Answering the call

Issue February 2011 By Bill Archambeault

The start of the new year was particularly busy for Richard A. Sugarman, a commercial litigation lawyer and a longtime volunteer for the Massachusetts Bar Association's Dial-A-Lawyer and Veterans Dial-A-Lawyer programs.

Sugarman, a U.S. Air Force veteran and a major in the U.S. Army Reserves' Judge Advocate General's Corps, deployed late last month for a year in Iraq, where he is assigned to the 804th Medical Brigade. To prepare, he spent a week training with other JAG officers at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., to learn what to expect, and what will be expected of them.

Then he trained for a week in Texas on the legal healthcare issues he'll be dealing with as the U.S. military winds down its presence in Iraq. As the senior legal advisor to the brigade commander for all military medical units in Iraq, he'll be handling an array of legal issues, including: courts martial, implementation of government contracts, ethics issues, senior leader misconduct, detainee medical treatment and military health care issues such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

"It certainly is daunting. You can't be an expert in everything, but every lawyer has to know how to find out where the answer is and who to speak with when an issue comes up in an area in which that lawyer has little prior experience," he said of the responsibilities he'll share with one or two other JAGs and a couple of paralegals.

"It's quite a broad area of topics that we'll be working on. It's very similar to being an in-house counsel. Any day can bring any type of legal issue. We may deal a little bit with Iraqis; we'll deal a little bit with contractors. Part of my job would be to interpret contracts and whether they're being properly implemented."

The deployment is Sugarman's first overseas. The position was one that he applied for, but he didn't learn he'd be spending a year in Iraq until he showed up for his first weekend drill. In addition to the legal and military responsibilities he'll face in the next year, he's also preparing for the emotional strain of being away from his wife and two sons, ages 5 and 2.

"I didn't know the unit was going to be deployed when I applied for it," he said. "(My wife) was very surprised and not very happy about it."

She's had some experience caring for the boys when he's been away for one or two weeks at a time, but the duration of this trip - he's due back in late 2011 - presents a different kind of challenge. His mother lives nearby, and they have friends who are happy to help out while he's gone.

"It's going to be very hard. I don't want to be away from my family," he said, but technology makes serving overseas easier than veterans had it in previous wars and conflicts. "We're fortunate now that we have Skype," he said, noting that he's hoping he'll be able to video-call his family every day.

Sugarman, who said he enjoyed his time as a space and missile operations officer in the Air Force, wanted to continue his service but didn't want to re-enlist. He decided to become a reservist, but the Air Force's JAG training program would have required attending school in Alabama, and he'd already joined a firm in Washington, D.C. So, he signed up for the Army Reserves, which allowed him to complete his military law training via correspondence.

And, during his year in Iraq, he'll be undergoing intensive on-the-job training, which he expects could position him well for when he returns.

Sugarman practices commercial litigation, primarily, but also has experience in employment law, energy law and estate planning. The crash course he'll be getting in health law during his deployment could position him well for a transition when he returns in early 2012.

"That's one area I've found interesting, and may explore once I've returned," he said.

His reserve status has already been beneficial to his career. He switched law firms in late 2007, but soon after, the new firm dissolved. His practice group joined a new law firm, but the business deal underlying that move resulted in layoffs. The Army offered to put him on active duty right away, providing reliable employment. He's anticipating a better job environment in early 2012.

"I think the economy is going to be a lot better than it is now," he said. "I'm also able to practice law for a client I love, at a time of great historical significance in a challenging environment. There are so many other lawyers in transition now that don't have that kind of opportunity. I'm very fortunate."