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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Local attorney ready to report for duty in Iraq

Editor's Note: In Monday's issue, Minnesota Lawyer will run an interview with Peter Swanson, a local attorney/ reservist who will soon be serving in Iraq. We are making the entire interview available to our blog readers as a special blog extra.

From the boardroom to the desert

By Dan Heilman
Minnesota Lawyer/ Aug. 27, 2007

When Minneapolis attorney Peter Swanson enlisted in the Army at age 20, he probably didn’t realize that it would dovetail with a career in law. But 19 years later, Swanson, until recently a corporate counsel for TCF Corp., will get a chance to practice a form of law that most attorneys know little about, while also serving his country.

A major in the Army Reserves, Swanson has been called up and is currently in training in Texas with the Army’s 381st Brigade Liaison Detachment. The unit, teamed up with a military police brigade, will be deployed in Iraq next month to work on detainee operations.

The assignment will present challenges and opportunities that seldom come up in the corporate law world, but Swanson is looking forward to it.

On the eve of his deployment, Swanson took the time to answer Minnesota Lawyer’s questions about what he’ll be doing in Iraq, the challenges he expects to face and whether he’ll resume his conservative blog, Swanblog 2.0, while stationed overseas.

How did your military career coincide with your legal career?
During college and law school, I was in the enlisted reserves. I was a private, then a specialist, then a sergeant. After law school, I became a lieutenant, then a captain in the active, full-time Army. I went into private practice for a year, and during that time I was on inactive reserve — I didn’t go on weekends or during the summer. I was then on active duty for about five years, until 2000. After that, I was inactive until May, when I was activated again. So the two areas of my life have co-existed for quite a while.

What will be the sequence of events as you prepare to depart?
The first was joining my unit in San Jose. Then we flew to El Paso, to Fort Bliss, to a mobilization site. Then it’s 62 days of training, just like any other troops.

Our unit is a Brigade Liaison Detachment — we have a doctor, military police, a combat engineer, a lawyer and some other specialties. We go in and augment the brigade leadership. But the training we get at El Paso is the same as the training any unit would get, even though our unit is 12 people — we don’t have any vehicles or tanks or equipment a regular unit might have.

From there, as I understand it, we’ll fly a commercial airline owned by the military to Spain, where we’ll refuel. We’ll proceed to Kuwait, and eventually go to Baghdad. We’ll probably be at Camp Victory, and will probably work with the MP brigade that is in charge of Abu Graib.

What will you be doing there?
We’ll be working with internees. My unit is EPW/I — enemy prisoners of war/internees. So that encompasses determining somebody’s status under the Geneva Convention; discipline for those who are enemy prisoners of war, because they can be disciplined under the Uniform Code of Military Justice; and just making sure that unfortunate things don’t happen, like some of the things that happened previously at Abu Graib.

My position, as it was explained to me, will be command judge advocate, so I’ll also be the lawyer for the command. That would involve doing legal work for the troops, although there are so many lawyers there that there might be a specific group that’s assigned to do that. That might mean wills, powers of attorney, credit problems, things like that.

As lawyer for the command, I’ll have a dual role. I might defend soldiers, and I might also prosecute cases or advise the command.

Let’s say there’s an issue with payment of a debt. That’s handled under a provision the UCMJ has called Dishonorable Failure to Pay a Debt. I’ll have to be careful about conflicts of interest. I can’t advise clients on how to handle a debt on one hand and then go on to prosecute them over that same debt. I can’t write a will for someone who disinherits his wife, and then prosecute him for fraternization or adultery on the other hand.

When you’re a command judge advocate, you’re expected to be able to do all those things, but hopefully, there will be so many lawyers that those conflicts don’t come up.

Do you know how many other lawyers will be working with you?
Not yet. We’ll be in summer training with another MP brigade from New York. With the MP brigade we’re augmenting, there could be as many as three lawyers specifically for the command.

At Camp Victory, or wherever our base camp ends up being, for a division-sized element, you could have as many 20 or 30 lawyers, and there are several division-sized elements. So there’ll be a lot of lawyers.

Have they briefed you at all on what kind of caseload to expect?
Not really. But I’ve learned a lot about the unit from the training I’ve had so far … and the NCO I’ve been grouped with — who has essentially been my paralegal — has been [in Iraq], and has explained what I can expect.

I think there will be a lot of Article 5 tribunals — determining whether somebody is an unlawful combatant, or what status he has under the Geneva Convention. Also, there will be hearings about whether someone can be released, and what level of command authority is to dictate that.

Are you leaving behind a family?
I’m single, and I don’t have any kids. In fact, among the 12 in my detachment, only one is married. So that’s fortunate. It’s like they used to do with the Pony Express — they had orphans and single people work on it so there wouldn’t be too many families left behind.

You’re in a pretty good position at TCF. How will your work be covered?
At TCF, we have 11 lawyers in Minnesota alone. In a corporate counsel position, there’s always someone to pick up the slack. It’s not like a solo practitioner, where you have to uproot and hand your clients to somebody. Even if the lawyer you give them to says he’ll give them back, it’s ultimately up to the client. The re-employment rights of someone in a solo practice are pretty minimal. You can have a similar problem in a firm setting. But in a corporate counsel position like mine, it really works out well. Everybody’s been pretty selfless about it.

Have there been any significant professional challenges to going away?
Not a lot. I have to think about Continuing Legal Education. The last time I deployed, in 1998, I was right on the deadline, so I had to quickly send in my CLE affidavit, because I knew I wouldn’t have access to those records where I was going. Depending on how long you’re deployed, the JAG school in Charlesville, Va., lets you take professional development classes while you’re on the road.

Also, I have to think about things like bar dues — if I wait a while, I can get cheaper bar association dues, because military personnel get a discount. So I’m thinking about those kinds of things. I’ve been stationed previously in Kansas and in Washington state, so I know what it’s like to do a lot of that stuff by mail.

Will you still be doing your blog (Swanblog. 2.0) from Iraq?
I will be. I have to inform the command that I’ll be doing it, and I’m going to be writing from a different domain so that I don’t have to worry about something I wrote three years ago that might be misconstrued. Depending on what kind of law I practice, some things I’ve written in the past might be used to make a decision on where to put me. If I wrote something that’s harsh on criminals and I want to work as a defense lawyer, I don’t want that out there.

I’m not going to write about anything operational. I’m not going to write about day-to-day Army gripes — that strikes me as self-indulgent, even though it wouldn’t be prohibited. Complaining about the food or my bosses would be bad form.

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