“In the early 1970s, I was a yeoman, working in Pensacola, Fla., in the legal office at the U.S. Naval Communication Training Center. I told my boss: ‘They ought to come out with a rating that’s strictly focused on legal work,’” said Bill VanDeren, a retired Navy legalman. “Lo and behold, a message was released, and I converted to the legalman rating in 1972 – the year it was established.”
On Jan. 4, 2022, the legalman rating celebrates its 50th anniversary. VanDeren – a legalman community “plank owner,” who has served the Navy as both a Sailor and civilian – describes his legalman experiences fondly.
“You felt important, like you were doing an important job,” he said. “Legalmen help solve problems.”
The origins of the legalman rating date to approximately World War II, when Navy yeoman supplemented civilian clerical forces throughout the Department of the Navy, and they also began recording court proceedings. After the war concluded, a formal paralegal training course for yeoman was created. Once enrolled, Sailors received typing instruction and learned how to draft criminal charges and specifications so they could serve as court reporters.
After the establishment of the Navy Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps in 1967, it soon became clear to Navy leaders that a separate rating – and enlisted personnel who were specially trained to manage a burgeoning list of paralegal duties – was needed.
After a careful study of the feasibility of a separate rating, Secretary of the Navy John H. Chafee formally established the Navy’s legalman community on Jan. 4, 1972. Rating conversions were available to Sailors ranging from second-class petty officers to master chief petty officers. Conversions eventually were opened to third-class petty officers, as well.
“The scope of the new rating will provide judge advocates with personnel trained in court reporting, claims matters, investigations, legal assistance, military justice matters, and competence to prepare and submit necessary records and reports, while performing legal research of pertinent information for evaluation,” said Chafee.
Several months after Chafee’s directive, on June 5, 1972, Bureau of Naval Personnel Notice 1440 announced the selection board that ultimately named the inaugural class of legalmen. Two hundred and seventy-five Sailors were selected and were the first enlisted personnel to attend the Navy’s new seven-week conversion class at the Naval Justice School.
In the years that followed, the legalman community experienced both growth and challenges. From manning shortages, to effective utilization of legalmen, the rating navigated a variety of issues and implemented numerous enhancements, including expanded college education and career opportunities for personnel.
“In those early years, some legalmen still felt … they weren’t getting meaningful assignments from lawyers or being properly utilized,” said VanDeren. “But, with time, things opened up and became more professional. Word got around over the period of years, and new people joined the community and things progressed.”
During his legalman career, VanDeren said his favorite tour was his time aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68).
“I worked in what was like a little law firm in a community – a small-town legal office,” he said. “I was amazed at the number of people who had different types of problems. I didn’t always have the answers, but I was honest and did the best I could. As a legalman – when you had the trust of command leadership – it was important to show integrity.”
Today’s legalman community is highly trained, diverse, and experienced. More than 600 active and Reserve legalmen provide critical services at duty stations around the world. They play key roles at Region Legal Service Offices, Defense Service Offices, and at the Naval Justice School. Their paralegal skills support warfighters at sea, the Office of Military Commissions, and other joint operations. They are an indispensable part of the Navy’s JAG Community, enabling the accomplishment of its command services, military justice, and legal assistance missions.
In 2022, 50th anniversary celebrations – themed “Legacy of Service” – will take place across the Navy enterprise. To mark the milestone, the Office of the Judge Advocate General and Naval Legal Service Command headquarters will host a cake-cutting ceremony aboard the Washington Navy Yard, in which several Navy dignitaries will take part. Congratulatory video messages, podcasts, and other exciting content will be shared via social media and other communications channels.
“Every year, it gets better and better,” said VanDeren when reflecting upon the rating’s anniversary. “The legalman community challenges you to do the very best you possibly can, to reach for and take advantage of so many opportunities.