Capt. Joe Neely, ’09, entered law school intent on pursuing a career in Big Law, but when his 2L summer internship ended, he realized that working in a law firm wasn’t for him. As Neely researched other career options, he found himself drawn to the Marine Corps—not only because of its judge advocate program, but also because of the rigor it promised.
“I knew that I wanted to do meaningful work, and I knew that I wanted to do something that challenged me physically as well as intellectually,” Neely says. “The more I researched, the more I realized that the Marine Corps is the embodiment of these things. It seemed like a good fit.”
Neely was commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps in 2011 and completed nine months of training with his fellow recruits before receiving additional instruction as a judge advocate. “A foundational tenet of the Marine Corps is that we all go through the same six to nine months of training to become Marines before we go to our specific jobs,” Neely says. “The idea of being a Marine first and an attorney second was really appealing because I didn’t want to be a lawyer serving in the military; I wanted to be in the military and also be a lawyer.”
Being both a Marine and an attorney has suited Neely, who was given a 2016 American Bar Association Outstanding Young Military Lawyer Award for his legal contributions as a judge advocate. Neely’s career has been filled with diverse assignments that have taken him all over the United States, including California, Washington, D.C., Rhode Island, Virginia, and North Carolina, and overseas to Cuba, Romania, France, and Germany. He has served as both a defense attorney and prosecutor at Camp Pendleton; as an assistant staff judge advocate for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay; as a deputy director training prosecutors at the Pentagon; and, more recently, as a staff judge advocate in Romania, where he is pictured at right (second from left). There, he was the sole legal adviser to a commander overseeing 1,100 Marines in 16 countries on matters relating to ethics; contracts; civil and criminal investigations; and operational, family, and employment law.
“My job is to resolve the Marines’ legal issues, so they can do their job of fighting and winning wars,” Neely says. “I’ve gotten to represent a lot of good people who were in bad circumstances, and occasionally I’ve been able to do some good.”
One of Neely’s most rewarding assignments was serving as defense counsel at Camp Pendleton, where he represented Marines facing federal charges—including some at the felony level—of involuntary manslaughter, rape, sexual assault, larceny, obstruction of justice, and drug possession and distribution. “It certainly wasn’t always glamorous, and oftentimes it was frustrating, but there were plenty of times where I got to fight to make something right for someone who truly needed help,” Neely says. “I believe my time as a defense attorney also made me a reasonably competent prosecutor. It provided me with a lot of perspective on punishment, the human factors associated with litigation, and, most importantly, how to spot holes in my cases.”
Having celebrated his six-year anniversary as a Marine in January, Neely says he has no regrets about joining the military, and is grateful for the opportunities it has provided him and for his fellow officers, for whom he has the utmost respect. “The most fulfilling part about serving in the military is getting to be around Marines,” Neely says. “I like to think that I joined for the right reasons, but I know I’ve stayed because of the selfless, altruistic, and dedicated people I’ve met.”