Forbes - Leadership

Leadership Lessons From An Air Force JAG

Leaders make a significant impact on their team’s well-being and motivation. As the leadership conversation continues to take hold in the legal profession, the lessons you’ll learn below about how to develop good leaders in the profession must be considered.

Major Lauren Shure, Deputy Division Chief, Special Victims’ Counsel Division at Joint Base Andrews, was inspired to pursue a career in the military early in life. Her grandfather flew the B-17 Flying Fortress bombers in WWII, and her dad was in the Air Force and deployed to Vietnam. She also knew early on that she wanted to practice law. She read a John Grisham book as a teenager and announced, “I’m going to be a prosecutor,” and her path toward being a lawyer never deviated. Her law school Dean was a retired Admiral and the former Judge Advocate General in the Navy, and with his guidance and mentorship, she applied and was accepted into the Air Force JAG Corps.

After graduating from law school and entering the JAG Corps, Lauren first attended commissioned officer training, where she learned the basics about how to be an officer in the Air Force. After that, she attended the nine-week Judge Advocate Staff Officers Course for additional training about how to practice law in the Air Force. From there, her first assignment was at Moody AFB where she found herself in the courtroom during her first week! While nerve racking to be in court essentially right out of law school, she knew right away that the courtroom was where she wanted to be.

Lauren has held a number of roles during her past 12 years with the Air Force JAG Corps, including prosecuting cases in the Military Justice System, as an Area Defense Counsel doing trial defense work, and later doing appellate defense work, and then as the Deputy Staff Judge Advocate at Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque, NM. She deployed to the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar for six months in 2019 where she advised on combat operations.

In 2013, the Air Force started a pilot program that became the Special Victims Counsel Division, a program specifically designed to make sure military victims of sexual assault had legal counsel specifically trained to empower and advise them during the legal process. In 2015, Congress mandated and adopted the program, and Lauren now provides much of the training and administrative support for this team, comprised of approximately 56 lawyers and 51 paralegals worldwide. 

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Leadership takes time, and the lessons start early

In the military, exposure to leadership concepts and behaviors starts very early – at the beginning of one’s career. Lauren specifically mentioned that the JAG Corps is fantastic at developing leaders before they’re actually in formal leadership positions. New JAG officers are all assigned Chief-related roles, and their teams usually include one or two other lawyers and several enlisted members. The Corps intentionally creates leaders via these informal leadership roles first, and that is coupled with classroom learning. Eventually, she realized that she was leading even though she didn’t have the technical rank of a “leader.” 

In addition, commanding officers trusted and relied on her. Even though a commanding officer has a higher rank, he or she relies on the JAG officer’s expertise, guidance, and counseling – it’s a trusted partnership, where a more senior ranked person heavily relies on the advice and expertise of a more junior-ranked person. This is the opposite of what is found in the legal profession outside of the military.

Good leaders empower, care, and are real

As a result of years of both formal and informal leadership training, Lauren has a specific approach to her brand of leadership: she wants to empower people to do their job to the best of their ability. She prides herself on being open and real, and never asking her people to do anything she wouldn’t do herself. The importance she places on being open and real comes from a personal loss she experienced when she was appellate defense counsel. Lauren and her husband lost a child at 20 weeks. She decided that she needed counseling to get through it, and it was really a defining moment for her. She’s feels strongly that both lawyers and the military need to do a better job of normalizing mental health issues and prioritizing well-being. 

Because the lawyers and legal professionals on her team deal with emotionally charged and sensitive information, it’s easy for their well-being to decline. Using her own experience and the lessons she’s learned, she empowers her team to seek help if and when they need it. They have a tough job in their roles, and she’s clear that strong boundaries are important. According to Lauren, “What people really crave in leadership is realness, caring, and authenticity. These are going to be critical skills as we move forward out of the pandemic.” 

Leadership conversations in other areas of the legal profession need to start much earlier. Her message to the legal profession as a whole is that the process of forming relationships and developing leaders takes a lot of time and intentionality. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it can be counterproductive to try and jam this big process of leadership development into quick/fast moments. She’s been able to develop into the leader and professional she wants to be because she was in a system free of the constraints often found in private practice.

Leaders in law have a unique opportunity in the coming months to help their people re-group after a once-in-a-generation life changing event. How will you demonstrate authenticity, caring, and what it means to be real in your leadership?

Paula Davis is the CEO of the Stress and Resilience Institute, and her book, Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being & Resilience, published by the Wharton School Press, is available now.

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