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Joining the Law Office of Jocelyn C. Stewart

By Jaclyn C. Grieser

As a new attorney with the firm, I thought my first post should explain how I came to join the Law Office of Jocelyn C. Stewart.

It was a gray day in the late fall of 2016, when Ms. Stewart called me at my desk. At the time I was serving as the Chief of Military Justice for The U.S. Army Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and Fort Leonard Wood. Ms. Stewart was helping an Officer client with a GOMOR rebuttal and it was my job to package the action and advise the Staff Judge Advocate on what I thought his filing recommendation to the Commanding General should be—filed locally and the GOMAR would have minimal impact on the Officer’s career, filed in AMHHRs and the Officer’s days in the service were numbered. Week after week, I would see the stock GOMOR rebuttals and wondered how Ms. Stewart was going to attack the near certainty that the reprimand would be filed in her client’s AMHHRs. After submitting dozens of pieces of evidence: sworn affidavits of witnesses and other documents, including a sworn statement from her client and a memorandum advocating her client’s position, Jocelyn earned her Officer client a locally filed GOMOR and a chance at a future in the U.S. Army.

I’ve known Jocelyn since the Summer of 2006 when my Trial Defense Office traveled from Hanau to Kaiserslautern, Germany to observe portions of the gang initiation murder trials that Ms. Stewart was prosecuting. It was tight seating in the courtroom, and I remember the Government’s “Gang Culture” expert, sitting directly in front of me. The expert, a bigger man, struggled to look comfortable in a suit he obviously didn’t wear often, while trying to use the remnants of a torn paper towel to mop the sweat from his forehead. At this point in my career I had observed my fair share of trials but the oppressive heat wasn’t why this particular court-martial stood out to me—it was Ms. Stewart’s command of the courtroom. Everything about her mannerisms, tone and movements about the courtroom, said that this was her space—her home. The panel sat a little straighter and gripped their note taking pens a little tighter every time she stood to speak. It was obvious to everyone in the courtroom that Ms. Stewart, even back then, was a gifted litigator.

Shortly after those trials, I had the opportunity to work with (then) CPT Stewart when she took a position as a fellow defense counsel. We worked on several cases together and found our styles complemented each other’s remarkably. When I moved over to the Wiesbaden Trial Defense Field Office, I literally got to work with Jocelyn side-by-side and came to fully appreciate her work ethic. For many military counsel, a rotation through trial defense is just another wicket you hit on your way up the promotion ladder. For me, representing service members at courts-martial wasn’t a job—it was a mission, and I finally met my match working with Jocelyn. Nothing stopped Jocelyn from doing everything in her power to ethically advocate for her clients. During one particular case, Jocelyn and I were representing co-accused at a joint preliminary hearing—Ms. Stewart’s husband was deployed and her childcare fell through. While most counsel would have asked for a delay, Jocelyn, realized it was in her client’s best interests to drive on, so she simply brought her newborn baby to the hearing. Over the next several hours, Jocelyn peppered witnesses with questions, made heated objections and eloquent arguments—all while casually rocking the baby bearing car seat we had stashed under our table with her foot. Ms. Stewart maintained her professional composure the entire hearing and not a single witness realized we had an infant tucked underneath counsel table.

After our time in Germany, the Army sent us on our separate ways. I found myself at bucolic Camp Liberty, Iraq as a defense counsel when again the phone rang. Jocelyn, who was then working as a defense counsel at Fort Hood, Texas, had a client accused of stealing rugs from the nearby Camp Taji bazaar. Even though there are far easier ways to do an investigation than going TDY into a combat zone, none are quite as effective than doing the legwork yourself. Knowing I have the same philosophy, Jocelyn asked if I could help arrange lodging and transportation throughout her stay. Jocelyn arrived safely enough, and spent the next several days in a whirlwind of travel, interviews and depositions. Unfortunately, Ms. Stewart developed a terrible case of laryngitis shortly after her arrival. We were about to have me step in to be her voice at a deposition when Jocelyn decided to give the medical tent a chance to win her recovery. She explained to the doc that she had to get her voice back quickly and impressed upon him the urgency of the situation. Even though the usual course of care is to just wait out a bout of laryngitis, the physician agreed to give her a hefty dose of steroids. Just as the tech delivered the injection, Ms. Stewart felt a shot of adrenaline and began pacing the room. She then overheard the tech whisper to the physician, “I was supposed to dilute that, wasn’t I??” (Yes, he was). So, although the more than quadruple dose of prednisone had Jocelyn awake for the better part of the next 48 hours, the steroids did their job. Ms. Stewart, now sounding like Kathleen Turner, drove on and completed the depositions as scheduled.  The government would later dismiss the case against her client three days before trial because of the overwhelming evidence she collected that demonstrated her client’s actual innocence. I believe there are no short cuts to effective investigation and trial preparation, and Jocelyn more than demonstrated that she doesn’t cut corners.

After our trial defense tours, Jocelyn and I each were selected to serve as Special Victim Prosecutors, though in different geographical areas, and she was always my first call when faced with a quirky legal challenge. Despite the rigors and stress of trial work and warnings that staying in the courtroom would blunt our JAG careers, both Ms. Stewart and I fought to stay in criminal justice positions. You often hear of trial lawyers getting “burnt-out” from the constant stress of having someone else’s future in your hands—but Jocelyn and I are cut from the same cloth…our purpose and our passion is in criminal law and that is where we thrive.

After our tours as Special Victim Prosecutors, Ms. Stewart resigned her active-duty commission to pursue her own military defense practice. As she traveled the world defending clients across services, we spoke many times about the pressure commanders felt to prosecute sexual assault cases particularly and, the alarming trend of suspects being “guilty until proven innocent.” Jocelyn’s mission was to right that imbalance, and I was not surprised that the Law Office of Jocelyn C. Stewart was quickly emerging as one of the world’s most preeminent military justice defense firms. But as I began my own transition from the Army to civilian life, the thought of joining Ms. Stewart simply didn’t cross my mind. Ms. Stewart was on the West Coast, and I was headed East. Until that phone call in the Fall of 2016.

I knew that many talented, transitioning JAG officers approached Ms. Stewart for positions with her firm, and all but a few were turned away. Well-known and respected, many attorneys wanted to join her firm and many still do. But candidly, I’ve long had a general distaste for civilian defense counsel. Over my career, I sat second chair to a handful of well-known and respected civilian defense lawyers. At first, as a military defense counsel, I welcomed the opportunity to learn from these accomplished and learned attorneys and was eager to soak up whatever style, skills or nuggets of wisdom they had to offer. Unfortunately, I found that I largely was disappointed. Not that these attorneys weren’t talented litigators, but they did little to no trial preparation. They never took the time to look at the client as a person; a husband or wife; father or mother; son or daughter of a greater family. And though I understand the need to compartmentalize cases to some degree, I feel strongly that you work harder when you know who you are working for and meaningfully undertake to know what they are striving to preserve.

I try to get the fullest picture of my clients—who they are to the people who love them. And when you raise your right hand and pledge to lay down your life for your country, there is always something to fight for.   What drives me to stay up later and work harder than any other counsel is taking the time to know my clients. I am well aware my clients’ futures depend on my effort and ability.   However, my experience was that the vast majority of civilian defense counsel effectively charge high prices but rely on the military counsel to do all of the work; in effect, they grossly underrepresent their clients. When I saw the civilian defense counsel I encountered looking at clients as nothing more than a paycheck, I wanted nothing to do with that. It soured me to think of that as even a remote possibility for my future outside the Army.

As I thought about my future practice, I was reminded of a Soldier client at West Point who hired a very well known civilian defense counsel who convinced him to plead guilty. Even though the civilian counsel was brought onto the case, I interviewed all witnesses, wrote and argued motions and put on the sentencing case. The civilian defense counsel made the sentencing argument…and mispronounced our client’s name throughout. After the trial, my client told me, “that man charged me 5 months salary and you did all the work!” And since the client’s parents had taken out a second mortgage on their house to pay for his legal fees, he seemed to feel worse about the wasted money than he did about the fact that he was headed to prison. I hated seeing young service members taken advantage of like that, and thought civilian defense work just wasn’t the direction I wanted to go.

That being said, Ms. Stewart called and was looking for someone to handle the clients on the East Coast and for travel cases. I always thought of Jocelyn as the one rare exception to my general bias against civilian counsel—she works for every penny her clients pay her and then some. Familiar with her talent, work ethic and dedication, I used to say in jest, “if I ever get in trouble, I’m calling Jocelyn Stewart!” But I still shared with her my misgivings about taking money from service members for routine work any average military defense counsel could handle. I explained I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I was exploiting service members during the darkest times in their lives. But I should have known that’s not how Ms. Stewart or the Law Office of Jocelyn C. Stewart operates.

Ms. Stewart broke my long-standing bias against civilian defense counsel as she explained the Firm’s philosophy: we take the cases where we can do the most good. Often, that means we turn clients back to the military defense counsel when that office is capable of negotiating an effective guilty plea. We do not take cases for the purpose of collecting a fee; we take cases where we can strive to make a real difference. That means we are required to have tough conversations with people. Attorneys are required to keep their caseloads at a level that allows them enough time and resources to give each client the individual focus their case deserves. That means we keep our number of “active” clients at a fraction of the industry’s maximum caseload recommendations. I wasn’t expected to take every client seeking representation, turning them over as quickly as possible for profit. I wasn’t expected to take cases that, after an initial consult, I knew from experience were headed for a guilty-plea, or simple cases easily handled by any military defense counsel. In fact, I’d only be expected to take cases where I felt my knowledge and skills would truly benefit the client and make a positive impact on the outcome of the clients’ legal issues. She explained that her main focus is to keep a client’s situation from ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. Her mission is to use her knowledge, talent and skills to correct the imbalance in the courts-martial system. I know Jocelyn and as she spoke, I recognized she brought all of her passion and purpose into creating a firm entirely focused on delivering quality representation regardless of the issue at hand. Her philosophy completely aligning with my own, she had already established the civilian defense practice I expected to learn from when I was a junior officer a long time ago. This was civilian criminal defense firm I could proudly join! And so I did.

All of my expectations upon signing are the reality I live. I see that the dedication to exceptional representation is that reality because the clients of the Law Office of Jocelyn C Stewart provide feedback that lets us know that our mission and our goals are being met each and every day.