New recruit // Best Practices

Fitness tests and pistol practice aren’t typical requirements for in-house counsel. But for JAG lawyer Dorothy Liang, it’s all part of her basic training

By Ryan Starr

On Monday November 30th, 2009

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Dorothy LiangIt’s a Friday afternoon at CFB Borden and Lt.(N) Dorothy Liang is behind the wheel of her navy blue Chevy Impala, giving a visitor a tour of the Canadian Forces’ largest training facility. But even as she points out the sprawling base’s hot spots — mess hall, movie theatre, pub — Liang acknowledges she’s not a typical recruit. Her tastes, she says, tend more toward shopping than target practice. “I’m a city girl,” she adds. “I don’t like dirt.”

Fortunately for Liang, 28, she’s seldom required to get dirty. As a Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer, she serves as an adviser to the Forces on a range of legal matters, including administrative, disciplinary and operational law. JAG officers can also be designated to act as prosecutors and defence lawyers in military tribunals. These duties vary depending on the posting so that JAG officers do a variety of jobs during their careers. “We can’t specialize like other lawyers,” Liang says. “The goal is to become a self-sufficient legal unit that can be deployed into a theatre of operations.”

An Ottawa native, Liang graduated from University of Toronto law school in 2006. While at U of T, she rediscovered the TV series JAG, an adventure drama about elite legal officers who travelled the globe getting to the bottom of crimes in the U.S. military. The show so piqued her interest that after she graduated, she applied to article at Canada’s real JAG office in Ottawa.

The JAG branch accepts only a handful of new members each year, some from within the military and some already called to a provincial bar. Liang was one of only two civilian articling students the year she was hired. The work presents some unique challenges. “As a junior lawyer and a junior officer, it can feel awkward to tell an experienced senior officer, ‘Sir, there is no legal authority for doing that,’” Liang says. “But so long as we’ve done our homework, we have the freedom to provide independent legal advice, even if it displeases the non-legal chain of command.”

On top of their legal advisory duties, JAG officers instruct courses on military justice and the law of armed conflict. They must also ensure their training is up to snuff. “We have to maintain our qualifications in fitness, rifle, pistol, gas-mask drills and first aid,” Liang says.

Still, the lifestyle suits her. “I usually don’t work weekends or late nights,” she says. Mainly though, it’s the variety and adventure of the job that is most appealing. After her first posting in Ottawa, Liang was sent to Borden to fill in for an officer on deployment in Afghanistan. “I like the idea of being posted to different places every few years so I don’t get bored,” she says.

Now, being sent overseas is a top priority. When in theatre, a JAG officer might advise a battle group or mentor local officials as they develop their own system of justice. “I hope to go in the next couple of years,” Liang says. “Afghanistan or Congo would be really exciting.”

The Lowdown: Lt. (N) Dorothy Liang
Employer: The Canadian Navy
Year of Call: 2007
First Job: Working as a face painter with a company in Kanata, Ont.
Proudest Moment: Any time I take a risk and put myself out there to get what I want
Worst Course in Law School: Property law
Greatest Frustration: People who aren’t up front with you
Favourite Law Movie: Legally Blonde
Personal Style: Soulful but practical, deliberate but easy