When thinking about international contract law and precedent setting legal cases, Winchester, Va. is probably not the first location that comes to mind. But with a variety of complex cases stretching across multiple nations and time zones, attorneys and legal staff at USACE’s Transatlantic Middle East District have a caseload even large law firms would both envy and dread.
According to Rob McKenney, the district’s chief counsel, the volume and complexity of the workload is a reflection of where the district operates and is a function of serving the best interests of the district’s stakeholders and the U.S. government.
“Our job in Counsel is to represent the interests of the Army, USACE's customers, and U.S. taxpayers by resolving litigation on the most equitable and favorable terms possible,” said McKenney. “Given the complexities involved in construction and the provision of services in the Middle East, disputes with contractors are bound to arise. This is not inherently a bad thing, but rather because USACE and our district are judicious and deliberate about addressing contractor claims for additional time or compensation, and the contractor disagrees with our position. Our first obligation is to our stakeholders.”
While daunting at times, the amount and complexity of the district’s legal work gives its attorneys a unique opportunity to represent the Government on a number of intricate issues, an experience that they likely would not get in other USACE districts, or in the private sector, and one that allows them to become true subject matter experts on the issues they litigate.
Sarah Hinkle, an assistant district counsel with TAM who has previously worked in private practice, appreciated the ability to be able to focus her efforts and really learn the ins and outs of the cases she’s assigned.
“At USACE, we litigate a large volume of contract appeals before the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals. Many of those appeals contain, for example, claims for government-caused delay, which often require expert technical analysis by forensic scheduling and productivity analysts, engineers, and cost experts,” said Hinkle. “In the private sector, commercial litigators tend to bounce around with many different subject matters depending on the types of cases that come in the door. As a USACE litigator, it is quite unique professionally to have the opportunity to become knowledgeable in these specialized technical fields."
Aimee Rider, another attorney with the district, is also an Army reservist in the JAG Corps. She said she appreciates the chance to hone the trial and deposition skills she uses in her role as a JAG while also getting to practice completely different areas of law than when she’s in uniform.
“My JAG practice is very different from my USACE practice, which focuses on litigating contract disputes and advising on TAM procurements. I sometimes have some cross-walk between the practices when I have an administrative review for TAM, but other than that, not much is similar. From a litigation perspective, my military background/experience have come in handy when deposing or questioning a contractor's witness that has a military background,” said Rider.
It’s not just the district’s attorneys that have the chance to hone their expertise. Paralegals also a play a valuable role in managing the heavy caseload.
Sarah Smith, a paralegal, was also recently recognized by the District for her attention to detail when she found question in a case document that resulted in a favorable outcome for the government. Her significant find was one sentence among hundreds of pages, but it saved the Government hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential exposure when her discovery caused the contractor to withdraw its claim.
“Many times, paralegals might end up doing a lot of administrative work for the attorneys. I feel like here we are really valued for our knowledge of the cases and have a chance to fully utilize the skills we bring to the table. I’m honored that we’re valued like that,” said Smith. “I recently went to Egypt for example; it shows that we’re valued enough to be fully immersed in these cases.”
The paralegals were also recognized as USACE subject matter experts when they presented topics such as identifying relevant documents in preparing litigation files; e-discovery lessons learned; conducting witness interviews; preparing for and attending hearings; and cradle-to-grave execution of expert and court reporting contracts to paraprofessionals across USACE at a recent USACE-wide training held in Fort Worth, Texas.
As TAM’s legal team continues to litigate and resolve contract claims from USACE work in Iraq and Afghanistan, while also working on the district’s contracts throughout the Middle East, the efficiencies they’ve found in managing that high caseload continue to lead to shared knowledge and new innovations across the USACE legal community.