. 90-506, Comprehensive Airman Fitness, p.14 (2 April 2014).
[12] Kathleen Davis, 10 Inspirational Presidential Quotes, Entrepreneur (15 February 2013),
[13] The “OODA Loop” is a decision-making model that consists of “Observing, Orienting, Deciding, and Acting.” See William S. Angerman, Coming Full Circle with Boyd’s OODA Loop Ideas: An Analysis of Innovation Diffusion and Evolution (March 2004) (unpublished graduate thesis, Air Force Institute of Technology) (on file with the Air Force Institute of Technology),
[14] See Victor Lipman, All Successful Leaders Need this Quality: Self-awareness, Forbes (18 November 2013),
[15] See Nicole Gravanga, Where does Self-Awareness Come From?, Forbes (31 January 2017),; see also Trang Chu, Know Your Strengths to be a More Effective and Successful Leader, Forbes (24 March 2014),

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