At a recent government contracting event in Hunstville, Ala., I ran into two lawyers attending. I was intrigued; what value would a lawyer get from attending a government contracting event? After all, it’s not as if a lawyer is likely to sell legal services to the government. The government has plenty of its own lawyers.
As I engaged them in discussion, it became clear: There are many opportunities for attorneys. But you have to think outside the box, as the old saying goes.
Networking with government contractors
This is where the ability to think creatively about business development is crucial. You can’t think about just the obvious opportunities and relationships. You have to be able to see the bigger picture, and spot opportunities that might not immediately be apparent to others with less creativity.
Kimberly Ford, an attorney with Dick & Miller, said she attends government contracting events in order to network with business owners who are there attending, and also to stay current on government contracting requirements. She practices government contract law.
Ford, the immediate past chair of the Women’s Business Center of North Alabama, has a number of clients that are federal contractors. Her background before she became an attorney was in business development. She knows the realities of acquiring clients no matter what field you’re in, noting that in her past career as a sales executive and financial planner, "If I didn’t sell I didn’t eat." That’s why she values networking events so highly, for their business development possibilities.
“I am a networker,” Ford says. “You’ve heard the saying ‘People do business with those they know and like.’ You can’t get to know people sitting in your office.”
She is fortunate to have government contracting clients who consider her an extended part of their team. She says many of them understand the need to assemble a team from the start, so that team members get to know the client’s business and, therefore, can be more proactive.
Government contracts are different
“A contract is a contract, but when it’s a government contract it’s something different,” Ford says. Knowing the rules and regulations that apply to government contracts is key.
One example she pointed out is something called “fair opportunity”. When you work with multiple contractors on one contract (such as a prime contractor/subcontractor situation), all contractors including small subcontractors must be given a “fair opportunity” to respond to RFPs. If your company wasn’t given a fair opportunity, you may be able to contest it. A lawyer knowledgeable in government contracting would know how and when the fair opportunity requirement applies to your situation, and be able to advise you. This is just one of many reasons your attorney needs to know the ins and outs of government contract law, she points out.
Some people grow up knowing they want to be a doctor or a fireman. Ford, however, did not grow up wanting to be a government contract lawyer. She has a degree in chemistry and an M.B.A. With her combined technical and business background, the law firm she is with realized she was positioned to understand the elements of government contracts, and so she moved into that area of practice.
Think differently about what you have to offer
Nancy Vaughn, of Legal Advantage Human Resources, is an attorney and HR consultant who concentrates on employment law representing employers.
Vaughn also was at the Hunstville event, in part, to network. Nancy, who is on LinkedIn and appreciates the value of social networking sites, doesn’t feel they are a substitute for networking in person. “LinkedIn is nice, but people won’t remember to call you unless they’ve met you in person.” She and Ford both believe in hand-written thank-you notes.
So how does an employment law attorney get involved with government contracts? In a number of ways. Vaughn focuses a lot of her work helping employers understand how to comply with employment laws and regulations. And as government contractors, they may be audited and have to show they comply. Even apart from government contracts, being proactive about compliance can save your business money. “General training of your personnel, such as on harassment laws,” can give you added protection, she notes. “The fact that you have a substantive policy in place and have trained employees can help mitigate damages in the event of a claim,” or help avoid such a claim in the first place.
It’s also important to be aware of new legal requirements, and she helps her clients stay on top of them. “E-Verify [the program to verify an immigrant’s authorization to work in the U.S.] will apply to all Alabama employers as of April 1, 2012,” she points out.
Vaughn also sees potential to offer her services to government agencies. While she notes that government agencies may not need her services to train their own employees, she is looking at the bigger picture. Government agencies put on educational events and offer training to the small businesses they serve or have outreach with. She sees the potential to offer her training services in such settings.
Another key point: "Legal services" is one of the 38 industries identified as being underrepresented by women and included in the Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program's set-aside rules, adopted earlier this year.
Vaughn emphasizes: Even if you don’t see traditional opportunities to do government contracting work (such as selling defense systems to the government) you still may find plenty of opportunities just by thinking differently about what you have to offer, and thinking outside the box.
Get more information on government contracting opportunities.