FEDERAL CONTRACT LAW: Joseph J. Petrillo

Web site offers a forum for discussing contract law

Joseph J. Petrillo

I'm most proud of my profession when lawyers from government and the private sector bridge their differences to work toward improving the administration of contract disputes and, ultimately, justice.

To be sure, when lawyers act as advocates they must advance their clients' interests vigorously and effectively. Even within the boundaries of the law and the relatively bloodless field of government contracts, encounters can get intense. Professionalism, however, demands that disputes in the courtroom never become personal.

Lawyers are officers of the court as well as advisers to their clients. In both of these roles, we have a common interest in making sure that the legal process works well.

Unfortunately, some attorneys forget that effective advocacy is compatible with professionalism. Indeed, the opposite is true: Unprofessional advocacy is usually unpersuasive.

Some in my profession are shortsighted, are fixated on the last case they lost or hold a grudge. They never achieve the wisdom that comes from accumulated experience. Their myopia keeps them from seeing the law as a living, evolving system.

But when professionalism reigns, lawyers from disparate backgrounds can come together, find common ground and work to improve the legal system. This ultimately benefits their clients. Fortunately, there are institutions that promote this kind of cooperation.

Jerry Walz, a mainstay of government contract law at the Commerce Department, runs one such forum. Walz has capped a marvelous career by using the Internet to enhance the state of government contract law.

A developing situation

The Commerce Web site he runs, at www.contracts.ogc.doc.gov/cld/cld.html, is a great starting point for learning about developments in government contract law.

There are capsule descriptions of new regulations and judicial and administrative legal decisions, with links to the full-text documents. The wallpaper background for the site displays Walz's wit: It mimics a yellow legal pad.

Walz also runs a moderated list server for government contract practitioners from the public and private sectors. The dialogue is often lively, and the diversity of positions'and who holds them'is often surprising.

Best, the discourse is a full and free debate. Most discussion focuses on whether a proposal or a legal doctrine is good for the procurement process and not necessarily a particular segment of it.

The procurement process, even with the seeming precision of the 1,000-page Federal Acquisition Regulation, is so complex that there is plenty of room for healthy debate. The comments are off the record, so I can't give you the flavor of any specific issue.

Another institution providing a forum for attorneys to share their perspectives is the Government Contracts Section of the Federal Bar Association. This organization traditionally has been popular with public-sector lawyers, although private-sector lawyers are also welcome as members.

I was privileged to serve as the chairman of a section working group that considered the pending halt of district court jurisdiction over bid protests. Unless Congress acts by the end of this year, starting next year only the Court of Federal Claims will hear bid protest lawsuits.

Our group was evenly composed of private- and public-sector lawyers, and we examined the question from many viewpoints. In the end, although we saw some benefits to retaining district court jurisdiction, we could not conclude that it was absolutely necessary.

And that was the test set out in the legislation.

Our group filed comments with the General Accounting Office, which is responsible for making recommendations to Congress on the matter.

If the spirit of communication and cooperation nurtured by Walz's service and the bar association grows, the government contracts community as a whole will benefit.

Joseph J. Petrillo is an attorney with the Washington law firm of Petrillo & Powell, PLLC. E-mail him at jp@petrillopowell.com.

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