BOSTON -- Maj. Rachel VanLandingham's job sounds like one of the toughest in the military -- persuading law school graduates to pass on high-paying private sector jobs and become Air Force judge advocates for about $40,000 a year.
But VanLandingham, chief of recruiting for the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps, says she often succeeds in luring the bright young lawyers that the military urgently needs. Often, she sells the career by talking face to face with students about the opportunities being a JAG afforded her to travel and make courtroom arguments just two months after passing the bar exam.
"I wish I drove a BMW and I don't, but that's something money can't replace," she said of the experience. "And I can't convey that to a law student without sitting down with them in an interview."
That's why VanLandingham, who works out of the Pentagon, says she is deeply disappointed with a federal appeals court ruling last week that could make it harder for military recruiters to make their case in the nation's top law schools.
The ruling, by the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, invalidates a decade-old -- but only recently enforced -- federal law requiring universities to give the military the same access to students as other recruiters, or forfeit their universities' eligibility for federal research funds. At some schools, that would mean losing hundreds of millions of dollars.
After the Pentagon began strictly enforcing the measure in 2002, the law schools complied, but only under protest. Many contend that, since gays can't serve openly in the armed forces, granting formal access to Pentagon recruiters violates the schools' policies forbidding on-campus recruiting by employers who discriminate on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation.
On Monday, they won a major legal victory when the appeals court ruled 2-1 that the law is an unconstitutional violation of the schools' free speech.
"We're simply applying the same rules to military recruiters that we would apply to any other recruiter," said Kent Greenfield, a Boston College law professor who was active in creating the consortium of law schools the brought the suit. "We'd say the same thing if they only wanted white students or they only wanted men."
A dissenting judge argued the law merely deprives the schools of money, not free speech, since nothing prevents the schools from continuing to protest the Pentagon's policy.
The Justice Department has not indicated whether it will appeal, and several law schools said last week they are still considering how to proceed. But Harvard Law School has announced it will revert to its previous policy of banning the military from formal recruiting access, and other law schools are likely to follow.
That would be a mistake, VanLandingham said.
In the war on terrorism, she said, "it's incredibly vital ... to have the best and brightest and most dedicated soldiers and airmen, and JAGs who are advising them, on everything from implementing the Geneva Conventions to prosecuting our military members who run afoul of the Uniform Code of Military Justice."
The legal battle has focused on JAG recruiting at law schools, largely because that's where the military has pressed the issue and because law schools are required by their accreditation body to have nondiscrimination policies on sexual orientation.
But the ruling applies to colleges in general, and undergraduate career offices and those at other graduate schools would now be free to stop actively assisting the military.
Tom Luzader, director of Purdue University's Center for Career Opportunities and president of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, said most career services offices that have nondiscrimination policies haven't applied them to Pentagon, and he does not expect many to start. Still, they may face pressure to do so.
"It's going to make for some very interesting debate at a lot of institutions, I'm sure," Luzader said.
Opponents of the law said this week they doubt the ruling will impede the military's efforts to recruit top students.
They point out that, before the law was enforced, military recruiters weren't strictly banned and many law students became JAGs; recruiters could still interview students off-campus, or be invited on campus by students or student groups. The schools only refused to facilitate presentations and interviews.
Dean Harold Krent of the Chicago-Kent College of Law, a plaintiff in the case, said he believes military recruiters will actually fare better now because the law that was struck down -- known as the Solomon Amendment -- offended many students and was bad publicity for the military.
VanLandingham said the military shouldn't be relegated to second-class status on campus. Interviews are critical in the highly structured legal recruiting process, she said, and JAGS often tell her the interviews were essential to their decision to join.
"These are people who could start at six figures easy (at a private law firm," she said. "The only way I can answer their questions is to go to the law schools."
On the Net:
Judge Advocate recruiting: http://www.jagusaf.hq.af.mil/