Legal Eagle

Rutgers alumna Flora D. Darpino has been inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni for her legal contributions to the U.S. Army and her tours of duty in Iraq where she worked to reestablish law in the country. Darpino, commander of the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency and chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, has served two tours in Iraq where her legal council was sought to oversee rebuilding efforts and was rewarded in 2011 with a promotion to rank of brigadier general.
 

Flora D. Darpino grew up in the sort of Italian-American family that gathers around the dinner table for two essential purposes: to eat and to talk politics. So, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that she cut her eyeteeth on argument and no surprise that she decided to go into law. What surprised even Darpino CLAW’86, however, is the kind of law she ended up practicing.

Commander of the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency and chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, she saw combat during the first phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom and was the senior military attorney overseeing efforts to rebuild Iraq and reestablish the rule of law. During her second tour of duty, in 2010–2011, she served as command representative on legal matters involving the U.S. embassy, coalition partners, and the Iraqi government, and she was promoted to brigadier general.

When she and her husband, also an attorney, were starting out, “I saw my future as more suburban,” she says, by which she means home, kids, and a career in corporate litigation. (She is indeed the mother of two daughters.) But her husband’s ROTC scholarship required him to give the Army four years after graduation, and her moot court professor at Rutgers School of Law–Camden suggested she join the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. “I talked to a few folks and found out that you get an incredible amount of experience right out of law school, particularly in litigation,” she says. “I thought, Why not?”

Our success is measured by our ability to train those we work with to be as good as we are.

Flora D. Darpino, commander of the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency and Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni inductee

What keeps Darpino in the Army is, in part, the extraordinary diversity of her legal responsibilities. She may be called on to advise a soldier who just received a “Dear John” letter, then counsel a commander on the legal aspects of discipline and another on whether a bombing mission is within the law of war. In Iraq, she was charged with helping to rebuild a legal system whose upper courts were corrupt and whose local courts had been physically destroyed by Iraqi citizens who viewed them as symbols of Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime. (“We’d go to a town and there’d be a goat pen where the courthouse had once stood,” she remembers.)

That she and her team have seen considerable success in those efforts is gratifying to Darpino, but the most rewarding aspect of Army life, she says, is the fact that “the Army is a team of teams.” Nothing gives her greater satisfaction than picking up the phone and hearing the voice of someone she’s mentored asking for her advice. “Our success is measured by our ability to train those we work with to be as good as we are,” she says. “So the less important you make yourself, the better a leader you are.”

(This story is excerpted from “5 Star Alumni” in the Spring 2012 issue of Rutgers Magazine.)