Alumni Q&A: Richard Gross '93 Provides Legal Advice to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Brig. Gen. Richard Gross
Brig. Gen. Richard Gross, a 1993 alumnus of the University of Virginia School of Law, serves as the legal counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's highest-ranking military officer and principal military adviser to the president.
Gross recently discussed his duties, career path and what it's like to serve as a top lawyer in the military in a time of war.
What was your career path? What led you to your current position?
I graduated from West Point in 1985 and began my Army career as an infantry officer in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. I later attended UVA Law under the Army's Funded Legal Education Program.
My career path changed dramatically in the summer of 2001 when I "took the road less traveled" and volunteered to go to an Army special operations unit at Fort Bragg as their sole legal adviser (ironically, a friend told me that job would "ruin my career"). The events of 9/11 occurred a few months after I reported to the unit, which resulted in two deployments to Afghanistan. After that, with the exception of a two-year stint in Germany with V Corps [the Army's only permanently forward-deployed corps], all of my subsequent legal adviser jobs were with joint and special operations units, to include the Joint Special Operations Command, the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, and U.S. Central Command. With those jobs came many more opportunities to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2011, I was selected for the position of legal counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and for promotion to brigadier general.
What are the duties of the legal counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
I provide legal advice to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest ranking military officer and the principal military adviser to the president, the secretary of defense and the National Security Council. I advise the chairman and the Joint Staff on any legal issues that arise in the course of day-to-day military operations worldwide, as well as any other issues affecting the military upon which the chairman provides military advice.
What are some of the key issues you work on in your job?
It's typically the stuff that makes the headlines. The toughest issues always involve the use of military force around the world, not only the international and domestic legal bases for the use of force (the jus ad bellum issues), but also the legal issues surrounding the employment of that force (jus in bello).
What is the most professionally rewarding thing you've done as the chairman's legal counsel?
I've had the privilege of attending a few [National Security Council] Deputies Committee meetings and one Principals Committee meeting at the White House as a "plus one" (and once or twice, as the sole Joint Staff representative at a Deputies Committee meeting). It's fascinating to participate in the national security policy process as our nation's senior leaders deliberate over some of the most challenging issues facing us today.
[The National Security Council Deputies Committee includes the deputies to senior members of the U.S. cabinet. Outside the cabinet, it is the highest-level interagency committee dealing with issues of national security. The Principals Committee includes the State, Treasury and Defense secretaries, as well as the White House chief of staff and the assistant to the president for National Security Affairs. The director of Central Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff attend where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are discussed.]
What is your typical day like?
Long, challenging and never dull! I can't tell you how many days I've come in planning to work on one thing, and then something else completely different (usually in the headlines) becomes the focus of my day. Other than a few regularly scheduled meetings in the morning, the days vary greatly depending upon what's happening around the world.
One of the real privileges of my job is working with the interagency lawyers' group. If a national security policy discussion in the interagency raises legal issues, the National Security Staff legal counsel will convene the legal advisers from Defense, Joint Staff, State, Justice, and the intelligence community to work through the legal issues. It's a privilege to work with these dedicated professionals.
How has your degree from UVA Law helped you in your career?
My education at UVA Law really set me up for success. I took a broad range of classes across multiple disciplines, rather than focusing on one particular area of the law, and that has served me well. At UVA, I learned how to identify legal risks, think through all sides of the issues, and solve problems for my clients. Additionally, the institution itself commands great respect, even outside the legal community, so whenever I'm asked about where I went to law school, my answer always elicits a very positive response.
Did you always want to be a military lawyer? What about that career appealed to you?
I decided in ninth grade I wanted to be an attorney, but I wasn't thinking about the military. In 11th grade, I decided to go to West Point, which meant entering the Army after graduation, but I still hadn't decided to put the two together. Sometime in about my third year of service, I decided to combine the two and seek to become a military lawyer. It was a great decision — I have truly loved serving my country while practicing law. I've worked with great people, traveled all over the world, and have many exciting things to tell my grandkids someday (my kids are tired of listening).
What advice would you give people who are interested in pursuing a similar career path?
Be prepared to travel to "exotic" locations!