Government Contracts Expert Witness Christoph Mlinarchik of Christoph LLC shares his path to success!
Millions plan, yet few succeed. The difference might be intermediate planning—i.e., the steps that come between your life as you know it and your future goals.
Have you ever thought of being an expert witness in government contracting, hired by attorneys and their clients to opine on specific topics during litigation? I did. It was one of my career goals. But let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. You need to be near the top of your field of expertise. So how do you get there? The path is different for everyone, but I can tell you exactly how I did it. In this article, I will share the intermediate steps that connected my dreams and reality.
First, when embarking on any ambitious endeavor, it is best to “begin with the end in mind.”[i] Write down your lofty goals. This will focus your time and direction. However, following through with incremental, realistic, and intermediate plans is more important, and it is the intermediate steps—the middlegame between now and victory—that cannot be overlooked.
My Path to Becoming an Expert Witness in Government Contracts
Many years ago, I knew I wanted to be an expert witness in government contracts. At that time, I was not yet a professional instructor of government contracting topics, I did not have a long list of published articles in my curriculum vitae, nor was I completely self-employed through my own small business,[ii] providing expert advice to a wide range of businesses, federal agencies, and trade organizations. Instead, I was a neophyte federal employee, working as a contract specialist for Air Force Space Command, Space and Missile Systems Center. I had an idea, a goal, a dream: One day, I will be an expert witness.
Dreams, however, are not generally things that will just “come true.” You have to carefully plan, take decisive action, and make them come true. With that principle in mind, my first step was to investigate how others had qualified as expert witnesses in government contracting, and I used that information to plan my career path accordingly.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
I love reading nonfiction books, including biographies of the great men and women of history. By reading about the lives of others, you can spot successful behavioral patterns to adopt in your own life. Book-length biographies are enjoyable, but a more practical resource is the paragraph or page-length biography. The point? I encourage everyone to read the bios of successful government contracting professionals. Learn by example and find inspiration in the career paths of your colleagues. That strategy worked for me.
You can easily find short bios of leaders and professionals in almost any industry. I found the short bios of existing expert witnesses in government contracting and I made sure to take note of their similarities.
Most expert witnesses had successful careers in a wide range of government contracting positions, including both federal and private sector employment. Many experts were frequent public speakers at professional events, and nearly all had impressive lists of published articles—some wrote full-length books as well.
Presentation Opportunities at Professional Events
If you want to improve your professional stature, look for opportunities to speak at professional events. Offer free training or teaching opportunities, perhaps through your local Chamber of Commerce or NCMA chapter. Accept invitations to serve as a panelist, moderator, speaker, or interviewer for any events focused on government contracting. Public speaking and professional instruction increase your visibility, hone your presentation skills, and introduce you to scores of professional contacts.
Publish Articles to Establish Your Authority
If you want to become a respected authority in your field, you need to publish articles.
Surveil all the relevant media you can—i.e., all the newsletters, websites, e-mails, magazines, blogs, and journals you read that focus on government contracting. Then, decide which outlet is most likely to publish an article written by you, a first timer, who has never been published before.
Start Small and Work Your Way Up the Ladder
The key to publishing articles is to move incrementally toward larger and more prestigious publications or other media outlets. Start small. Get published wherever you can. Seek publishing venues with less competition and smaller readerships. Every time you succeed, transition to a more competitive venue with a larger audience.
I started by publishing articles for the newsletter of a local NCMA chapter. Next, my articles found their way to the Air Force’s newsletter to all contracting staff.[iii] By the time I had already published several articles in other venues, I made it to the “big leagues” in February 2014, when I was published in the pages of this very magazine—Contract Management. Titled “What’s in a Name? REA versus Claim,”[iv] that article was a hit!
After getting my “foot in the door” in the February 2014 issue, Contract Management published another one of my articles in the very next issue—“Crafting Compelling Contracting Officer’s Final Decisions.”[v] I kept the article submissions coming. Later that same year, I met another milestone: My article, “Secrets of Superstar Contracting Professionals,”[vi] made the cover of Contract Management’s May 2014 issue. I was thrilled, but the best was yet to come! One of my later articles focusing on bid protests won NCMA’s “Best Contract Management Magazine Article of the Year” award.[vii]
Indubitably, my published articles in Contract Management increased my visibility, and with it the likelihood of getting retained as an expert witness in government contracting. What better way to establish your credentials than publishing articles through your field’s premier professional publication, Contract Management, published by your field’s premier professional organization, NCMA? I never stopped writing articles about government contracting because there is an infinite supply of topics to educate your colleagues, highlight critical issues, and advance the state of knowledge of the contracting profession.
Eventually, I wrote a full-length, bestselling book—Government Contracts in Plain English.[viii] By the time I finalized my book, I had years of writing and publishing experience authoring scores of articles. Writing articles over the years gave me the confidence and competence to write a full-length book about government contracting. Start small and work your way up the ladder!
Many Different Paths to Success
One insight from my earlier article, “Secrets of Superstar Contracting Professionals,”[ix] is directly relevant to my path to becoming an expert witness. “Superstar” contracting professionals draw upon a wide range of previous job titles, duties, and experiences—and so does an expert witness in government contracting.
Contract management may be a specialized field, but it is so incredibly diverse; it contains countless different career paths and employment opportunities—procurement analyst, subcontracts administrator, small business advocate, director of contracts, attorney, instructor, consultant, contracting officer, contracting officer’s representative (COR), cost and price analyst…the list goes on! Your goal should be to expand your knowledge, skills, and experience by taking any chance you get for a new assignment, special rotation, or entirely different job title within the contract management profession. As my article explains:
Superstar leaders have extensive experience in myriad acquisition roles, which provides them an eagle’s eye view to make strategic decisions. Consider each assignment to be a critical step in your career development. Strive for excellence, absorb as much knowledge as you can in each assignment, and consciously steer your career trajectory to build expertise in several different fields of practice.[x]
During my career as a federal employee, I managed to find jobs or special rotations as a contracting officer, procurement policy analyst, and attorney specializing in government contract law. By working in several different agencies, I gained experience in three major subsets of federal contracting: major weapon systems and multibillion-dollar programs, operational contracting covering every imaginable good or service, and research and development (R&D) contracting for cutting-edge technology.
Drawing upon this real-world experience as a government employee helps me tremendously when I consult for clients or proffer my credentials as an expert witness. Nothing beats direct, hands-on experience in designing solicitations, evaluating contractor proposals, and negotiating and managing multibillion-dollar federal contracts.
If you are a federal employee in the acquisition field, you are gaining experience that is impossible to find in private sector employment. That being said, the opposite holds true as well.
When I left federal employment, I became the director of policy and acquisitions for a defense contractor. In that position, I learned the corporate side of government contracting, advising the CEO and general counsel, hiring employees, managing budgets, and delivering quality results to federal clients. As most government contract litigation is between two businesses, this corporate experience was vital to my success as an expert witness.
By working as an onsite contractor advising the Pentagon’s Office of Small Business Programs, I helped change the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (DFARS) to implement federal law, advised presidential appointees in charge of all small business policy across the entire Department of Defense, and gained a greater understanding of the interplay between law, regulation, policy, and court decisions as they affect small business contracting and subcontracting.[xi] Equally important, I learned the specific challenges of providing onsite, professional services to federal clients from the perspectives of both ground-level operations and upper management.
So far, this article has covered a wide range of intermediate steps to becoming an expert witness:
Excelling in many different career positions;
Publishing articles to advance the state of knowledge in your profession (and increase your visibility);
Taking every opportunity to teach your colleagues;
Engaging the professional community through speaking events; and
Continuously improving your skills, knowledge, and experience.
Careful readers will notice that many of the intermediate steps to becoming an expert witness are the same activities encouraged by NCMA for professional development. By actively participating in the premier contract management professional organization, you will qualify yourself for career advancement in general—not only for more specific goals, such as becoming an expert witness.
I consider actions to define the professional. Take action! Write, speak, teach, publish, share, debate, discuss, and network with your fellow contracting professionals. Not only will you improve the profession, you will improve yourself. You are already one step closer by reading this article, but what else can you do? How can you become more involved? Have you considered volunteering with NCMA? What specialized knowledge or insights can you share with your colleagues by publishing an article or speaking at a professional event?
By taking concrete actions—i.e., by getting involved in the contracting profession—you qualify yourself for better career prospects in the future. Even if you are not interested in becoming an expert witness, following the advice in this article will help you get promoted or qualify for your dream job. No matter where you want to be in 10 years, you will improve your status by sharing your knowledge, networking, and pursuing a variety of experiences within the contract management profession.
Fortune Favors the Bold
My personal goal was to become an expert witness by the time I was 55 years old. I expected I would need to actively pursue expert witness opportunities by asking and applying until someone finally hired me.
Instead, I exceeded my own expectations. I was hired as an expert witness in government contracting for the first time more than two decades before my temporal target. Even better, I did not actively pursue the expert witness opportunity. Instead, I was directly contacted by one of the largest expert witness placement firms in the world!
How did this happen? All my preparation, planning, and direct action over the years elevated my visibility within the contracting profession, establishing my authority and credentials as an expert author, professional instructor, frequent public speaker, and successful consultant. When the expert witness recruiting firm searched for its next expert witness in government contracting, it found my name, my articles, my biography, and my credentials. I was exactly the expert the firm wanted. The same actions I had taken to develop my career, improve the profession of contracting, and expand my skills also qualified me to be an expert witness.
I consider myself extremely lucky, and very blessed. I am incredibly thankful and grateful. One way to show my gratitude is to give back to the contracting profession—such as writing articles like this one, which explains how I found my path. If my plan worked for me, maybe it will work for you. Perhaps it will inspire you to write an article for your organization’s newsletter, your local NCMA chapter newsletter, or even Contract Management? Don’t think you have what it takes to be published by this magazine? Trust me, the editor-in-chief would say you’re wrong.[xii] Check the inside of the back cover of this issue for the Editorial Calendar and visit www.ncmahq.org/cm-magazine for more information on how to submit your article for possible publication. If you try and don’t succeed, remember—start small. Then, work your way back here!
This brings up one important question: How much of my success is owed to luck, and how much is owed to planning, persistence, and perseverance? To answer, I will close with the words of the 20th-century American inventor Thomas Edison and the Roman philosopher Seneca (respectively): “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work,” and “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
[i] Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1990) (see https://www.franklincovey.com/7-habits-book.html).
[ii] I.e., Christoph LLC (www.ChristophLLC.com).
[iii] The Office of the Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics published an online newsletter called The Source, which featured news, advice, articles, and policy about U.S. Air Force contracting issues.
[iv] Christoph Mlinarchik, “What’s in a Name? REA versus Claim,” Contract Management Magazine (February 2014).
[v] Christoph Mlinarchik, “Crafting Compelling Contracting Officer’s Final Decisions,” Contract Management Magazine (March 2014).
[vi] Christoph Mlinarchik, “Secrets of Superstar Contracting Professionals.” Contract Management Magazine (May 2014).
[vii] Christoph Mlinarchik, “How Many Bid Protests Is Too Many?” Contract Management Magazine (November 2016)—winner of NCMA’s “Best Contract Management Magazine Article of the Year” award for 2016.
[viii] Christoph Mlinarchik, Government Contracts in Plain English (Christoph LLC: November 2019), available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/173419815X/.
[ix] See note 6.
[xi] For more information about the interplay between law and regulations, see Christoph Mlinarchik, “When Does This Law Take Effect?” Contract Management Magazine (May 2019).
[xii] Editor’s Note: This is absolutely true. I would.