Some press reports estimate that up to one in four of the army’s lawyers face being cut. And the overall picture for the army is one of drastically reduced headcount – the Ministry of Defence’s Future Force 2020 plans will see the army cut 20,000 regular soldiers by 2020, with the number of regular soldiers set to fall to 82,000. Last year, during the second completed phase of cuts, four Army Legal Services lieutenant colonels applied for voluntary redundancy.

But even at a time of falling overall headcount, new recruits are still needed – and in the case of the ALS, the attractions of the role remain as strong as ever. The fallout from some army controversies have even served to expand the ALS’s responsibilities.

Upholding standards

The ALS comprises the British army’s own uniformed legal advisers, part of the Adjutant General’s Corps, a specialist all-officer unit consisting of lawyers from across the UK. Some 130 personnel, commanded by Major General Mike Conway, give legal advice to the army chain of command and provide operational legal support – and training – in theatre, provide prosecutors for the Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA), and give personal legal advice for soldiers and their families when deployed overseas.

They provide an important service for army personnel in ensuring that their actions are lawful under UK and international law. This advice has increased in importance given past cases of abuse, such as that of Iraqi receptionist Baha Mousa who was killed in British military custody 10 years ago. Following a 2011 inquiry into Mousa’s death, the then Chief of the General Staff, Sir Peter Wall, undertook to learn the lessons of the ‘shameful circumstances’ of the death, saying it cast a ‘dark shadow’ over the army’s reputation.

These lessons include advice by army lawyers about avoiding the unlawful treatment of detainees, and claimant lawyers acknowledge the role such lawyers play in ensuring that abuses are prevented. The role of the ALS has thus been widened, dealing with that inquiry and subsequent other Iraq investigations, as well as supporting operations such as those in Afghanistan and Libya.

Before such advice can be given, however, new entrants must become soldiers first and solicitors second. Gabrielle Lee is one young lawyer who swapped her business suit for service dress. Having studied at the University of Sheffield and BPP Law School, before training at Bolton-based legal aid firm Joe Egan Solicitors, Lee joined the ALS as a captain. She decided to join the army after qualification, as the army only accepts fully qualified lawyers. She had first considered a military career at university.

Not wishing to make a definite commitment until her training contract was complete, it gave her ‘more than just the chance to demonstrate my legal ability. It also asked for extra and additional qualities as well’. For all potential applicants, these qualities are tested by a rigorous Selection Board, before attending the professionally qualified officer course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst – a 10.5 week version of the full commissioning course that regular officer cadets do.

Lee says: ‘We do the same exercises, drills, lessons that they do, from weapons-handling and learning how to shoot to leadership training. It is an intense experience, quite emotional at times, but it is designed to test you and to develop your abilities to lead soldiers under pressure.’ Like Lee, Irwin Mitchell senior associate Andrew Buckham, who served in the ALS, had no real military background, but says it appealed ‘because it was something completely different and offered life experiences which in private practice you would never get the opportunity to do’.

Learning to lead

After Sandhurst, Lee’s first posting was to 29 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps, deployed on Operation Tosca – the UN peacekeeping mission to Cyprus – in the buffer zone between both Cypriot communities, for three months. Justin McClelland, a former ALS officer and now a dispute resolution partner at City-based Winston & Strawn, recalls: ‘You are exposed to a high level of responsibility at an early stage in a military career, no matter whether you are a frontline officer or in the ALS.’

Lee admits ‘it can be quite challenging as a new officer looking up at the faces of 82 soldiers, all of whom are looking for you to give orders and lead’. As second-in-command, she was occasionally responsible for the whole squadron. Classic in-house legal skills come in handy, McClelland says: ‘Giving advice succinctly is a prerequisite. You learn this early on in a military career. Giving orders is not a time for verbosity.’

What comes through the door

The scope of where one works is broad – Buckham served in Germany, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Balkans, and had a six-week exchange programme with the Canadian army. McClelland says while he was primarily based in the UK – including Northern Ireland – he served in Cyprus, Kuwait, Iraq, East Timor and the Balkans, as well as working visits to the US, Brunei and Australia.

All such careers start in roughly the same way. Lee’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ian Dreelan, spent his own post-Sandhurst training with the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, before doing a tour in advisory work, then operations, and finally prosecutions, the three main areas ALS covers. At HQ 3(UK) Division in Bulford, Wiltshire, there are five lawyers and three civilian clerical staff, with an SO2 (major) and an SO3 (captain) in Afghanistan, with another SO2 going out shortly.

Dreelan says there are also opportunities to work with other lawyers operationally at the Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood in Middlesex, as well as in the MoD’s Main Building in London, alongside civilian policy and legal staff. Usually though, Lee explains, ‘we support the legal function across an army division, which covers a large area in terms of both size and personnel, and the regiments and battalions within the chain of command’. She says her work could be on a criminal case, general advisory work, or responding to a civil claim, ‘anything that might come through the door or the phone’.

On the criminal side, Dreelan says ‘the development available in the [Service Prosecuting Authority] has been good for our lawyers’. The SPA is the tri-service prosecuting authority which brings together lawyers from all three services – army, navy, and air force – to carry out military justice as prosecutors in courts martial. ‘They rapidly pick up a caseload of criminal law, which can arise anywhere where soldiers are, and once they are acclimatised to the work develop their skills further, including advocacy,’ Dreelan explains.

While Lee had good prior experience of criminal law, her colleague, Major Patrick Larkin, who had not, says: ‘I was soon very familiar with it, from very simple hearings to prosecuting courts martial, which built up my experience.’ So much so that Larkin applied for higher rights of audience, and joined the Law Society’s human rights committee. Dreelan has also enjoyed similar benefits, having studied for an LLM at the London School of Economics, obtained an MA in defence studies, and taken the higher command course at Staff College.

No normal working day

Working as a military lawyer necessarily means serving in operational theatres. Lieutenant Colonel Ian Dreelan served with UN forces in Kosovo in 2002 and in Afghanistan in 2006, as part of 16 (Air Assault) Brigade’s force HQ in support of Operation Herrick IV, in what was one of the Afghanistan campaign’s fiercest periods.

He also served as legal adviser to 19 (Light) Brigade on Operation Telic IX in post-war Iraq, as well as in Cyprus, as legal adviser to UK forces.

Major Patrick Larkin, who has done several operational tours, as well as having prior military service as an infantry officer, notes: ‘It’s a 24/7 operation – day and night – so there is no truly normal "working day" and the range of issues is truly varied. The pressure can be unrelenting, in terms of time and responsibility. People want your answer there and then.’

Dreelan adds: ‘As a military officer as much as a lawyer, you are fully involved in the planning cycle for operations… the work is often done at relentless pace.’

Risk management

Soldiers all accept the risk of harm, Larkin says: ‘Your awareness of risk depends on the theatre you’re in and the bases you are attached to.’ He adds: ‘We are trained to deal with risks. You can’t remove all risk on deployment, [being] exposed to risks such as improvised explosive devices or indirect fire. We have to travel, for example, on a convoy. Those are the same risks for soldiers acting as infantry, for example, but we are exposed to that risk much less frequently.’ To him, ‘you have the training and equipment, know what to do if situations arise as the infantry do, and carry out threat assessment as any other soldier should’.

McClelland notes: ‘Whether you arrive to give your advice in a helicopter, or carrying a weapon, ultimately you are there to give advice to commanders or soldiers. Much of your time is therefore spent at a desk in preparing to give that advice.’ And that advice is valued. Army lawyers have received their own share of honours and awards, with Colonels Darren Stewart and David Wakefield both awarded the OBE and Colonels Richard Batty and Charlie Barnett both awarded the MBE.

Army family

The intensity of operations can carry its own costs. The prosecutorial side of the ALS picks up the costs of confrontations between soldiers garrisoned from Colchester to Catterick, while the advisory side is similarly busy. John Hartley, an associate, at Mackrell Turner Garrett, and a member of the Association of Military Lawyers, says: ‘The most common cause of work for armed forces personnel is when they come back from theatre.’ However, he notes, the army ‘is now doing a lot better’ with ‘decompression’ sites such as one in Cyprus, where service personnel spend time after operations, before flying home. He also notes ‘there are also sadly a high number of divorces’.

McClelland’s emphasis is mature, saying that for all of the enjoyment, like any military role, the ALS requires compromise on family life, as ‘in many ways the best part of military life – operations – is also the worst part of military life’. He stresses: ‘You enjoy a real sense of camaraderie and sense of purpose but you are away from your family and friends for extended periods.’ Larkin adds: ‘A military community is a different form of community, but it’s still a community. We are moved around – postings usually last two to three years at a time. You meet lots of people who crop up again as you are posted, so there are familiar faces.’

Future operations

On service cuts, Dreelan acknowledges ‘no one has been immune from the process of change… especially as we address the structures we are there to support, which are also changing’. His Division (HQ 3(UK) Division) will become the Reactive Force HQ for the army, covering three brigades and planning for contingency operations. The ALS, like the rest of the regular army, he says, will ‘roll with the punches’.

He is optimistic as to the future, though: ‘We dealt successfully with the consequences of work coming to us from the former divisions from Edinburgh, Shrewsbury and Aldershot as HQ 2 Division, HQ 5 Division and HQ 4 Division have disbanded. Our job is to map what the needs are accurately; find out what can be supported – and do the best we can to do so,’ he concludes.

Ben Rigby is a freelance journalist