A Conversation with Military Lawyer Trailblazer Malinda E. Dunn

The Bencher—January/February 2020

By Mary Ann Aiello, Esquire and Mary Kate Coleman, Esquire

As members of the American Inns of Court Foundation Board of Trustees since 2013, we have enjoyed working with and getting to know the organization’s executive director, Malinda E. Dunn, Brigadier General, USA (Ret.). What we knew of Dunn’s life and work history was fascinating and inspiring. So when we saw the theme of this issue of The Bencher, we set out to learn more about this former military lawyer and trailblazer who has many “firsts” to her name, including being the first woman brigadier general on active duty in the Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps. The following are excerpts from our conversation, which took place in Alexandria, Virginia, last summer:

Coleman: Tell us about your family background and how it affected what you did later in life.

Dunn: I was the oldest of six and grew up in Pakistan, Nepal, Taiwan, Afghanistan, India, and Ethiopia, where we moved for my father’s job. My father was a big outdoorsman and took me along on multi-day hunting/fishing trips with his friends and their sons starting when I was six and seven years old. This experience—as well as growing up with four brothers (I also have one sister, who is the youngest)—gave me a certain level of comfort operating around men that stood me in good stead during my early years in the Army. Further, my father never once suggested that I could not or should not do something because I was a girl.

Aiello: What led you to be interested in going into the military?

Dunn: I wanted to travel and live overseas, but most legal jobs are not conducive to that. A close friend in law school did a summer internship with the Army JAG Corps and could not stop talking about what an amazing summer she had and the amazing people with whom she worked. The idea of living overseas and practicing law piqued my interest. After my first year with the JAG Corps, I knew I was going to stay.

Coleman: Tell us about being one of the first women in leadership in the military.

Dunn: The first women integrated into the regular Army in 1978. I joined the JAG Corps only three years later. There were definitely not many female officers around—in the JAG Corps or elsewhere. Fortunately, officers are managed by their branch, and the JAG Corps was fairly serious about assigning women into all units open to women. As it happened, the JAG Corps sent me where I asked to go—places like Korea, Fort Bragg and Fort Carson—and my bosses put me in the developmental jobs in which I needed to be. It also was fortunate that the Army’s strong culture of mentoring meant that senior officers mentored junior officers, so it did not matter whether you were male or female.

Aiello: Were there any barriers that you faced in the military, and how did you overcome them?

Dunn: The Army was, and is, a fairly egalitarian environment. If you could keep up physically, do your job well, be professional, and keep your sense of humor, you could succeed. Having a sense of humor was helpful because if you were a woman or a minority you had to prove yourself in each new unit. Once you did, though, I found there were few barriers. And, the concept of proving myself did not seem out of place to me at that time. I had done it in college, where the first women students were seniors when I was a freshman and the entire faculty was male. I had proved myself in law school where there was one female professor who left after my first year and no female professors after that. So, proving myself seemed perfectly normal to me.

Coleman: Did the attitude toward women in the military change during the time you were in service? If so, how?

Dunn: Vastly. Over time, there were more women. More women to mentor women. More women in leadership positions. More “dual military” couples. More pregnant female soldiers. More women moving up the rank ladder with children. More women with different goals coming into the Army and the JAG Corps and women of differing physical abilities, different family goals, and different personal goals. All of this led to more paths for women and lots more men working for women at different stages in their careers, not just in the JAG Corps, but in most branches of the Army. Women became a truly integral part of the force. One of my favorite stories from Iraq involves a young company commander (a captain) who called me because he was unclear about whether his female soldiers could go out on patrol. As he was talking, I was getting my back up just a bit. Then, he said, “Ma’am, I hope you’re not going to tell me they can’t go out on patrol because they are my best soldiers!” Ah, exactly (chuckling)!

Aiello: If a young woman wanted to join the military today, what would you say to her?

Dunn: The military is a huge adventure, and it is personally and professionally rewarding beyond measure. It is an honor and a privilege to serve your country. You will have tremendous responsibility for work and for people at a very young age—and the training and mentors to help you succeed.

However, you need to be prepared to work really hard, to push yourself physically and mentally, to keep your sense of humor, and to have the confidence to correct people and not take any nonsense from anyone. There is no rank when you are talking about right and wrong. If someone starts to cross a line, you must call them on it immediately. This applies to everything—a woman whose hair is not to standard, a man whose uniform is wrong, any soldier who does not render a proper salute—and anyone, junior or senior, who gets out of line with comments, gestures, and the like. Back in the day, I chased down many a military vehicle from which inappropriate commentary emanated and did on-the-spot impromptu sexual harassment training for the occupants!

Coleman: What was it like serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what were your job duties in those locations?

Dunn: In Afghanistan, I was the staff judge advocate for the Combined Joint Task Force, which translates to being the senior legal adviser to the senior U.S. commander on the ground. I was in Afghanistan fairly early on, in 2003. We had about 20 lawyers in the country—doing everything from working with commanders on targeting to sorting through some serious fiscal law issues; parsing international agreements; working detention operations; teaching and working to change rules of engagement to make them more relevant to operations on the ground; overseeing the constant investigations; assisting soldiers with personal legal issues; prosecuting and defending soldier misconduct; paying claims; managing the different rules of engagement under which our allies were operating; and much more.

Iraq was a much more developed theater; by the time I got there in 2005, we had more than 200 lawyers in the country, doing all the functions listed above plus being involved in environmental and labor law issues; working on significant intelligence law issues; supporting the Central Criminal Court of Iraq as it tried insurgents; working to rebuild police stations and police functions; working to rebuild local courthouses and court functions; being significantly involved with detention operations; engaging with Iraqi Army lawyers; and working really significant targeting issues. In Iraq, I was the staff judge advocate for the commander, Multi-National Corps, Iraq. My boss was the senior commander for all combat forces on the ground in Iraq.

Aiello: How did you balance your career and your family life?

Dunn: (Laughing) I lecture on this. I have an entire slideshow!

First, the military is actually fairly flexible. However, you do deploy, and there are long periods of time where you work 12 hours a day (and you have early-morning physical training). So, my advice is to evaluate what you want to do career-wise. Figure out what you want to accomplish family-wise. Assess the person to whom you are married. Make a plan as to how you are going to handle things. Military child care options are way more flexible and reasonable than out in the civilian world, but even so, there are limitations. Nannies and au pairs are good because they can do errands and watch the children. Lawn services and house cleaning services are a must. All of this preserves your time to be with your children. And, if you are senior, as I was (I had my daughters at age 37 and age 40), make a point to your subordinates that it is okay to get up from your desk at 11 a.m. and go to your child’s preschool play—by putting it on your public calendar and doing it.

Coleman: Is there any one thing you did in the military of which you are particularly proud? What is it and why?

Dunn: I was proud to represent the Army at repatriation ceremonies at Dover Air Force Base during the height of the Iraq conflict in 2006, 2007, and 2008. It is somber duty, but such a privilege to honor our fallen as they return to the United States—no matter the day of the week or the time of day or night. It made me proud to be an American.

I also was proud to be part of one team after another that made a difference to the Army at the unit, installation, and, eventually, national level. As I became more senior, I was very fortunate to be able to support some incredible subordinates who had great ideas. One example is the colonel who came to me with an entire plan to create a cadre of specially trained prosecutors to handle child and adult sexual assault cases. This occurred several years before all the media attention on sexual assault in the Armed Forces. The Army created the Special Victim Prosecutor program and had it in place.

Aiello: Who inspired you and served as your role models?

Dunn: First, my father, who taught me to be straightforward, treated me just like my brothers so it never occurred to me that I could not do what men did, and demonstrated that you can manage both family and significant work. Also, the commanders for whom I worked at every level in the Army who inspired me with their intellect, leadership, love of soldiers, and common sense—and who treated me just like everyone else in the unit. By doing that they gave me credibility and enhanced the credibility of all women. Finally, women who were my peers in the Army who gave me great ideas on child care options, reassured me that children are very capable of distinguishing caregivers from parents, showed me that a little sass and a little humor goes a long way, delighted me with their friendship and support, and astonished me with their brains, commitment, and resilience.

Coleman: Why did you choose to work for the American Inns of Court when you retired after more than 28 years with the military?

Dunn: As I was preparing to retire, I knew that I had to find a job with a real mission. I wasn’t even sure whether it would be related to the law. I was very fortunate to find the American Inns of Court with its important mission and absolutely amazing members and leaders.

Aiello: You have served as a mentor to others in the military. How does it inform what you do for AIC since mentoring is such an important part of our mission?

Dunn: I think mentoring is the single most important aspect of any workplace. A workplace where those even slightly more senior and more experienced take the time to guide and mentor those who are more junior and less experienced is a workplace where you can make mistakes, learn, and grow—and a workplace where values and work ethic are passed down and reinforced. The mentoring that goes on in American Inns of Court around the country is absolutely crucial to our profession and the rule of law. 

Coleman: Is the American Inns of Court a good organization for women lawyers?

Dunn: Absolutely! It brings women in legal communities together, thereby fostering the oh-so-important mentoring. It creates a community where women lawyers can bounce things off each other: family issues, substantive work issues, and personal work issues. And, women are strong leaders within the American Inns of Court, which makes us a better organization and shines a spotlight on those great women leaders in their own legal communities across the country.

Aiello: What is your vision for the American Inns of Court in the future?

Dunn: My vision is for a larger and more connected American Inns of Court. I want all members to be excited about being part of an organization that makes our profession better. We are the lawyers; we are responsible for respect for the rule of law.

Coleman: Do you have any goals you would like to accomplish while you are still working?

Dunn: I am very excited about the strategic planning the board did and the focus on bringing new and expanded programs like the National Advocacy Training Program and the annual National Conversation on Civility to our members. We are taking the first steps toward establishing a regular development process for the Foundation, so that we have the resources to support scholarship programs and to reach out to more lawyers in more communities in order to make our profession better. I know our Inn members want other lawyers and judges to share in the great experience of belonging to an American Inn of Court.

Aiello: Do you have a vision for what your eventual retirement looks like?

Dunn: That’s the $64,000 question! I hope it involves lots of family time with my husband and daughters. I know it involves some sort of consistent, significant volunteer activity. And, I hope it continues to involve travel and adventure!

More information about Malinda Dunn is available here.

Mary Kate Coleman, Esquire, is a civil litigation attorney, mediator, and arbitrator with the law firm of Riley Hewitt Witte & Romano P.C. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is a Master of the Bench in the Hay-Sell Pittsburgh American Inn of Court. Mary Ann Aiello, Esquire, is a partner in the matrimonial law firm of Aiello & DiFalco LLP in Garden City, New York. She is a Master of the Bench in the New York Family Law American Inn of Court.

© 2020 Mary Ann Aiello, Esquire and Mary Kate Coleman, Esquire. This article was originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.