“I never wanted to count billable hours,” says Marlyss Maxham (JD ’21) of how she saw her legal career unfolding. Now Captain Maxham, this Fowler School of Law alumna is currently stationed on the tropical paradise of Hawaii’s Oahu island and serving in the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG). “More than anything, I wanted a work-life balance and to avoid the corporate rat race,” Maxham says.
This isn’t the sort of thing you might typically expect to hear from an aspirant lawyer fresh out of law school and seeking to make their mark on the world; then again, Maxham is not your typical law graduate. It is clear from the outset of our interview that this recent Fowler School of Law graduate has always aspired to a career of service over the trappings of the corner office in the corporate high-rise and a fancy title. Say what you will, this ambition first saw her seek out a suitable role in the Department of Justice at the federal court level and, when the opportunity she had hoped for did not materialize, she applied for the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, a great fit for a smart graduate who values community, continued learning and a supportive environment for her law career as firmly as she does.
Soldier first, lawyer always
However, a military career can be tough–it requires becoming a soldier. One of Maxham’s initial obstacles was rising to the challenge of balancing soldiering with being a highly educated legal mind at the same time. “The JAG Corp. motto is ‘Soldier first, lawyer always,’” she quips. She remarks on how humbling it was to have gone through her formative training with younger, less worldly-wise recruits who already had an appreciation for the army and how it gets things done. With time and experience, she explains, this initial humbling and return to “square one” in basic training has become a vital learning for her, supporting her daily in work where she advises much more senior officers and VIPs with her legal opinion. The most striking thing about this is how easily the JAG Corps take the opinions of both Captain Maxham the soldier and Marlyss Maxham the lawyer to heart in weighing their own leadership decisions–daily decisions that will affect the lives of many of the men and women under their command.
Maxham explains that one of the principal advantages of a role in JAG is that the education you receive as a practicing lawyer is broad, and there is more flexibility than you might initially anticipate in a military career. She is quick to point out that there is both space for a generalist where, “you need to know a little bit of everything,” as well as space for a specialized focus that draws on particular disciplines and specialties, if that is more your speed. Either way, the support from the JAG corps is nothing short of astonishing–from specialized soldiering programs through aspects of legal praxis, there is little a JAG officer like Maxham–currently working her way through cases in administration law–won’t be exposed to should she choose to pursue one particular career path or another.
A sense of community and a supportive environment
Maxham concedes that this level of support and career guidance was not entirely alien to her. She hymns her praises of Dean Park’s unfaltering guidance and support throughout her JAG application process and, indeed, throughout her entire J.D. degree at Fowler School of Law. “Thank goodness for Dean Park,” she adds–respect and gratitude bubbling up in equal measures, “She was behind me from my first week at Chapman and really helped me structure my entire JAG application with confidence.” For a former student who puts as much stock in community and a supportive working environment, going from the small, tight-knit law faculty at Fowler School of Law to the JAG Corps seems to have had many points of resonance for Maxham.
I ask her what she has made of the often-cited glass ceilings and barriers to entry in this traditionally male-dominated arena. Maxham chuckles at my naivete and, it seems, it’s my turn to be humbled. “Most of those barriers had been broken long before I got here,” she points out, “I’m not paving the way forward as much as benefitting from the efforts of the pioneering women who came before me.” This comment alone serves as some testament to the way the military has matured to welcome and accommodate its female personnel, affording them not only a real and vital career path but also a vibrant and supportive community within which to launch their law careers.
It’s not every day you meet someone who seems so truly at home in themselves, not least someone who is still at the start of their career, still building experience and shoring up knowledge of the world. Maxham may have just graduated law school, basic training and still be a relatively junior JAG lawyer, but there is no doubt that she has found both a trajectory and the quiet confidence that will make former teachers blush with pride and peers tinge with envy. This soldier is surely going places.