When MSgt. Albert Perez is prepping for a new assignment, he’s not only had to brush up on the area of military law involved but be combat ready. Perez tells host Carl Morrison what it’s like to be a paralegal in the military, including being ready for a new assignment by going through combat training before heading to a war zone.
Perez Oyola and Morrison speak about the differences between being a paralegal in the civilian justice system and under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including Miranda warnings vs. Article 31 rights.
Perez Oyola explains the career path of a military paralegal, the core tasks and levels of progress, and the mandatory continuing legal education at the highest levels.
Master Sgt. Albert Perez Oyola serves as a U.S. Air Force law office superintendent at Whiteman, AFB.
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The Paralegal Voice
Military Trained and Combat Ready
Carl Morrison: Hello everyone. Welcome to The Paralegal Voice here on Legal Talk Network. I’m Carl Morrison, Advanced Certified Paralegal and your host of The Paralegal Voice. Today, we have a very special guest with us. You know we just recently celebrated Veterans Day and right now we’re about to celebrate Thanksgiving, and what better way to really show our thanks and be thankful is to show thanks to our men and women who serve in the Armed Forces. My special guest today is Master Sergeant Albert Perez Oyola from the United States Air Force. I wanted to have a military paralegal on today’s show to talk about what it’s like to be a paralegal in the military. So Albert, thank you so much for joining me today.
Albert Perez Oyola: Hey, thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to having this talk and definitely looking forward to our conversation.
Carl Morrison: I’m really, really excited. All the men in my family served in different branches of the Armed Forces and having you on the show is very special. So Albert, I’m just going to jump off and start us off in questioning. So right now you are a Law Office Superintendent for the United States Air Force and you’ve started in the Air Force since 2004, it is what I understand. So I was of course doing my background on you. I was reading all about you on your LinkedIn profile recently. I saw that you got your Paralegal Associate’s degree while in the Air Force, went on and got your Bachelor’s and then Master’s. So I would love for you to tell the listeners what does it really take to become a paralegal while serving in the military? Can you really walk us through the steps of being a military paralegal and the education? Where do you start? How far can you go? So on and so forth.
Albert Perez Oyola: Okay, yeah. So this is a very interesting question because there are some changes coming down the line, and historically, it has been a very different process that has been evolving over time, but essentially — and I’ll talk a little bit about what it used to be, and about 2003, 2004 and just to backtrack a little bit, we’ve had kind of like a paralegal career field since really the 1960s. We’ve called it different things, but we’ve had the career field really since the 1950s, 1960s, but up until 2003 or 2004 is when the Air Force decided to allow military members to come in the military as paralegals already. Before it used to be that you could cross train, meaning that you would come into the Air Force with a different what we call Air Force Specialty Code and after serving however many years in the Specialty Code, then you could cross train into paralegal.
That’s what it used to be, but then in 2003 now you can actually come into the Air Force as a paralegal, not in the recruiting process, but once you went into basic training, meaning you will have to join the Air Force what we call Open General. It’s somewhat of a risk because you could really end up in any career field whenever you join. You go to the recruiter and then you say yes, I’m going to join Open General, meaning that you’re at the mercy of the Air Force wherever it is that they want to place you based on the needs of the Air Force, but you do get choices. So once you get to basic training, they’ll give you a list of jobs that are available or that are your preferred jobs and then you can mark paralegal. If it’s available, then you will have to go through an interview process with a paralegal representative who goes through basic training and sets up shop there to conduct the interview to also — they have to do a typing test, in the typing test essentially have to type 25 words per minute. That’s essentially the basic requirements and also the ASVAB test. So in the ASVAB test you have to score at least at 51 on the general component of the ASVAB test.
That is essentially the current requirements that you really have to — if you want it, you have to do an interview and the interviewer is essentially to make sure that you really want to do that, that you understand any confidentiality, rules that we have as far as ethics are concerned, and also to make sure that the person can speak clearly. Given our job that we type in so many documents or drafting documents for attorneys and just making sure that the person understands the basic English essentially, the typing test in the interview, and then they can they can come in and their first job can be paralegal.
But now it’s changing to where you can actually — before you join basic training, you can actually go through the same process, but before you go to basic training. That way you already know that you have a guaranteed job in the Air Force as a paralegal.
Carl Morrison: So not that I’m of the age that I’d want to join or should join the military, but having worked, you’re saying basically having worked as a paralegal now, if I was of the age that I could do this, I could join up and actually just segue right into working as a Air Force paralegal, right?
Albert Perez Oyola: That’s correct, right. You can join with a guarantee that you’re actually going to be exercising that duty whereas before this year, you were taking a risk whether or not that would be a possibility.
Carl Morrison: Interesting. Wow. So once you get in and once you become, like for yourself when you chose to become a paralegal in the Air Force, how do you get to select what area of law and specifically military law, but how do you get to select the area that you want to practice in or is it really — are you at the mercy of the Air Force to select it for you based on the need and where you’re serving so on and so forth?
Albert Perez Oyola: So essentially, for the most part, I haven’t seen any cases where this hasn’t been the case. Most paralegals that join that are brand-new, they first have to go to a course which has — it used to be six weeks, but now it has it has changed and it’s about three to four months, what we call a Paralegal Apprentice course, and this paralegal apprentice course, this happens at the Air Force JAG School in Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. So once the individual goes through that course, then they get — again, this is I think for over 90% of the cases I haven’t seen anything different, but then they go to a base legal office.
So in the base legal office essentially they have civil law and military justice, but everyone has to go through the basic base legal office. Now that base legal office presents that new member with — prepares them with training, so what we call on-the-job training. We have four volumes of those career development courses that they have to complete in order to keep moving up in upgrade training. We have essentially four levels of upgrade training. So the first one is apprentice level and then we have the craftsman level, journeyman level, and superintendent level. So those are essentially the four levels that you can get to. So in order to get to that five level, which is the journeyman level, you have to — most of the training that you need in order to get there happens at the base legal office, and we call them core tasks that need to be accomplished in order for an individual to get to that level.
So again, the best thing to happen to a new member is to go to a base legal office get that training going and once they’re at least a journeyman or a craftsmen, then they can start to request different assignments based on availability, whether it’s to be a defense paralegal or to work as a court reporter or to work out at appellate or any other job that they may want to obtain or want to practice as a paralegal in the Air Force, but yes, the first one is basically in the base legal office.
Carl Morrison: So it sounds very similar to in civilian, of course, as a paralegal, once you get out of a program, you pretty much depending on externship, depending on what are you may be interested in, you’re kind of at the mercy of just falling into a office, law office, and working in what you may not necessarily have chosen specifically, but you’re getting your feet wet, you’re getting acclimated to working as a paralegal, learning a lot of the tasks and duties that you got to do in the real world outside of education. So it sounds very, very similar to what we do, of course, on the civilian side of it, which is just absolutely fascinating.
So I want to kind of talk about in general military law, and I’ve got a couple of questions, but I’m going to kind of condense this here. So when we talk about military law in general, are there really as many differences between it and civilian law? I know your background is very diverse and you’ve served in a myriad of different roles, and I’m not going to go into all of them but just for the listeners’ sake, you’ve been in the roles of the military justice, Office of the Legal Adviser, defense paralegal, civil law claims, things of that nature.
Of course, you’re working on the military side, so not having practiced in civilian practice, but are there as many differences between it and civilian law in when we’re talking about things from estate planning to criminal practice, things of that nature?
Albert Perez Oyola: So as far as the civil law side of the military, this is the area where I’ve had the least amount of experience in my career. Most of my experience has been military justice or criminal law, but as far as my experience in civil law, it is similar, whatever we do wills and estate planning that tends to be consistent with the state laws. So we don’t really deviate from that whatsoever and then when a military member comes in for legal assistance, the attorneys essentially provide, the advice that they provide, it’s based on a lot of times — if it’s civil issues that they have, it will be based on those issues or laws and regulations consistent with the state or the federal law.
Now as far as criminal justice or military justice, that is very different, because the main thing or our Bible, if you will, is the Uniform Code of Military Justice and I’m sure this is may be familiar to some individuals but this is the document that we go off of. Then there are some additional laws and punitive articles that can be violated, such as Article 134 of the UCMJ that discusses issues like adultery or absent without leave or making false official statements, which is essentially lying. So those are all subject to punishment under the UCMJ. So that is where it’s very different, I guess the criminal aspect of it also.
So we have something very similar to Miranda rights, but it’s different than Miranda rights. It’s called the Article 31 rights. I know on the civilian side, the Miranda rights can only be given by law enforcement upon apprehension or when someone is in custody of law enforcement, but in the military Article 31 rights, essentially, anyone can give Article 31 rights, read them to any individual at any given time and they don’t have to be in custody or anything like that. A basic premise of that is that I believe that in the UCMJ or in the military, this is the only instance in which your employer can also prosecute you, because everything is done in house. Right a commander can essentially convene a court-martial on base and then they can utilize the supervisor as a witness against you and so on and so forth. So in order to protect all the members, then every member can read someone else their Article 31 rights before they’re going to — if they suspect someone of having committed a crime before they initiate questioning.
Carl Morrison: That is absolutely fascinating, because, wow. So you yourself, have you ever had to read someone those particular rights?
Albert Perez Oyola: Yes sir, many times, many times.
Carl Morrison: Interesting. Wow. That is absolutely fascinating. So one of the roles that you served in the Air Force on your profile was Office of the Legal Adviser. What particular role or task did you do within that position?
Albert Perez Oyola: The Office of the Legal Adviser, this was in Afghanistan. So I’ve deployed to Iraq. I deployed there from 2009 to 2010 and to Afghanistan from 2014 to 2015, and the Office of the Legal Adviser, there are many duties and responsibilities for paralegals and attorneys that are very different. We call them Operational Law and a lot of it is just advising commanders on the law of armed conflict. That is a big thing as far as unlawful combatants, lawful combatants, non-combatants and all of those things, as far as protected symbols in a time of war, so advising commanders to those type of issues as well as the rules of engagement. Those are some big topics, but I was also responsible for claims, for conducting claims, settling claims on behalf of NATO and on behalf of the US.
So essentially, we had a lot of vehicles there in Afghanistan, some belonged to the US, some belonged to NATO, and if they got in an accident off base maybe in the Kabul or in the Afghanistan population, they would give them a form that they would, Afghan population local population, they could fill out and they could come and present it to me essentially, I was that individual who collected the evidence and then I looked at everything and decided whether or not we would settle that claim with them, and then I will collect the funds from either NATO or the US, whoever was responsible and I would settle that with the Afghan population. So that was one of my duties and responsibilities while I was there as well.
But the legal advisor who was an O-6 Navy captain at the time, he was the attorney to the four-star general who was the commander of all the Afghan forces at the time. So that was his role and his own personal attorney essentially, if you will, and then he had a team and we were all there and we had people from different countries. We had individual from the United Kingdom, from Australia, from Lithuania. So we had a diverse team, a multinational team, if you will.
Carl Morrison: Wow. Again, I’m just sitting here awestruck. I mean working with such a diverse group and working with other individuals in a legal capacity in dealing with — of course, you were dealing with military law, but even just dealing with other individuals that come from countries that the legal system is totally different than our legal system, and being around that type of diversity. I just kind of law geek out on that, because it just fascinates me to no end. So working in Afghanistan and Iraq, I’m assuming that especially within the Office of the Legal Adviser as a paralegal no matter where you’re at, whether you’re serving in the middle of an armed conflict or whether you’re just serving state side, you still are working under the supervision of an attorney, correct?
Albert Perez Oyola: Yes sir, absolutely yes.
Carl Morrison: So everything you’re doing is just like what we do in civilian practice is we do a lot of the work that an attorney would do, but we do it under the supervision of an attorney. So that’s the same in military. Correct?
Albert Perez Oyola: Yes sir. Everything, even what I mentioned, that experiencing Afghanistan, I was the only paralegal and then everyone else that I mentioned, those individuals from the UK or from the Royal Air Force and from Australia, they were all attorneys as well. So yes, I was the paralegal and I was doing a lot of the jobs but under their supervision.
Carl Morrison: I’ve got like a million and two questions Albert that you could just spend hours on, but I know we’ve got some more questions. So we’re going to take a short commercial break. When we come back, we are going to follow up with some additional questions. So don’t turn that dial.
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Carl Morrison: Welcome back to the paralegal voice. Of course Albert, I said before the commercial break, I’ve got a million questions, so I’m going to try to narrow to my top four here. So we’ll go with that. So much to cover and really we should probably make this like a multi-part show. I mean I should have you back so we can continue and deep dive on some of these topics. But before the break, we were talking about some of your specific roles that you’ve performed as a paralegal in the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps or JAG as most people here called. So let’s kind of talk about a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, and my students get tired of me talking about it, but it’s ethics and continuing legal education. So I’m curious to know military paralegals such as yourself, do you guys have to follow the same model rules of professional responsibility, things like cannot give legal advice, cannot represent an individual before judge so on and so forth, the same rules that I have to follow as a civilian paralegal? Do you in the military have those same ethical rules that you have to follow?
Albert Perez Oyola: Yes sir, absolutely. They are part of our training. They’re part of our core tasks as well. So in order for us to upgrade to the next level, to that five-level journeyman, we have to sign off on that we understand all those rules of professional responsibility.
Not only that but we also have an annual responsibility that we have to check and make sure that we could revisit the rules of professional responsibility. So it’s a yearly thing that we have to certify that we understand as far as not giving legal advice or representing an individual before a judge.
Although, and I just want to touch on this a little bit as far as representing an individual before a judge, because we do have a specific opportunity as paralegals in the Air Force when it comes to discharge boards that we can actually argue for the member in that setting. It’s not a court-martial; it’s a discharge board, and we can with an attorney do opening statements, do closing statements. We can do cross-examination with the witnesses when it comes to the discharge board and the discharge board can be about any different things, whether it’s someone who’s failing their physical fitness test or whether it’s someone who utilized illegal drugs and they’ve been in for a certain amount of time. They are entitled to it board and then the paralegal has an opportunity to conduct that board with the attorney, and we just did an episode on our podcast with two paralegals about their experiences in that capacity. But that aside, yes, everything else as far as confidentiality, not giving legal advice, or representing an individual before a judge, all those things still apply.
Carl Morrison: So it’s just like in private practice in the civilian world. We do the same thing. There are very limited opportunities for a paralegal to represent an individual before and it’s typically an administrative court situation. It sounds like the same thing. What about CLE? Do you have to maintain continuing legal education in the Air Force? Is that just required of you guys?
Albert Perez Oyola: It is, so we do have to maintain CLE and a lot of changes are coming with that as well. We have a team that is currently developed and trying to come up with new ideas as to how to better prepare military paralegals or Air Force paralegals for life after the Air Force, but we do have continuing legal education especially if someone is the seven-level, because if you’re a five-level you’re constantly trying to upgrade to seven-level, but once you’re seven-level, people could become stagnant and just kind of stay there and not want to continue their training. So now with this CLE requirements, everyone who’s a seven-level or a craftsman at that point has to maintain CLE, and we do it once a month. So if someone is at seven-level, once a month they have to do some sort of training, whether it’s a webcast that we can find on our site. We have our own Air Force JAG Corps site and we have webcast that we provide or that are provided in there, or someone can venture out of just the military training and do some civilian training, and that can be documented as well. So a lot of things that can give credit for CLE.
Carl Morrison: Oh, so you could like attend a NALA, the National Association of Legal Assistance national conference in July, and attend continuing legal education sessions and it would count in the military.
Albert Perez Oyola: Yes sir, that’s correct.
Carl Morrison: Interesting. Wow. Well, that’s good. I’m a huge proponent of CLE. I’m certified. I have all four national certifications, and of course, I have to maintain continuing legal education as part of maintaining my certifications, but certifications, they’re not mandatory it’s voluntary. So as such not all paralegals that work in the civilian world attend CLE sessions. I love the idea that it’s required of you. You’re not certified but you still have to have CLE as part of your particular roles and I think that should be mandated for all paralegals and I’m sure there’s listeners going, no way Carl. But like you said a minute ago, you run the risk of becoming stagnant and I think CLE is a great way to just keep on top of the trends that are happening and just keeping fresh.
So I’ve got a couple more questions, so I want to understand a little bit with what you did in serving in Afghanistan and Iraq in the Office of the Legal Adviser. So besides processing claims, what were some of the other things that you did that you can share with us, of course, as a paralegal working in the middle of an armed conflict? I mean, is there an interesting story you would like to share with us that maybe something we wouldn’t necessarily know about or what’s it like to serve as a paralegal day in day out in the middle of an armed conflict?
Albert Perez Oyola: It is very interesting, especially because we are very close to important events happening in the world really. I touched a little bit on the NATO, working closely with NATO, but we also were pivotal and had a big role, and I had a big role in even just drafting or negotiating the status of forces agreement between NATO and Afghanistan, and that was something that was essentially one of the big things that our office was working on. We also had the first — this was just a tragic event that happened while I was there. It was that a two-star army general was killed in action in Afghanistan at the time while I was there and they assigned an investigating officer as well as an attorney, a military attorney, and they also had a paralegal, which the paralegal was me at the time. We just had to do interviews and kind of get to the bottom of how, what all happened with the general that was killed in action. So those are really a lot of things that can pop up at any second that can take you away from your normal duties and responsibilities, and essentially, just helping in any capacity that you can with the attorneys or interviewing witnesses or drafting documents or transcribing documents, whatever the case may be, but it’s definitely gainfully employed in there’s always something going on.
Carl Morrison: I can only imagine when you were telling the story and I was just kind of in visiting what it was like for you to do all that and be hopping and going the entire time, all I could think about was my experience has been in defense practice, anything from medical malpractice to medical products, liability, things of that nature, and so I’ve done a ton of trial work. All I could think about was you were probably living like you were in the middle of trial every day because you were just going so fast and furious, especially being the only paralegal, I can only imagine what that’s like for you. It was probably 24/7, am I close that you were living your job the whole time?
Albert Perez Oyola: Yes sir, essentially. It was 24/7. We had an attorney who sometimes wouldn’t even sleep. He did a lot, say good night to him about 11:00, 12:00 at night, and then I would come in the morning around 7:00 and he still be there not haven’t slept at all.
Carl Morrison: Oh my gosh.
Albert Perez Oyola: We also would, what we call just going outside the wire, so we had to drive. It was an armed vehicle, so it was an SUV, Toyota Land Cruiser that we had at the time and that’s what we would utilize to go, we had to travel to different ministries in Afghanistan. So we had to go to the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense or talk to the Attorney General of Afghanistan to keep the negotiations going about the status of forces agreement, and I would be the one who drive, and obviously, we couldn’t go out there empty handed. So we have to be armed. Things were happening and are continuing to happen in Afghanistan though. Essentially, any situation could arise at any moment, but we have to be prepared for that. So essentially we would go through combat training before going to Afghanistan. So yes, we did a lot of paralegal work, but we also had to have that combat training that will prepare us to deal with any potential contingency that would happen on the road while we were there.
Carl Morrison: Wow. Albert, thank you so much for your service, because that’s just, for civilian paralegals such as myself, some of us joke that it’s in the middle of an armed conflict when you’re in the midst of a trial but hearing your story of actually serving and having to as a paralegal, you’re being educated as a paralegal on the law, but you’re also being trained in combat, because you’re being thrust into the situations where you’re being thrust into the middle of it. So Albert, it makes you really stop and think for civilian paralegals that work out there that truly highly respect everything that you’ve done in the military. So thank you so much for your service. We truly appreciate everything you’ve done for not only our country, but for the paralegal industry as well.
Albert, we’re running out of time. Oh my gosh, I don’t want to end. I want to keep doing this all night, but I know that you have a podcast. You mentioned a minute ago that you have a podcast for Air Force paralegals, the Air Force Paralegal Podcast, that’s available, and that you host and in fact you invited me to be a guest on the show, which I truly humbled, and I’m really excited about doing it. But if any of our listeners wanted to reach out to you directly, can they do that, and if so, how would they contact you?
Albert Perez Oyola: Absolutely, yeah. Anyone can reach out to me. The best way probably be through email. So it’s my last name [email protected] and then you can certainly reach out if you have any questions or if you’re interested in appearing in the podcast or any information about joining the military or the Air Force, I’ll be glad to answer any questions or provide any information that you may need.
Carl Morrison: Albert, thank you so much. You’re not getting away, all my guests have to suffer one of my fun questions, so you’re not any different. So before we wrapped up I’m going to ask you my fun question. I’m going to pick on you, because I saw on your LinkedIn profile. It said that you speak several languages including Japanese. So I have to ask you what’s the Japanese word for paralegal?
Albert Perez Oyola: All right. So this is an interesting one. So my wife is Japanese. I asked her and she said there is no paralegal. So there’s no profession of paralegal in Japan. They also don’t have a profession as physician assistant in Japan either. However, I was able to get the word for attorney, which is bengoshi.
Carl Morrison: Bengoshi.
Albert Perez Oyola: Bengoshi is the word for attorney in Japanese, but unfortunately they still don’t have that paralegal profession.
Carl Morrison: Well, that is just wrong. We need to change that. Well Albert, thank you so much for being on my show today, and again, thank you so much for your service. Hang on tight everyone after this break for station identification. So stay tuned.
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Well everyone, it’s been a wild and crazy 2020, has it not? I know we’re COVID out, election out, we’re tried, but I want to just end on a couple of notes. We’ve made it to December now and we’re in the midst to celebrating the holidays with our friends and loved ones. We’ve had a wild election cycle and of course our legal industry has been front and center in the midst of all of this, in the midst of the lawsuits that were filed against various states’ election boards and states’ legislatures and things of that nature. To me, as a law geek and a law nerd, it was exciting to witness democracy in action, and no matter who you’ve voted for, to really witness the shear number of people that turned out to vote in record numbers. To me, it was truly exciting and made me extremely proud of our country.
So our country, our legal system is not perfect by any means. I tell paralegal students that all the time. But to see it hold up to the pressures of what has transpired this year overall is really a monumental feat, and to look back and see that we as a society, we didn’t buckle and we didn’t collapsed. We persevered and as a country like we have for almost 250 years, and that’s something to be proud of. So during this time of year when we look back in the year-end review, there are truly things, still many things, to be thankful for. It’s been very stressful for a lot of us, it’s been challenging year for all of us on many different fronts, but we still have hope. We have hope for our country, we have hope for our industry, and we have hope for a new day. Me, I hope for you and your family the best that life has to offer you and may the Lord guide and protect you and your family in the remainder of this year and may we all find peace and joy for 2021.
So with that, that’s all the time I’ve got today for The Paralegal Voice, and if you have any questions about today’s show, email them to me at [email protected], and stay tuned for more information in upcoming podcasts for exciting paralegal trends, news and engaging and fun interviews from leading paralegals and other leading legal professionals.
Thank you for listening to The Paralegal Voice, produced by the podcast professionals at Legal Talk Network. If you’d like more information about today’s show, please visit legaltalknetwork.com, find Legal Talk Network on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, or download Legal Talk Network’s free app in Google Play and iTunes. Reminding you that I’m here to enhance your passion and dedication to the paralegal profession and make your paralegal voice heard.
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