Throughout Star Trek, legal and quasi-legal proceedings from court martials to arbitration (see the TNG episode "Devil's Due") use members of the crew as lawyers. Obviously, in real life, this is because the stars of the show are the people who the producers want on-screen.

However, in universe, why does the flagship of the Federation, which adheres (in theory) to the rule-of-law, not carry lawyers like real life militaries do? For example, in real life, a US Navy aircraft carrier has three JAGs on it to give legal counsel to the officers in conducting their duties. For remote outposts like DS9, it is understandable why there might not be a full complement,but it seems ridiculous that Riker has to step in as a defence counsel (TNG: "The Drumhead") or Troi has to analyse treaties for loopholes ("The Ensigns of Command")?

Are there any in-universe reasons as to why a ship that can afford to have full-time civilian bar proprietor and several civilian waiters ("Lower Decks"), a barber, and a number of pets doesn't have a lawyer, especially when that is standard practice in most democratic countries' navies today?

  • Or that Riker get pressed into service in "Measure of a Man". Aug 28, 2021 at 23:30
  • 21
    Because there are airlocks and the temptation would be too great
    – Valorum
    Aug 28, 2021 at 23:34
  • 1
    This doesn't answer the core question, but I always assumed the staff in Ten Forward as well as Mister Mott were civilians performing a function on the ship, not servicemen filling Starfleet positions.
    – Xantec
    Aug 28, 2021 at 23:37
  • 20
    Obviously being a utopian society, the Federation got rid of all the lawyers.
    – Cadence
    Aug 29, 2021 at 0:34
  • 5
    @Cadence That must explain why the Klingons still had them.
    – Xantec
    Aug 29, 2021 at 7:51

4 Answers 4


Part of the answer is that starships (even in the TNG era) are generally near a starbase so that if there were some need for a JAG you could go there and have your issue adjudicated. From The Measure of a Man

PHILLIPA: When I prosecuted you in the Stargazer court martial, I was doing my job.
PICARD: Oh, you did more than your job. You enjoyed it.
PHILLIPA: Not true! A court martial is standard procedure when a ship is lost. I was doing my duty as an officer of the Judge Advocate General.

And later (emphasis mine)

PICARD: Yes, I came to you. You're the JAG officer for this sector. I had no choice but to come to you.

Apparently all officers are briefed in some form with regards to legal matters. When Picard wants to have a trial about Data being a person, we have this exchange (emphasis mine)

PHILLIPA: Captain, that would be exceedingly difficult. This is a new base. I have no staff.
PICARD: But surely, Captain, you have regulations to take care of such an eventuality.
PHILLIPA: There are. I can use serving officers as legal counsel. You as the senior officer would defend.
PICARD: Very good.
PHILLIPA: And the unenviable task of prosecuting this case would fall on you, Commander, as the next most senior officer of the defendant's ship.

Another place we see the central JAG system would be in the TNG episode The Pegasus

PICARD: Yes, there is. (reading) Judge Advocate General's Report. Stardate 36764. Subject, inquiry into mutiny aboard USS Pegasus. Based on testimony from Captain Pressman and other surviving officers, the Judge Advocate believes there is sufficient evidence to conclude that certain members of the crew did mutiny against the captain just prior to the destruction of the Pegasus. Mutiny on a Federation starship? That's shocking. It's unthinkable. And yet you've never mentioned it.

Later (emphasis mine)

PICARD: I've spoken to Fleet Admiral Shanthi. There will be a full inquiry once we reach Starbase two four seven, and that will probably lead to a general court martial of Admiral Pressman and several others at Starfleet Intelligence. Your involvement in this affair is going to be thoroughly investigated, Will. There'll be some hard questions for you to answer.

This even extends back to the TOS era. Kirk was tried by fellow captains at Starbase 11 (although the Enterprise was already there). From Court Martial

KIRK: Captain's Log, Stardate 2948.9. The officers who will comprise my court-martial board are proceeding to Starbase Eleven.

And later

STONE: This court is now in session. I have appointed as members of this court Space Command Representative Lindstrom, Starship Captains Krasnovsky and Chandra. Captain Kirk, I direct your attention to the fact that you have a right to ask for substitute officers if you feel that any of these named harbour any prejudiced attitudes to your case.
KIRK: I have no objections, sir.
STONE: Do you consent to the service Lieutenant Shaw as prosecuting officer and to myself as president of the court?
KIRK: I do, sir.

  • "starships are generally near a starbase" - even ones boldly going where no one has gone before?
    – komodosp
    Aug 31, 2021 at 8:56

Honestly the real answer is plot convenience.

But the in-universe answer would be that legal practice is just not that hard anymore.

I don't mean this in the sense that all the laws have been simplified to the extent that expertise isn't required anymore (obviously this is not the case in light of all the differing legal systems of every planetary system you might encounter).

Instead, we are meant to believe that humans have advanced so much that a capable person (including, at a minimum, the senior officers) have advanced so much since our time, that they are completely capable of handling such cases themselves. Examples of advancement since our time include:

  • people pick up fluency in languages routinely
  • all 9-year-olds do calculus
  • Picard is expert in whatever he puts his mind to, to dabble in Fermat's Last Theorem and the most advanced areas of archeology
  • and, your examples themselves: any competent officer can practice the law in a meaningful way

In other words, humans have advanced so much that many fields simply don't require advanced expertise anymore.

  • I'm not sure how many of these are advances. Do we ever seen anyone develop actual fluency in a foreign language than isn't or can't be explained away as the use of the UT? I often wonder if the population of 9-year-olds that could handle calculus, suitably presented, is larger than the population given the opportunity to learn calculus. (It's less an issue of calculus being harder than other areas than it being less immediately applicable than other topics of study.)
    – chepner
    Aug 30, 2021 at 16:23
  • And if Picard ever took a stab at trying to prove Fermat's Last Theorem (which isn't that hard to state or understand, only prove), that doesn't really set him apart from any number of amateur mathematicians of the last few centuries.
    – chepner
    Aug 30, 2021 at 16:23
  • @chepner I too have wondered about that about calculus. I was 9 when that episode aired but don't have access to 9 year olds to do the experiment and moms at the grocery store are no help. I suspect it would be easier than one thinks if tailored correctly. Not that I was too exceptional as an 18 year old for the standard way it was taught. I think some experience with graphs and slopes shouldn't be that hard. Likewise getting from empty box or question mark to variable shouldn't be that hard either. But again what was my excuse as it was hard. Aug 30, 2021 at 17:29
  • The problem with calculus is not that it's inherently hard, nor that small children have no opportunity to learn it. The real problem is that you cannot begin to do calculus unless you have at least an informal notion of algebra, which you can't do until you learn arithmetic (at least to the point of being able to understand the field axioms), and then there's fractions, negative numbers, etc. which have to be squeezed in as well. Getting all that done by nine is hard simply because there aren't enough useful hours of instruction available.
    – Kevin
    Aug 30, 2021 at 23:25
  • @Kevin : .... and somehow humans have advanced to the point that all the prereqs are covered by a young age. It is clear that this isn't because they are spending 20 hours a day six days a week learning math. They somehow now can absorb more information and concepts faster. That's the entire thesis here. Aug 31, 2021 at 20:43

Because the Starfleet Academy graduates are lawyers

This is a strange conclusion, but it is logically necessitated by the events of the TNG episode "The Drumhead", when Admiral Satie and her investigating team accuse Crewman Simon Tarses of betraying the Federation.

The magnitude of the legal trouble Mr. Tarses was in cannot be overstated; it is analogous to having a senior US Attorney and the FBI accusing an American of treason.

We know from Picard's actions and words in the episode that he is deeply concerned about preserving the rights guaranteed by the Federation Constitution, and will not allow Admiral Satie to step over them. We also know from this episode that there is an apparent right to counsel (like that guaranteed by the ECHR and the US Constitution) in the Federation.

Given that Picard is eager to protect Tarses's fundamental rights as an accused person, and also given that Picard is smart enough to know that someone in Tarses's position is in so much legal trouble that they especially need a laywer, we can infer that he would not accept shortcuts or workarounds for Tarses's rights. The whole thrust of the episode is Picard defending rights against a McCarthy-esque witchhunt, after all.

Therefore, we can reasonably infer that Picard would not have allowed Tarses to be represented by an amateur or unqualified person, since doing so would vitiate the entire point of having a right to counsel. Why then, was Picard content to have Riker be the defense attorney, rather than insisting the Enterprise ditch to the nearest Starbase or set up a subspace relay?

There are two possible answers: either Picard does not care that much about the content of fundamental rights, or Riker is a qualified lawyer. The former seems absurd, leading one inevitably to the latter. The conclusion must be that Starfleet Academy graduates are lawyers.

To our perspective, this can seem bizarre, but recall that Starfleet Academy graduates can pilot a shuttle, fix just about anything, perform field medical treatment, engage in diplomacy, speak Latin, and do about a million other things that are discrete specialties in our time. Is it really so strange that an academy that teaches its graduates to repair supercomputers and the ancient archaeology of obscure planets also teaches them law? (It probably also helps that better medical technology has improved human lifespans) Just like there are specialized navigators in Starfleet, but any crew member can navigate a starship, there are specialized JAGs in Starfleet, but every crew member is qualified in law. (Recall Picard mentioning his reputation as a litigator in "Devil's Due") As Starfleet grads are already canonically ridiculously, absurdly overqualified, adding in a legal qualification at the Federation Bar isn't that much of a stretch.

[And yes, as OP said, this is all just working overtime to find a way around the fact that the producers want the stars to do everything]

  • Concluding that Riker is a competent lawyer does not demonstrate that all graduates are lawyers. That's a hasty generalization. Perhaps Riker specialized in that particular kind of law. Perhaps Riker was the best that Picard had to hand given the situation's urgency. Perhaps Riker wasn't a lawyer, but instead just a good debator. You're going to need some additional evidence to support such a broad claim.
    – bishop
    Aug 31, 2021 at 14:05

In our Earthly world, there are no new civilizations to encounter, so the field of law, however diverse, is bounded. Those who practice law operate within those existing bounded and defined frameworks to advocate for outcomes within them. New civilizations would have unknown frameworks, and indeed several episodes deal with such issues including TNG:"Justice" and Voy:"Ex Post Facto". Federation law is irrelevant to these situations; they are about diplomacy, Federation/Starfleet principles (not law), and plain ol' human ingenuity. Since these situations involve alien law, Federation lawyers would be as irrelevant as Federation law. Where legal matters calling for Federation legal expertise do arise, they concern Federation parties in more pedestrian situations, not aboard "ships of exploration". Where legal proceedings are called for aboard a starship, such as TOS:"Turnabout Intruder" or TNG: "The Drumhead", they are (1) rare and exceptional, and (2) matters covered by Starfleet regulations, with which all senior officers should be familiar. As such, there is no reason senior officers could not be reasonably called upon to advocate and adjudicate such matters. Regulations would presumably also define the processes which must be followed, so again, senior officers would presumably have suitable qualifications. Barbers, bartenders, and waiters would have steady work aboard a ship populated by a large crew; a lawyer would have nothing to do until/unless some legal matter arose that fell within Federation law but outside the scope of Starfleet regulations.

Out-of-universe: casting. You'd expect that there won't be many scenes over a season that would call for a lawyer... in TOS there were only three episodes: "The Menagerie", "Court Martial", and "Turnabout Intruder". In "The Menagerie", there was one guest star; the drama otherwise played out between the regular cast and archive scenes from the original pilot. In "Court Martial", the drama plays out almost entirely between the captain and guest cast - the remainder of the regular cast are pretty much set dressing. In "Turnabout Intruder", the drama plays out almost entirely amongst the regular cast. Unless the story centers on internal conflict between crew members (which Roddenberry did not want to see in his vision of the future), a plausible legal drama employing dedicated legal experts would pretty much play out amongst guest cast and the regulars would be relegated to set dressing, which I don't think would go over well with the actors.

  • I think the JAG link in the question is worth reading. If the captain of an aircraft carrier needs advice on treaties a Starfleet captain could too. Obviously in star trek ships take weeks to arrive at a destination so one would expect the crew to spend that time preparing. But aircraft carriers aren't exactly fast either. Aug 30, 2021 at 19:03
  • @lucasbachmann If it's a matter of treaties, then the ship isn't out discovering new life and new civilizations - it's on a diplomatic mission. While Enterprise D has been sent on missions that revolve around matters of treaty (TNG: "The Ensigns of Command" comes to mind), it's not the typical mission. In TNG "Devil's Due", a society's problem was solved in a courtroom setting, but again, the solution was less about legalities (of an alien an unfamiliar legal system) than about exposing the perpetrator of a confidence game by logic and ingenuity.
    – Anthony X
    Aug 30, 2021 at 20:45

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