Guest Post “From Air Force Judge Advocate to Professor: How the Air Force Prepared Me to Teach at Law School”

Today I am very pleased to introduce a new Lawfire® contributor, Professor Erin Kenny.  Erin teaches at Campbell University’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law, just down the road in Raleigh, NC.

Erin comes to teaching law from more than ten years as an Air Force judge advocate (she’s still in the Reserves), and explains how that experience has helped her to transition to being a law school professor.

While her essay focuses on becoming a law professor, I think you will find her observations applicable to other transition situations. 

As she puts it:  “My time in the Air Force JAG Corps taught me how to be uncomfortable in a new job and how to ask others for help, which are key skills in learning something new quickly.”  She shares insights I believe everyone transitioning should find of interest.

Here’s Erin:

From Air Force Judge Advocate to Professor–How the Air Force Prepared Me to Teach at Law School

by Erin Kenny

            Several years ago, I attended a meeting with a Kuwaiti military attorney counterpart.  It was my first time meeting with the Kuwaitis, so I decided to bring the office translator to the meeting.  I was working in the U.S. Embassy, and I didn’t know much about the U.S. State Department, or how the Kuwaiti military functioned. 

          When I got to my meeting, my translator was immediately bombarded with one of the Kuwaiti attorneys rapid-firing questions in Arabic.  The Kuwaiti attorney got on the phone, then said something to the interpreter.  The interpreter told me, “The General will see you now.” 

          Thankfully, the interpreter called the right U.S. servicemember to the meeting and he calmed down the General, who apparently wasn’t very pleased after the phone call with my Kuwaiti counterparts.  The soldier our interpreter called to the meeting knew exactly how to diffuse the situation.  I have no idea how I would have made it through that day if I didn’t ask the interpreter for help.

            Three years later, I started as a Professor at Campbell Law School, teaching Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, and Trial Advocacy.  I had almost no formal teaching experience; however, I was an Active Duty Air Force Judge Advocate (Air Force lawyer) for 10 years. 

           While my time as an Air Force Officer is not the traditional path to academia, my experience practicing law all over the world while serving my country prepared me in more ways than I thought for my new role as a professor.  My time in the Air Force JAG Corps taught me how to be uncomfortable in a new job and how to ask others for help, which are key skills in learning something new quickly.

Embracing the Uncomfortable 

            While serving in the Air Force JAG Corps, I moved six times over the course of ten years.  My assignments included practicing criminal law as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, processing courts-martial, working Government contracts and ethics issues, writing wills, helping servicemembers with divorces, and my favorite, practicing National Security Law.  I had the privilege of living all around the world––to include in South Korea, Germany, Kuwait, deploying to Qatar, and serving on long-term orders in Jordan. 

            I learned about other cultures and worked with military attorneys from other countries, and I collaborated with other U.S. Government Agencies, to include the U.S. State Department and the FBI.  Each assignment held a new set of challenges.  New bosses, new areas of the law, setting myself up to live in a new country (although I never did quite master German recycling), new systems and players, and plenty of adventures.

            When serving in a new position, I realized getting out of my comfort zone was unavoidable.  Whether starting something new, or even just changing offices, discomfort is a constant.  There is no growth without discomfort. 

           The quicker I’ve accepted that fact and tried new things, the quicker I’ve grown and learned my new job.  The first meeting with a foreign general, new military commander, or the first time teaching a class will not become easier over time.  Everyone must start somewhere. 

           I’ve made it through the initial discomfort period so many times, and I’ve learned to embody “this too shall pass.”  I trust myself and that I will get better at whatever I’m doing.  This confidence provides the ability to push through difficult days and come back again the next day ready to work.  As a new professor, accepting a period of discomfort and working through it is critical.

Asking Questions  

            While out of the comfort zone, I’ve also learned the importance in asking questions.  As attorneys, we often strive to maintain the image that we know all.  While there are certain times the “fake it till you make it” mentality and projecting confidence are important, asking for help is also critical. 

           You are only the “new person” in the office for so long, take advantage and ask all your questions!  Ask how things work, who is responsible for what, what phrases or acronyms mean, what resources others use to find answers, and why things are done a certain way.  Ask anyone and everyone in the office, each person knows his or her job best. 

            Don’t be afraid of appearing weak.  Most people are excited to talk about what they do and appreciate someone taking an interest in their work.  There are some amazing people at Campbell Law School, and I’m grateful to the many who answered all my questions.  I would not have made it through the last year without them.

             Getting out of my comfort zone and asking for help are invaluable skills I learned in the Air Force, and they are critical tools for learning a new skill or position quickly.  These tools lead to knowledge about workplace personalities and culture, finding the right resources to do my job quickly and effectively, learning the right information, and avoiding (at least some) beginner mistakes. 

About the author

Professor Erin Kenny teaches Criminal Procedure, Criminal Law, and Trial Advocacy at Campbell University Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law.  Professor Kenny also served as an Active Duty Air Force Judge Advocate for ten years, and currently serves as an Air Force Reserve Judge Advocate.

Professor Kenny earned her B.A. in psychology and Spanish from Ohio Northern University, her Juris Doctor from New England School of Law, and her LL.M in Military Law/National Security Law from the Army Judge Advocate General’s School. 

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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