THE PROPER TOOLS: The MSL degree program provides Army Acquisition Workforce members with the tools to think more critically about the acquisition process, advance expertise and become more persuasive influencers. (Shutterstock image)
The first to complete the pilot cohort of the DASA(P)-sponsored MSL program at GW Law explains the program and why she wanted in.
by Corey Richards
In June 2020, the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Procurement (ODASA(P)) announced a new competitive pilot program whereby permanent Army Acquisition Workforce members could obtain a Master of Studies in Law (MSL) in government procurement law from The George Washington University Law School. As a contracting advisor, I couldn’t wait to apply.
My job, supporting the Next-Generation Combat Vehicles Cross-Functional Team (NGCV CFT), is one in which knowledge of government procurement law is paramount to my organization’s ability to modernize the Army faster than its adversaries. As such, I was interested in the program because I wanted to expand the breadth and depth of my awareness of government procurement rules and procedures so I could be a more valuable contracting adviser.
I saw this degree program as one that would give me the tools to think more critically about the acquisition process, advance my expertise and become a more persuasive influencer toward accepting some procurement risk in exchange for an even greater reward.
The Army must better analyze its options and assess the risks if it aims to modernize how it contracts for supplies and services. Too often, the acquisition community recycles procurement approaches they’ve “always used” out of ease and comfort, rather than taking the risk to try something different to reduce cost, improve schedule or increase performance capability. I was eager to connect with GW Law professors and students in various other acquisition roles to better navigate a path to changing the common risk-averse culture within the acquisition community.
In August 2020, I was one of eight people selected to participate in the Army’s first civilian cohort. Unlike other government-sponsored academic degree training programs (the Naval Postgraduate School, for example) where students can spend a portion of their duty week attending classes, MSL program coursework is completed solely on off-duty time. Meaning, employees must continue to work full-time and take courses in the evening or on weekends. Despite the challenges balancing school, work and family, in May, I was the first to complete the 24-credit hour program.
REAL-LIFE CRITICAL THINKING
The MSL program went beyond advancing my ability to examine government procurement rules and procedures in context with policy analysis. It also matured my critical thinking skills, improved my writing, and—perhaps more importantly—enlarged and diversified my professional network which will pay dividends for many years to come.
Before, in my role as a contracting officer, my research rarely extended further than the Federal Acquisition Regulation and its supplements. I was trained in the profession to be able to answer the questions “What does the contract say?” and “What do the regulations say?” Although I still maintain that those are two essential questions, our habits should sometimes lead us beyond reviewing contracts and regulations. To better assess cost, schedule or performance risk of deviating from typical procurement methods, it is important to also look to the originating statutes, and any Government Accountability Office or Court of Federal Claims decisions, too.
As I progressed through the MSL program, completing countless essay prompts throughout, I became able to more quickly and accurately spot concerns and identify questions I needed answered before taking a stance on an issue or making a recommendation. These essay prompts conditioned me to think through very fact-specific if-then situations and present options. Some examples included, could my mock program manager use a certain color of money to refurbish his office? Or is a particular expenditure for my mock federal grant recipient allowable for reimbursement?
Program managers often seek contracting professionals’ opinions—albeit credible opinions, not off-the-cuff guesses—about whether a particular course of action is permissible during the acquisition planning phase. Credible opinions incorporate legal precedence or trace to supporting information—statutes, regulations or policies—rather than point to “because I said so” rationale.
In addition to providing opinions, contracting professionals are also often expected to solve disagreements in favor of a customer or contractor. For example, a typical day in the life of a contracting officer involves a contractor or customer contacting them about a dispute, and spewing off lots of facts, yet seemingly always withholding the ones that are most important or relevant.
Much like in real-life, the MSL program’s essay prompts emulated these types of scenarios. The professor cluttered the issue with non-relevant information and intentionally omitted details one would need in order to make a well-supported decision. This approach required me—the acquisition professional—to weed out what was relevant from the facts given, and what was not, then determine what questions I needed answered before I could opine on an issue.
Additionally, to further illustrate the similarities between the program and real-life, for each essay prompt, most professors randomly assigned students to different roles. These were often attorney roles representing either the government or contractor client, but sometimes assignments included being a contracting officer, program manager or contractor role. Students had to persuasively and sufficiently negotiate a position in favor of their client’s interests. Some scenarios seemed impossible to successfully argue given the facts, making them highly representative of everyday procurement-related situations involving, for example, schedule delays or ambiguous requirements or terms and conditions.
Since there was no option to challenge an assigned role, you had no choice but to give it your best, most persuasive effort, to prove why your client is right and theirs is wrong. In theory, that’s what attorneys do. Given this was law school it wasn’t surprising that sometimes you’d also get a client with a weak case who nevertheless expects you to win.
Although the government never serves as the contractor’s advisor under normal circumstances, contemplating (and arguing) a scenario from the opposing (contractor) side was enlightening. Before the program, I had only narrowly looked at issues solely from the government’s lens. These exercises broadened my perspective and forced me to think from multiple sides.
The Art—AND SKILL—of persuasion
In addition to expanding my critical thinking skills, the MSL program also improved my writing. People in the contracting career field specifically write a lot. From acquisition and contracting documents to assessing and documenting contractors’ performance, there is not a day that goes by that we are not writing some document subject to the review and critique of others.
Responding to the professors’ essay prompts—which mirrored disputes that the government and contractor would likely face during the formation or performance phases of a federal contract—made me a more succinct and persuasive writer. Students in this program cannot escape without writing tens of thousands of words spread over hundreds of pages. I learned to be concise because many essay responses required strict criteria, not-to-exceed 500 words, for example. There was also a firm requirement to support your position or recommendation with case law, regulation or policy to persuade your audience. These types of criteria are representative of best practice writing within a contracting office. A contracting officer frequently communicates with senior leaders who don’t have time to read through pages of detailed information, they are typically most interested in “Where, in the statute or regulation, does it say that I can’t?”
Probably the most valuable benefit of the program is growing my professional network and friendships. Along with the seven other Army civilians who were part of the first cohort with me, I had the privilege not only to meet, but learn from world-renowned full-time and adjunct faculty who are skilled in the Federal Acquisition System. I also got to study alongside other domestic and international students, who currently practice law for the different branches of the U.S. armed forces or major defense contractors. Being a part of a unique and diversified network of professionals is priceless. Having met so many people serving in various roles within the Federal Acquisition Team has increased the chance that I’ll have a contact whom I can call upon when I need advice or perspective on virtually any issue.
I WISH I’D KNOWN
For those who have an inkling of interest in the MSL program, there are some things that I would have appreciated knowing at the outset.
First, be aware of the law school curve. Google it. Basically, it compares your performance to other students in the class and limits the percentage of students that may receive grades in each letter grade category (i.e., A (comprised of A+ and A); B (comprised of A-, B+, and B), etc.). For example, at GW Law School, professors may award no more than 10 students (30 percent) either an A+ or A in a class with less than 34 students. Additionally, no more than 22 students (65 percent) may receive either an A-, B+, or B (unless the professor determined that there were fewer than 10 students who earned an A; thus, any “unused” As may be used in the B category). It can work in your favor, but it can also work against you, as it did me on two occasions.
Second, unbeknownst to me at the time, not all the courses in the degree program were available online. I was most excited about taking two classes: Government Procurement of Intellectual Property and Bid Protests, however, COVID delayed the school’s progress in getting them online within the timeframe I needed. Future students shouldn’t experience the same disappointment, though, as both classes will have an online option as of August—in time for the start of the 2023 academic school year. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to be diligent in inquiring whether courses are available to you if you live outside the Washington, D.C. commuting area.
Third, all students must take an introductory contracting class during their first semester. Although the grading rubric was simply pass/fail, the foundational information taught through the pre-recorded lessons made me question whether applying for this program was the right decision for me. I remember thinking, “Here I am in law school, having had an unlimited contracting warrant at one time in my career, and I am learning the basic differences between a supply and service contract.”
I feared the entire program would rival my experience obtaining my advanced certification in the contracting career field at Defense Acquisition University (DAU). I don’t mean that to be a slight against DAU—the MSL program was a completely different experience from the practical training approach DAU takes. Two significant differences between the MSL program and DAU’s certification program is that you are learning with and from other students who want to be there, as opposed to students who are there because they have to be per the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act. You are also getting the perspectives and opinions from contractor representatives, whereas DAU’s courses are generally restricted to only Department of Defense employees assigned to an acquisition-coded position.
Lastly, although I had a love-hate relationship with the writing requirements, I was oblivious to how much writing I’d have to do. While you don’t have to love writing, you certainly have to like it, or you may struggle to motivate yourself to complete the assignments or do well in the program.
Beyond being surrounded by brilliant students and faculty, GW Law teaches you the “why”—What were lawmakers aiming to achieve or prevent when they enacted relevant acquisition-related laws?—which is intended to help students evolve into leaders who will later develop policies impacting their agencies and even the federal government. The MSL program does a great job challenging you to look at legal issues from all perspectives (not just through a government lens) and has contractor representatives enrolled in the program who can share their practical examples. Thus, the MSL program has a distinct advantage in developing a more well-rounded contracting professional.
Now that I’ve graduated, the question I have gotten the most is, “Now what?” In the future, I plan to become more involved in federal acquisition policies—creating, dissolving and reforming. However, for now, I intend to use my studies to significantly expand the contracting advisory support I provide to my current team, the NGCV CFT. Given that the team is responsible for the Army’s second overall modernization priority—leading the way in changing how new capabilities are developed and procured—this degree has put me in a credible position to question long-established local practices with an increased knowledge and understanding.
Ultimately, the skills I acquired from the MSL program have allowed me to advise more dynamically than I could previously so that I can better assist other acquisition workforce members to maintain and improve the Army’s ability to win in a complex world.
I would love to see ODASA(P) expand this program to incorporate a developmental rotation to additional relevant acquisition positions that may be more difficult to enter as a candidate outside that office. For example, to a policy area within the Department of Army.
For those acquisition professionals who may be contemplating the program—in case it was not obvious—I highly encourage you to leap. This program will not only advance your ability to examine government procurement rules and procedures in context with policy analysis, but it will strengthen your critical thinking skills, improve your writing, and enlarge and diversify your professional network.
If you are on the fence about it or want to ask specific questions, please do not hesitate to contact me directly at email@example.com.
For more information about the program, go to https://www.law.gwu.edu/msl.
COREY L. RICHARDS works as an acquisition analyst and contracting advisor to the Next-Generation Combat Vehicles Cross-Functional Team. She provides guidance on regulatory compliance and competition strategies to ensure stakeholder decisions synchronize with Army modernization priorities and objectives. She holds an MBA from Walsh College and a B.S. in general management from Oakland University. Additionally, she recently earned her MSL—Master of Studies in Law—from The George Washington University Law School. She is a certified contracting professional and has advanced certification in program management.