John Siemietkowski credits the Army with giving him his first law experience. An ROTC scholarship helped him graduate from Georgetown University and eventually Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law. His work as a judge advocate put him in a federal court as a special assistant U.S. attorney just a few years out of law school. Coupled with his experiences as a judge, litigating with the military led him to working in Afghanistan as NATO counter-corruption director and to his current roles as a trial attorney with the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and a lecturer on government contracts.
The recently retired Army JAG spoke with the Texas Bar Journal about law school, his faith in the jury system, and how lawyers should be themselves in the courtroom.
Let’s start with your experiences in the military. When did you join the Army and what was your motivation?
In 1980, as a college freshman at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., I received a four-year ROTC scholarship, which I used to pay for college with the intention of eventually serving my four-year obligation and then leaving the military. So, we see how that’s worked out!
Did you go in for JAG initially?
Pretty much. Upon college graduation in 1984, I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Military Intelligence Corps. I never served in that branch, however, electing instead to defer my commitment in order to attend law school, which I did at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law.
What expectations did you have upon joining?
I expected to have lots of hands-on experience in my early JAG career, which I did. As a special assistant U.S. attorney at Fort Hood, I was trying cases in U.S. District Court only three years out of law school.
What was the process like?
Like those with no ROTC background, I had to apply to the JAG Corps. I remain grateful that they accepted me.
Before joining the military, what was your law experience? Where did you earn your law degree?
Aside from clerking different places in D.C. and New Jersey during law school at Catholic U, the Army provided my first law experience. I was on active duty for about 12 and a half years, in private practice in Dallas for two years, active duty again for four years, and a reservist since joining the Department of Justice, or DOJ, in 2002. I retired from the Army on February 1.
What can you tell me about your experience with Operation Resolute Support?
Spending a year at Resolute Support, or RS, in Kabul, Afghanistan, was the most challenging— and most rewarding—experience of my professional career. The difficulties of being away from family combined with a grueling work pace were more than compensated by the sense of service and accomplishment—and amazing camaraderie.
What is the Afghan Anti-Corruption Justice Center and what did helping sustain it entail? Was that part of Operation Resolute Support?
The idea of the Anti-Corruption Justice Center, or ACJC, was conceived by my predecessor at Resolute Support, along with representatives of the British Embassy and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA. President Ashraf Ghani decreed it into law in June 2016, and it officially opened just before I arrived in early October 2016. The idea was to dedicate a court to prosecuting high-level corruption among government and private defendants. It is outside downtown Kabul, away from potential influence by Parliament, Ministries, and the Palace. Gosh, I could write 100 pages describing how we helped sustain it. We—primarily the three entities above, but also the U.S. Embassy and other members of the international community—worked with the ACJC logistically and substantively. Logistically, the United Kingdom spent approximately $2 million to build the ACJC a new facility. We provided security advice, and members of the international community ponied up money for security screening equipment and other material. Substantively, we encouraged the Afghan prosecutors to assemble evidence and begin bringing cases. We also had many discussions with prosecutors and judges to ensure the ACJC was operating within its jurisdictional limits. Along with frequent meetings between individual international entities and the ACJC leadership, the international community as a whole also often met with the ACJC leadership at sessions led by UNAMA.
What prepared you for that?
Honestly, every job I ever had before deploying to Afghanistan prepared me for my role as NATO counter-corruption director. Whether working in our Paris embassy, presiding over cases as a judge, interacting with clients in private practice, teaching at the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, and litigating cases in federal court, each experience contributed greatly to our achievements in Afghanistan.
In what role do you serve with the Department of Justice? How did you join the DOJ and when?
Since 2002, I have been a trial attorney in the DOJ’s Commercial Litigation Branch. I very much enjoy our nation-wide practice, as well as teaching trial skills at our National Advocacy Center in South Carolina.
Do you see any crossover with your work in the Army and the DOJ?
There is tremendous crossover between practicing law in the Army and litigating for the DOJ. Both institutions demand that attorneys be quick learners and hard workers. Additionally, both entities expect attorneys to work independently, while also providing strong professional support networks.
What are the key things you go over when you teach government contracts and trial advocacy? What are the most important things students need to know?
When teaching government contracts, I emphasize fundamental distinctions with commercial and private contracts. For instance, in government contracts, the concept of “apparent authority” is virtually non-existent; students are surprised to learn that only those with “actual authority” can bind the government. In trial advocacy, I stress the importance of students being themselves in the courtroom; sure, we all can improve certain skills, but we shouldn’t try to change our personalities once we step before the bar.
At any point in your career, what is the single most important piece of advice you’ve received?
It’s hard to pick just one. I’ve been lucky to have several great mentors at various points of my career, whether in private practice, in the Army, or at the DOJ. I guess one that sticks out is an old adage, “Saw the wood in front of you.” Work hard at whatever task you’re given.
Of all the cases you’ve worked on either as an attorney or presided on as a judge, which is the one that stands out the most to you?
Again, it’s hard to choose just one. I once presided over a trial at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in which the defendant was on a prolonged absence without leave, or AWOL. After pleading guilty, he elected to have a jury hear his sentencing case. I expected a harsh sentence. However, once these hardcore paratroopers heard him explain how he went home to care for his mom in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood and then rode a Greyhound bus back to North Carolina to rejoin his unit, they sentenced him to confinement but allowed him to stay in the Army. That seemed just and reaffirmed my faith in our jury system. Here at the Justice Department, litigating the Cobell Indian trust funds case (one of the largest class actions ever filed against the United States) for many years taught me a great deal about teamwork and perseverance.
What does it take to be a great lawyer in the military?
In my personal opinion, attitude, work ethic, and smarts, probably in that order.
What would you tell a person who is considering a military law path?
It is a great career, even if only for a few years, yet you must recognize that, like any job, it has its drawbacks. Probably no other career will give you so much experience and responsibility so soon after law school. You will also have chances to live in and travel to some amazing places, which you might otherwise not visit. On the other hand, the Army tells you what your job will be and where you will live. Moreover, even with the great experiences, dodging car bombs and rocket attacks in Kabul is not for everyone.