Growing up in a family of police officers in Sayreville, New Jersey, Lieutenant Commander Shawn Brennan LL.M. ’22 never dreamed that he would find himself serving in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps. He also never thought he would have the luxury to dedicate himself to his studies full-time. This year he is finally able to do so — at Harvard — courtesy of the Naval Postgraduate School’s civilian institutions program.
The first in his family to attend college, Brennan had always expected to follow his uncles into law enforcement. Hoping to satisfy the requirements to join the New Jersey State Police, he enrolled in a criminal justice program at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. To fund his studies, he worked two jobs: as a security guard on the night shift at a hospital emergency room, and on weekends and for special events as a police officer in Sayreville. When he was unable to get a full-time state police job, he took an internship as a driver and aide to his local congressman, Frank Pallone, Jr.
Politics stuck. The internship turned into a full-time position and Brennan decided to take a break from school. He then moved to the New Jersey Governor’s Office, where he spent three years managing the governor’s day-to-day schedule, travel, and logistics and serving as a liaison with other government officials, business leaders, the press, and the public. When the governor left office, Brennan resumed his studies, earning a joint B.S. and M.A. in criminal justice, and then enrolling in the part-time evening program at Rutgers Law School, where he earned his J.D. in 2009. During the day, he again worked for Congressman Pallone, this time as the district director responsible for managing Pallone’s three offices in New Jersey.
While he enjoyed this work, he decided he wanted to use his legal training to shift his focus from politics to policy while continuing to serve in government. At the time, the U.S. was engaged in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and Brennan was taking courses in the areas of national security law and Islamic jurisprudence. The Navy JAG program seemed like a good fit. “One of the great things about the Navy, and one of the things that drew me to the Navy, was the ability to move all around the world and do a number of different things while still maintaining the same general focus.”
Over his 12 years in the Navy, Brennan has done just that. His postings have taken him to San Diego, California; Afghanistan; Japan; Norfolk, Virginia; and, most recently, to the Pentagon. And his responsibilities have ranged from prosecution and defense work to advising senior Navy executives. On his first tour in San Diego, Brennan served as defense counsel for sailors and provided general legal assistance to sailors and their families. “It was a great way to learn about sailors and their jobs, what’s important to them, and what the impacts are on them of serving and having to move around,” he recalls. “Getting that perspective early on has helped me immensely throughout my Navy career.”
Next, he deployed with an Army unit to Logar Province, Afghanistan for nine months, relieving Anthony P. “Tony” Sham LL.M. ’20, who was also a Navy JAG officer. Working within an Army unit gave Brennan the opportunity to see how a different branch of the military operated. “My tour in Afghanistan was a great experience,” he recalls. “It was particularly interesting to work with a lot of our coalition partners, and most importantly, to work with local Afghans. I was partnered with an Afghan national security prosecutor; our job was to help facilitate insurgent prosecutions in the Afghan courts. These were the folks that would be detained and then prosecuted in local courts for violating Afghan law, as distinguished from those who would be detained and held by the coalition.” Part of the goal was to build a sustainable system in the Afghan courts for the longer-term. “We wanted to look at Afghan practices and how they could make them work in the best way possible.”
From Afghanistan, Brennan moved to Japan, where he first served as a military prosecutor and then led a team of attorneys and paralegals who worked with over 100 afloat and on-shore commands throughout the Western Pacific, providing legal advice and training on military justice, foreign criminal jurisdiction, administrative actions, and ethics. It was during his tour in Japan that Brennan was recognized by a competitive selection board as the 2016 Junior Officer of the Year for the U.S. Navy JAG Corps.
Upon his return to the U.S., Brennan was assigned to the U.S. Fleet Forces Command and most recently to the Office of the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, where he provided legal advice to senior Navy executives on high-level legal issues, including Navy policy, standards of conduct, and legislative proposals.
During much of his time in the Navy, Brennan continued to study on a part-time basis. In 2018, he earned a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College, an institution that provides advanced training to Navy officers. While it is common for operational command officers to study at the Naval War College, at the time it was not required of JAG officers. Brennan is glad he did so; in advising Navy leaders, he frequently draws on his experience studying with other types of officers. “The value JAGs provide to the Navy is to be able to think critically, communicate clearly, and help people make decisions. Doing and learning the same things that other officers do provides a helpful context as to how leaders are making those decisions.”
Being able to devote himself full-time to his studies at HLS has enabled Brennan to take advantage of a wide range of opportunities during his LL.M. year. He is continuing to study national security law and public international law, and he is also taking courses on China, including Professor William P. Alford’s Engaging China course, which is taught jointly with students at Renmin University in Beijing. He’d like to gain an understanding of how China’s legal system has developed and to understand “from their perspective how they are making decisions, why they make the decisions they do, and how they might view our decisions in light of their framework.”
Studying full-time has also put Brennan on even footing with his three school-aged children, who enjoy teasing him about being a student. While he and his family are enjoying their time in Cambridge, Brennan’s next posting is only a few months away, and he expects to receive his next set of orders soon. He hopes to have the chance to go to sea again; in particular, he would like to advise the command of one of the carrier strike groups that the Navy deploys all over the world.