“Oh, there was never a Plan B,” alumni Mandi Ford (JD ’18) chuckles on a Zoom call from her Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) office at Fort Riley, Kansas, “even before my bar results came in, I was packing for the Army.” In part, it was the intrigue and promise of adventure, as this native Idahoan hoped she “would never be in one place for too long.” In part, she had a solid hunch that a private sector law firm would not be the right fit for her, ultimately, she says, “I needed to do something meaningful, and nothing else seemed like it would be.” In the four short years since joining the Army’s JAG Corps Ford’s wish never to be stationed in one place for very long has been granted–and then some.

After her first taste of basic training at Fort Moore, Georgia, “To learn Army stuff,” for six weeks; she jetted off to Charlottesville, Virginia, to attend the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School–for a crash course in military compliance and the law; then she packed up again for her first duty assignment in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri; next, she was off to a base in Poland to advise more senior leaders on the laws of international armed conflict, not to mention the daily active duty drills and constantly keeping one watchful eye on the escalating war in Ukraine, then finally flying back stateside to Fort Riley, Kansas, where the enlisted members of The Fighting First currently draw on Captain Ford’s extensive legal expertise in all matters military.

“The JAG Corps is built for attorneys; they want good people. They will train you and they will help you find your specialty. With every role I’ve had in JAG, the Army has given me the opportunity and the time to become competent in that role.”

Ford is candid about her duties with the Army JAG Corps, where a typical day can involve anything from helping soldiers with landlord-tenant issues to drafting wills to drafting divorce documents and interpreting court papers. Ford gives a resigned shrug on this last point, “Soldiers can sometimes get married too young,” she nods solemnly, pointing out an unfortunate yet routine complication of military life. For many at the start of their military careers, Ford has regularly been typecast as a friendly lighthouse in a storm of unintelligible legal red tape. However, it is not only new recruits who rely on Ford’s legal expertise but commanding officers too, particularly for administrative investigations and admin law. Ford peppers me with examples of the sticky questions commanding officers sometimes bring to her: Can commanders accept gifts? If so, from whom? Should the Army court-martial a soldier or simply negotiate a discharge? Is adultery a crime in the army? Yes, Ford tells me, it is, as it “has a direct effect on morale and good order.” Ford’s report on the life of a JAG officer is clear: There is never a shortage of legal “banana skins” to slip up on in the U.S. military. Regardless of whether you are a high-ranking general or a humble recruit–JAG officers like Mandi Ford are essential to the Army’s mission, working with, “things you never thought you’d ever see in practice,” Ford adds.

These days her role as trial counsel is squarely focused on court-martials and prosecutions where she manages the government’s burden of responsibility in the military courts, a stark contrast to her time in Poland, where she found herself steeped in daily Intel reports about the ever-escalating conflict in neighboring Ukraine, while constantly training for any potential attack on NATO ally Poland. “But this is why I joined,” she adds, “I wanted to serve, I wanted to be in the fight.”

Ford’s first taste of the JAG Corps came during her 2L year with the offer of a paid internship courtesy of the U.S. Army.  The experience left her with an enduring sense of community and connection, and an understanding that in the Army, “We’re all part of the same mission–you fail if the mission fails–so everyone works together to get it done.” It’s something that fits closely with Ford’s style as a lawyer, preferring the journey of discovering the right answer to always having it to hand. It’s the team effort Ford finds most satisfying about her current role in the JAG Corps, the built-in support, and the ability to draw on the wealth of experience of other JAG officers is an essential component of her job satisfaction. In spite of the support, Ford is clear, JAG is by no means a cakewalk. “It can be tough,” she offers, “like when you are prepping for a trial, but you also have a PT exam to pass or need to present at 6 a.m. the next morning!” Although this seems to be exactly the kind of challenge Ford signed up for, confessing that “I was never disillusioned after getting to the Army… even on my worst day here I’ve never thought for a minute that I won’t do the full twenty years.”

Ford’s aspirations for the next two decades of her career all point to learning the ropes of leadership and mentoring younger JAG officers. “I hope to lead a whole office of attorneys someday,” she says, “In JAG, that’s the role of a ‘full-bird’ Colonel but I want to be that leader and mentor.”

After her first taste of international law in Poland, Ford is also itching to work with NATO again, to lawyer and lead on an international stage. Still, the practical modesty of this “small-town Idaho girl” seems to lend her a levelheadedness you simply can’t buy, and balances her career expectations, “In the Army, they say, you have to saw the wood in front of you,” she adds humbly, reflecting on the rigorous career path ahead. Coincidentally, it is this very career path that recently brought her back to the Fowler School of Law, in her role as a JAG recruitment officer, to present her own experience of the JAG Corps and Army life to students interested in taking their law degree into the military.

Her return to Chapman as a JAG officer was a significant career highlight for her, “I might not have joined JAG were it not for Chapman Law and the JAG recruiters coming to the Career Service Office each year,” she points out. Ford recalls her own anxieties as a student–never sure if she was doing enough, not especially confident in her abilities as a networker, and not being part of the moot court or mock trial teams left Ford wondering if she shouldn’t be doing more to be accepted by the JAG Corps. Years later, her presentation to Fowler students rests on a thorough debunking of her earlier anxieties as a law student, “If I can do this,” she says unequivocally, “you can do this.”

“The JAG Corps is built for attorneys; they want good people. They will train you and they will help you find your specialty. With every role I’ve had in JAG, the Army has given me the opportunity and the time to become competent in that role.”

From Ford’s experience working in both the law and the military, any hackneyed portrayal of military life derived from TV or cinema is a far cry from the modern experience of today’s military. The JAG Corps is an organization Ford describes at times fairly, at others fondly, and always as the sort of work environment where she can achieve the many high expectations she has for her career. We are looking forward to hearing more about the exploits of this young, seemingly fearless, legal leader.