We asked Kelly Anderson, BA ’14, to tell us about her path from drama major at UD to Navy JAG, and how her liberal arts degree and her theater training in particular help her in her career.
Because of the senior studio project — I was interested in the ability to create something out of my major, particularly in adapting my own play.
I graduated intending to teach fine arts and American history for a year, with possible plans to apply to law school. Basically, I wasn’t sure of my long-term plans, but I figured I’d give teaching a try and then I’d figure it out. I ended up teaching for a year, during which I gained a ton of respect for teachers and became very firmly convinced that it was not what I was meant to do. I completed my law school applications that same year, got in, and then ended up going to law school at Notre Dame the following year.
The JAGC was something I had considered prior to law school. I was aware of it because my dad served in the Army and is a lawyer. He mentioned the JAGC as one of the remaining ways to get litigation experience, which is what I thought I wanted going into law school. I enjoyed my military justice tour working as a defense counsel, but so far I am far more interested in operational law, which is law that advises military operations, so typically law of war, maritime law, and, increasingly, cyber law. I didn’t even know that cyber law existed going into law school, let alone graduating from college, so that has been a surprise, and I absolutely love it.
In law school, I spent a year studying in London and interning for a member of the House of Commons, then spent my third year externing for a federal judge. Applied for the Navy JAGC my last year of law school and fortunately got accepted. I then commissioned the July after graduation and attended Officer Development School in October 2018, followed by Naval Justice School in January 2019. From 2019 to 2021 I was stationed in Washington, D.C., first as a staff judge advocate (like being in-house counsel for a military unit), then as a legal assistance attorney, and finally as a defense counsel. I then moved to Diego Garcia, where I currently serve as the staff judge advocate for the U.S. Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia.
No day is ever the same. I cannot count the number of days so far in my short career when I’ve gotten a call with a question I would never have predicted or anticipated. I have plenty of normal bread-and-butter military law work (investigations, military justice, international law) but also just a decent amount of really unique problems. Military law issues are really as varied as military operations.
We’re pretty far out here in Diego Garcia, and it’s a very unique opportunity to support those missions in a remote location with all the constraints and responsibilities that go with that remoteness. JAG work, whether you’re advising on discipline or operations or serving as counsel — whether trial or defense — for a court martial, is all about military readiness, like everything else in the military. Particularly working as an SJA, I find that it requires an adaptability and creativity that reminds me of theater. You’re largely solving problems and dealing in various plans and expectations, and the thing about any kind of plan is that it never quite goes the way it’s supposed to (then creating more problems).
But in the military, like in theater, when things go wrong, you adapt. The show has to continue, and so does the mission. So it’s the fun of flexing and getting creative to make sure whatever needs to happen still gets done that I really love; it’s solving a problem and then when the facts change so that the old solution doesn’t work anymore, it's solving the problem again. It’s really never boring.
My drama major and my UD education have been extremely useful. Speaking to theater, honestly, being an SJA is a lot like being a dramaturge (something I was given the opportunity to do at UD). You do the research, you give the advice, and then the military commander makes the call because it’s his risk to take.
In theater, all calls are the directors, so similarly you lay out your advice and then let the director direct the show. In order to do my thesis, I was required to pitch it in two minutes to the professors, which is great prep for giving briefs. The skills required to boil down the action to its essence, whether to direct a scene or to pitch it, are really useful in summing up complicated legal issues into manageable advice (in the military, we call that “Bottom Line Up Front,” or “BLUF”).
Finally, I’ll note that theater taught me a ton about planning and leading. I’m emergency management officer for Diego Garcia as my collateral right now, which is an extra job you get assigned in the military. Basically, I manage the Emergency Operations Center whenever it is activated, controlling the room, ensuring all information is collected from across the room, facilitating communications across operations, and making sure the information gets to the commanding officer so he can make calls to control response.
Essentially, this job is stage managing (something I did at UD) but for a very strange play where people might actually die. I’ve shepherded the installation through a variety of drills and one real world stand-up, and in doing that, I completely relied on my theater degree. Project management from directing the studio has also come in handy when asked to organize other command items throughout my career.
In the courtroom, working with witnesses is a lot like directing, and making a case is essentially putting on a show using a bunch of scenes and words you don’t get to choose.
I’d also note that, for me, studying the classics gave me personally a framework through which to process what I’ve encountered in my job, from adjusting to military life to confronting the reality of what I saw as a criminal defense attorney. The classics are great for reminding you that wherever you’re at, someone else has been there before. I’ll note that it isn’t always the books I read at UD that hit me necessarily, but I don’t think I’d have read a lot of the books that do if I hadn’t attended UD. Many of them were recommended by the friends I made there. Graham Greene particularly I would say was one of the most significant authors for me when I worked as a defense counsel, and he was recommended by my college roommate.
To current students, I’d say this: Don’t be afraid to try something and get it wrong. Being able to learn involves a certain ability to accept failure. Theater taught me that — [Associate Professor of Drama] Stefan [Novinski, M.F.A., BA ’92] used to say that everyone fails their thesis. You will get it wrong. Then you learn from it, and the next piece of art is better.
I have no idea how many times I changed my major before I settled on theater (it was a lot). After graduation, I tried teaching — it wasn’t for me; decided to study law, went to London where I tried international law, and then from there kind of fell into an interest in operational law, an area I certainly didn’t even know existed going into law school.
One of the things I love about the Navy JAGC in particular is that the pattern of moving jobs every two years gives me the opportunity to keep doing that. I liked being a defense counsel; next I’m headed to a ship, which I think will be a real adventure, but maybe I’ll be wrong. My point is, I feel like everything I’ve tried, I’ve learned a little bit more about what I’m looking for and a little bit more about what doesn’t work. I wouldn’t have learned any of that if I hadn’t just tried it, if I hadn’t been OK with being wrong about my choice. Obviously, some endeavors are bigger investments (law school, med school) but while that should definitely be taken into account, in the end the only way you’ll actually know whether you’re starting on the right path is to take the risk of being wrong.
I’d also say to the artists — it doesn’t have to be either/or, in terms of whether you continue to make art or have a different career path. I did a play my first year of law school with Notre Dame’s film television and theater department, worked with third-graders through 12th-graders on Shakespeare plays with the Robinson Shakespeare Company my last year; in D.C. I had a group of friends who would do Shakespeare reading parties, and here I’m doing a theater club. Sure, that’s not pursuing a career in theater, but I’m very happy with what I do now, and I appreciate that theater stayed a part of my life. I think the two (my career and theater) are made richer by the fact that I have both. I would be a less interesting artist if I were not a Navy JAG, and I would not be the officer I am without my art.
Also, if anyone is thinking about the military — whether Navy, Army, Marines, Air Force — and particularly about the JAGC, please feel free to reach out.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to be connected to Kelly.
All opinions expressed here are those of Kelly Anderson, not the viewpoint of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy, and no departmental endorsement is implied.