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Rustydog

Need advice/guidance: getting a job in contracting

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I am an attorney who is considering a career as a contract specialist. My background is strictly in law- I have never taken a finance course. Additionally, I have never worked for the government nor have I ever been a member of the military. Since graduating law school 3 years ago, I have worked various temp jobs and have some general legal experience from working at a legal non-profit. Essentially, after doing some research, I became interested in a career in procurement/ contracting and I am wondering what it takes to land one of these jobs? Do I even stand a chance? Is there anything I can do to improve my chances? I have considered taking DAU courses online, taking finance classes, etc., but I am really unsure of what to do next. I greatly appreciate any guidance.

Thanks!

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Best wishes to you!

Are you looking for an entry-level position? GS-1102-5 or -7? I have seen many GS-1102-5/7/9 advertisements, as well as GS-1102/7/9/11/12 advertisements. They don't usually pay relocation costs. My only piece of advice: don't over-emphasize that you're an attorney -- you cannot assume that, solely because you're an attorney, you're automatically more qualified than a non-attorney applicant -- and if hired, you cannot assume that you're more qualified to interpret and apply the FAR than your non-attorney co-workers or boss. A contract specialist's job is to make things happen, not to obfuscate and other traits our society commonly attributes to attorneys. I have seen contract specialists who allowed their legal backgrounds to be helpful to them as they magnified the contracting specialist role -- and I have seen contract specialists who rely on their legal background and act like attorneys in the contracting office. And as a contract specialist, some of your work will be reviewed by practicing Government attorneys, and you will not be seen as a peer in that process. Some selecting officials might be automatically prejudiced against an attorney applicant -- but others will welcome you if they can discern from your application and/or interview that you want to learn, can make things happen, and can fit into and contribute to the office culture.

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@ji20874 Thanks! That is great advice. I was going to list my education first on my resume since I don't have a ton of experience, but perhaps that's not best.

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I am an attorney who recently retired from Wright-Patterson AFB. There are several JDs and MBAs who are working as contract specialists (and I remember two contract specialists that were selected for atttorney vacancies) after going through an intern program. I believe they started as GS-07 and received non-competitive promotions to GS-11 (possibly GS-12, but I am not sure of that). If you have not already done so, you should look into the various intern programs sponsored by the military and civilian agencies. If you are mobile and fortunate enough to be selected, try to get into one of the big buying offices because small offices do not have the same promotion potential.

With respect to the previous comments:

  • I do not believe relocation expenses are authorized for new hires (I may be mistaken, I did not have to worry about that). As a practical matter, buying agencies are generally not authorizing relocaton expenses even for promotions, which puts a damper on being mobile.
  • I do not believe intern programs will be prejudiced against you because you are an attorney; as I said, we had several in our intern program at WPAFB.
  • On your application, your legal degree should be a positive factor, and can be prominently mentioned. Do not dwell on it, and do not come across as God's gift to the Government because you have a JD. While the degree is a positive factor, you will probably be competing against a lot of others with a JD/MBA.
  • To the extent possible, stress whatever business experience you have. People who have worked with contracts (including grants sought by non-profits) have useful experience.
  • Take JI's comments about how to act to heart.

Good Luck!

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Rusty dog - I think the advice given here is prudent but I can't say that I necessarily agree with it. It seems your heart is set on becoming a Contract Specialist. The usajobs descriptions may sound interesting, challenging, and rewarding and sure the job security and bennies are pretty top notch. As someone who practically devoted their life to becoming a CO only to find that it was mostly smoke and mirrors and was actually a bunch of burdensome admin work, I would advise you to look elsewhere. Maybe you could pursue opportunities as an entry level federal contracts attorney - this would likely be much more competitive and harder to get into but if selected would be a much better track. If your background is strictly in law I don't think you will enjoy being a CO. The truth is you WOULD be smarter than the majority of contract specialists and you know the law - don't sell yourself short. Most CS aren't attorneys for a reason. Another suggestion if you're interested in federal contracting - look at contractors in the DC area who need either general counsel or maybe a contracts manager. There, your degree will be valued and it will be much more transferable to your next position should you stay with it. Moving from a contract manager position, where a JD is likely not required, could position you well for a counsel position down the road. Maybe get into bid protests or consulting. Know how to do contract reviews and study the FAR like crazy. CS and attorneys are two distinct tracks in the government and it can be very difficult to transfer between the two. In the private sector you will gain in only a couple years the experience it may take 5 years to get at the fed. You seem motivated and I just think you will be better rewarded intellectually and professionally in the private sector. Just me two cents. Good luck!

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Rustydog - just a couple other thoughts. It won't be easy to get your foot in the door with a contractor either without a lot of experience. It sounds like you're pretty green when it comes to federal contracting. What will be important for you to do is quickly get an idea of what the contracting lifecycle is like. What the FAR is and how it works. Terms and conditions, proposals, contract types, deliverables, source selection process, subcontracting, etc.. This is not something you'll want to do without adult supervision. Look at attending one principles of contracting or a contract administration course or even a FAR boot camp. They can be pricey especially when paying out of pocket but they will be a great investment. Attend one course which are normally a week or so. Soak everything in. Network like crazy on coffee breaks, group projects, whatever. Pick the instructors brain a bit. These classes are filled with both Feds and private sector workers. Tell them your story and make the most of the week. Then go home and read every post on this site, recent bid protests, claims and whatever else you can find. Then hit the FAR. Since you're an attorney maybe you like reading stuff like that but it's basically the contracting bible. I don't recommend starting with the FAR because you'll spin your wheels and it will be difficult to grasp the big picture. There are a ton of other recommended readings on this site. By the time you're done, take a look at job postings online. See where there's an opportunity to leverage your legal background and JD with your newfound expertise in contracting. Apply like a bandit. Hopefully by then you'll be in the drivers seat. Keep in mind you can meet the right person and get hired in a day in the private sector. With the Feds it could take months or in my case years to land a job so be realistic with your expectations. But sometimes all it takes is to meet the right fed and your chances will improve but the application process can be frustrating. I'm not sure where your located geographically but obviously DC metro area is where the most opportunities are. After that, look around to see where either a military presence or a federal agency is located. Contractors often situate their offices nearby. And of course, please take this advice with a grain of salt. Check out NCMA too. Best of luck

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There's a lot of generalization about Contract Specialists positions in the government that's just not true. Actually a lot of variation exists. Some contract specialists work in a narrow and specialized field in their agency. DoD has many. It takes a long time and lots of training and experience to become proficient. Other contract specialists are more like gloried clerks and spent a lot of their days doing administrative tasks. Still others get caught up in lots of other duties like doing IT support, liaison with finance and budgeting, interfacing with industry and particularly small businesses, and the like.

In some places, contracting is viewed by program offices as barrier to getting what they want. In other places some, but not all, of the contracting staff are viewed as valuable assets. Those people know the agency programs and can provide advice and assistance in making acquisition work for them. To get there individuals have to work hard and demonstrate their value by showing professionalism, good communication skills, exhibiting critical thinking and providing solutions to program needs.

The key to finding the right job is getting started. You need to get your foot in the door through some means like an entry level position or an intern program. Just having status will open up lots of doors. The one unique thing about the government is you can switch jobs and it doesn't look bad on your resume. In fact many people at the senior management level like to see employees in contracting with a board range of experience.

I think a JD degree is great. The only issue you might face is reluctance by the selecting official - most of us in contracting are way too familiar with the legal response that "you can't do that" rather than "here's the way to get that done." So in an interview, my suggestion is stress how you like to find the optimal solutions.

Good luck!

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@Michael11- great advice. I actually started taking some DCMA courses online, but I like the idea of an intensive, in person course. I know little to nothing about the FAR and the networking would certainly help.

@formerfed- thanks! I had no idea there was such a spectrum of contracting specialist jobs. In terms of getting my foot in the door, we have a couple of close family friends who are contracting specialists who might be willing to pass my resume along, but I really want to get my resume up to snuff before I ask them for any favors.

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Rusty Dog, I've seen Contracting Officers with and without JDs who knew federal contracting and the FAR better than their agency attorneys they were required to consult. I've also seen COs that couldn't grasp the meaning or intent of any law or regulation they were attempting to implement. You could excel in the field, but the problem is that the organizations themselves don't often support and respect their 1102s. This would lead to a frustrating professional situation for you. Imagine a manager walking in to a situation you've worked and analyzed for months and demanding a different direction on what may appear to you to be a whim. This is a routine part of the job for many of us.

Unfortunately, I don't think it's possible to learn this field without being in the trenches on a daily basis, and understanding how and why good decisions get made. I don't think there is any class in existence that can truly prepare you for federal contracting on a professional level, and just studying the FAR won't get you the insight you need. If you do pursue an 1102 position, don't plan to build your career around it. Use the experience as a stepping stone.

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Rusty Dog, let me know if you want more specific information. I have similar experience, but in the opposite direction. I started as a military contract specialist and contracting officer, then went private, and recently am back in the government while I attend law school at night.

Off the top I would highly encourage you to look to a big city like DC, Hunstville, or Denver where there are a lot of 1102 positions. If you work hard you have the tools to stand out in the career field and your ability to move up (after the intern program) may be hindered if you stay in a small town. Big cities with many different agencies allow you the possibility not only to switch agencies, but to possibly switch (for promotion or broadening) within your agency. However, depending on how good of a job you do your agency may try to keep you by moving you up or grooming you for positions.

Also if it matters to you I would try to make sure to get student loan repayment with that 7-9-11. Or better yet find a 9-11-12 program (Presidential management fellows).

I think you will find that after 5-10 years in the career field with diverse experience (services, commodities, construction, systems, R&D) you will find yourself drawn to something specific. At that point you could likely cross over to a private contracts manager (like Michael 11 said) and further expand your knowledge. If the company is small you may end up doing some of their legal work in-house (if you are a member of that state's bar) and saving them money (which is always a plus in an interview or after). If they are large you can learn a lot about how to handle larger contracts, legal requirements, and effective use of outside counsel. This is one career field where there will always be a job for those that know contracting (and especially for a JD). Either a lower stress (and possibly, but not necessarily lower paying) government job or contractor job, and firm jobs. While firms may be reluctant if you do not have a book of business all that will change with experience or if you are the contracts manager at a company and by recruiting you they know you will keep that company as your account (it helps to have more than one, but one is a start and if they are large can be enough). Likewise if you do well in the government or private you should have better than average progression. Make sure not to rest on your laurels though. I would highly suggest a government contracts cert to start if you are unable to break into the career field, then possibly an MA to keep learning. If you do take a legal 0905 position in the government they may bring you in lower than an 1102 position would.

Finally I cannot overemphasize the importance of NCMA as a professional development and network tool. While some of their certs are not ideal, with a few exceptions they are significantly better for real world contracting than the current DAWIA/FAC-C curriculum (unless you solely deal with systems acquisition). I hope this helps.

Dan

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