Lt. Col. Karen W. Riddle has traveled far and wide from her native of town of Itta Bena, having lived in Japan, Korea, Germany and Iraq while practicing in diverse areas of the law. She has a passion for criminal law, and has worked as a defense attorney, prosecutor and military judge. She has also worked in claims including medical malpractice and torts.
Currently Riddle is command counsel for U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, Colorado Springs, Col. Training for the recently promoted officer’s new job has included going to Continuing Legal Education courses and training conducted by the Army and Air Force in ballistic missile defense, space law, and space operations.
Riddle highly recommends the military as a place where an attorney has opportunities for more experience and promotion than are usually found in civilian life.
“You get a lot of practical experience,” Riddle said. “You immediately start work. In the military, within the first few months a lawyer may be prosecuting and defending serious felony cases. You could be a new lieutenant in the Army trying a big criminal case, or you could be deployed advising commanders in life and death situations.”
Military law varies from civilian law, and on-the-job training is combined with frequent CLE courses.
“You are constantly being trained by some of the best attorneys in the world,” she said. “I tell young attorneys starting out from law school that if you aren’t sure what area of the law you want to practice, the military helps you narrow it down. Even if you stay in for just a few years, you will develop skills and practice areas.”
Her advice for young law students is two fold: Find an area of the law that you love and that makes a contribution. Second, be willing to pay your dues.
“Whether it is a private law practice or the military, employers are not just looking for people to put in the hours,” Riddle said.
“You have to be smart, creative, have a good work ethic, and integrity. You must be willing to stand up and be a different voice. That is particularly important in the military where you find yourself advising commanders.
“You can’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ all the time. You need to be the voice at the table that says, ‘You have to think about this’.”
While society has some pre-conceived notions about African American women, Riddle said the military has very good programs in place to prevent discrimination based on race or gender.
“Soldiers in the military are just normal people who happen to wear a uniform, so it is possible to run into people who might have prejudices,” Riddle said.
“I do think the military deals with this very well. The Army does a good job of training people to overcome prejudices. It has been at the forefront of racial integration. This is an organization that really is all about what you produce–your rank, time and service, versus color, background and gender.
“It really is a good organization.”
Riddle finds the most challenging thing about her job is balancing her professional and personal life.
“I think it is a lot harder in the military because it is not just a job, but a way of life,” said Riddle.
“You can’t rely on one spouse doing all the work. I realize I do need to make some time for family. I need to come home early at times. A lot of it comes down to prioritizing. A lot of people in the military I’ve worked with have a strong work ethic, initiative and drive. They want things completed on time and to be perfect. But sometimes you need to step back and say maybe an A minus is okay for this project.”
In private law, sometimes lawyers will work very long hours in order to generate income for the law practice money and make partner. Often that can cause problems in marriages.
Riddle said in the military, if you neglect your family, you can lose your job; you can get in trouble for not supporting your family like you should.
Right now Riddle’s husband, Paul E. Wagner, who is a signal officer, is deployed overseas. That leaves her as a single parent to their son, Ethan, 11.
“I have to balance what I need to get done in the day,” she said.
“I can’t stay and work all night like I used to because there is no one else to come home, cook dinner, and get Ethan to his hockey games and tournaments.”
During her deployments to Japan, Korea, Germany, and Iraq, Riddle got to experience living in those countries—not just visiting them. And she has taken advantage of opportunities to travel throughout Europe and Asia.
“What I like the most about the military is the traveling, but the other part is that it is very rewarding mentoring attorneys to be better advocates,” Riddle said.
“The military has a strong focus on developing leaders. I’ve learned so much from my mentors, and have been able to pass that along by mentoring attorneys who have worked under me. I love when I hear back from them about their successes. Often the military experience helps them get hired in the private sector.”
Currently the government and the economy are restructuring, and the military is downsizing.
“Soldiers are concerned about job security,” said Riddle, who plans to stay until retirement. “They are tightening up how many are going to stay in until retirement. People also are concerned about the loss of benefits. But it is the same in the private sector.”
Riddle and her family love hiking and other outdoor activities, so they are enjoying Colorado. But she misses the warmer winters in the South and may come back to the South after retiring from the military.
“My goal has always been to be a judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals,” Riddle said.
“Or, I would love to be on the Mississippi Supreme Court.”