Crossing the T's and dotting the I's

Last byte | A conversation with Karen Manos

"You need to understand the rules and not tolerate any unethical behavior." Karen Manos

Rick Steele

Government contracting attorney Karen Manos has experienced the cycles of federal contracting firsthand: booming defense spending in the 1980s followed by procurement scandals and tightening rules; a downswing in the 1990s and acquisition reform; and another upswing since the terrorist attacks of 2001.

"There was a huge increase in defense spending in the Reagan years, and we are going through a similar cycle now," Manos said. "It is like watching the snake eat the rabbit. You can see the increase in money going through the system."

However, one difference is that the government procurement force has shrunk substantially, with many retirements during the past 10 years. At the same time, military and homeland security spending has soared. The conditions are ripe for more contracting scandals, and Congress is recognizing a need for enhanced oversight, she said.

Manos, 47, a partner in the government contracts practice at the Gibson Dunn and Crutcher law firm in Washington, graduated from the Air Force Academy and Duke University Law School. She practiced government contracts law for the Air Force until 1995, when she left for private practice. The author of "Government Contract Costs & Pricing" (Thomson-West 2004), Manos spoke with Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz about her experiences.

Q: What makes for an effective government contracting attorney and government contracting officer?

Manos: It takes tons of preparation and attention to detail. Experience in doing this work counts for a lot.

The attorneys in the government contracts bar tend to be older and have had experience in government.

For good contracting officers, you don't need to be a lawyer, but you need common sense ? and it helps if you have been doing the work for a long time.

A lot of government contracting is not obvious. You cannot just
read the Federal Acquisition Regulation and know what you have to do.

Most of my clients are major defense contractors, but I also have some start-ups and smaller companies.

So [many] of the federal contracting rules are bizarre and archaic, I spend a lot of time explaining how things work.

Q: With the new Democratic Congress, there has been increased interest in procurement oversight. What is your advice to clients in this environment?

Manos: The best advice is to have a robust compliance program.
You need to understand the rules and not tolerate any unethical behavior. Any missteps at this time would be devastating.

Q: Do you see the environment becoming more politicized?

Manos: Yes. For a while, Rep. [Henry] Waxman [D-Calif.] was posting Defense Contract Audit Agency reports on the Web.

That is not really fair because it allows other contractors to see proprietary information.

Now he is looking to make all DCAA reports public. It brings political pressure to bear on government contracting officers, who are supposed to be quasi-judicial and weigh evidence on both sides of a dispute.

If the DCAA reports are in the newspapers, it will make it more difficult to decide in the contractor's favor.

Q: Is it normal for there to be disputes about things such as costs and pricing in a contract?

Manos: Yes, it is part of doing business with the government; there is a system of checks and balances. If there is a concern raised in an audit, the contractors make a response and the government contracting officer makes a decision.

The contracting officers are supposed to be impartial. Statistically, less than half the time they agree with the government auditor.

Q: How did you get interested in government contracting law?

Manos: My whole life has been full of unintended consequences. My dad was a Navy pilot and a United Airlines captain. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but they would not allow women at that time. I could have been a transport pilot, but I felt it would be like driving a bus.

I went to law school on an Air Force scholarship and was required to pick a field of practice that the Air Force needed, so I chose government contracting. After graduating from law school, I owed the Air Force nine more years. My first assignment was to review contracts, and I found I enjoyed it.

Q: Does it help with defense clients that you have an Air Force background?

Manos: My clients build cool things. I still like to go to?Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to see the new [F-22 Raptor stealth fighter aircraft]. I'm still fundamentally a pilot at heart.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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