Annie Vodhanel Preis ’13 first began thinking about pursuing a legal degree while she was working with non-government organizations in Indonesia during a post-college fellowship. She wanted to study law so she could help more people but was unsure what kind of law would make the most impact. Her younger brother, a member of the US Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps in college, encouraged her to look into the opportunities for service offered by the US Army Judge Advocate General's (JAG) Corps.
Preis is now a staff judge advocate in the Navy JAG Corps, providing legal advice to naval admirals, commanders, and sailors. In this Q&A, Preis says she’s glad she took her brother’s advice.
How did NYU Law help prepare you for your military career? Were there any courses or experiences you found particularly impactful?
I was applying to law school while living in Indonesia, and I was looking exclusively at schools that had strong public international law programs, as well as schools that had loan forgiveness for public interest—so NYU Law was the right choice.
Helen Hershkoff, [Herbert M. and Svetlana Wachtell Professor of Constitutional Law and Civil Liberties,] has become a person who I probably think of every single day when I practice law. I took a class with her, but I also was her teaching assistant. I have her final words to us—about how you have an obligation to be the best prepared person in the room—constantly in my head. The rigor with which she approached regulatory law is something that I aspire to. And then Professor [Samuel] Rascoff’s national security law class was substantively formative, and he was also incredibly kind and helpful as I was figuring out whether I really did want to become a JAG.
I also did an internship with the Navy JAG Corps after my 1L year. I was skeptical that the culture of the military would be one that I liked, and so I wanted to actually see what it felt like. It turned out to be a really positive environment to be in, and surprisingly to me, a diverse environment to be in.
After graduation, I joined JAG as an officer, and I was probably one of the best prepared in my JAG Corps class in terms of national security law because of the critical thinking skills I gained at the Law School.
Tell me about your position in JAG. What does it involve?
My position is called staff judge advocate, which is the same role I’ve filled for most of the time since I joined. The Navy has a pretty structured pipeline from when you pass the bar onwards. After some trainings, my first tour was in San Diego with one of our legal offices, and I did a rotation providing general command advice, then providing legal assistance services to service members and their families on issues like family law, landlord and tenant law, and personal property issues. I also did six months in a prosecutor’s office and six months in a defense office. Each tour is two to three years.
My tour after that was on an aircraft carrier, and I was in charge of advising all of the disciplinary action taken for various types of infractions by sailors on the carrier. From there I went to Bahrain where I advised the commander of all maritime forces in the Middle East on government ethics issues. And then from there I went to a schoolhouse to help train new lawyers.
Currently, I am the only attorney assigned to this carrier strike group staff [in Washington State], where I advise the admiral on international and domestic laws and policies, navy regulations, and then assuring any disciplinary action against sailors is in accordance with laws and regulations.
What moment are you most proud of in your 10 years of service?
My favorite tour was on the aircraft carrier. When you’re on a crew of a ship that has to stay afloat and do all the things it’s told to do, it just really intensifies the sense of being all on one team. On that tour, I also got to qualify as an officer-of-the-deck, which means essentially that I got to drive the aircraft carrier a few hours every day.
This job I have right now I enjoy because I’m the sole legal advisor to a commander who’s making hard decisions. I appreciate getting to be a part of tough calls. In addition to being a lawyer, I am a naval officer every day. I’m surrounded by really good leaders who have thought about being good leaders since they were 18 years old. I learn so much from watching how they do it, and then in my small legal world trying to implement the effective things that I see around me.
What skills have you found important in your position?
Having a posture towards learning is very important because you’re giving sometimes high-stakes legal advice on a wide variety of topics. I’ve had to learn how submarines operate, how a war is planned from beginning to end, and the tactical considerations that all the different domains of warfare consider, among other command-specific things.
I think flexibility is also definitely required. You have to be willing to move and change your job all the time. I really enjoy the JAG Corps for how diverse it is, but that also means that you have to be ready to hear lots of different people’s ideas and to compromise.
Has any aspect of your career surprised you?
My parents were Vietnam War protestors. I protested wars when I was in high school and college. I was not a fan of some of the military actions that we’ve taken as a nation. I think if I had [assumed] out of hand that I just wasn’t a military person because I didn’t know anyone in the military, and had this Hollywood version of what somebody in the military was like, then I would’ve missed out on what has been a really incredible opportunity and a fulfilling career. Thinking about my career choices that led me here, I think that ultimately I just really felt a deep call to service. That’s what it came down to.
Also, my brother also went on to become a Navy JAG! We call each other probably a few times a week to ask each other questions, and bounce ideas off each other. I also had the opportunity last year to work with another NYU Law alumna, Lieutenant Amy Zajac ’16. It is very exciting to me to see women succeeding in the Navy, so that was also an especially exciting thing for me to share—two lady NYU Law JAGs on board one carrier.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Posted May 24, 2023.