Ed DeLisle and Maria Panichelli of the legal firm Cohen Seglias have teamed up with us many times before, including for our “Legal Landscape” series, but we were especially excited to have them join us for our nationwide tour last year as part of our panel of government contracting experts.
On the tour, Ed and Maria shared wisdom from their experience working with federal contractors, and their advice for how to succeed in the challenging government contracting industry. Below is a summary of the advice they shared with the government contractor attendees:
GovWin+Onvia: Can you tell us a bit about your current role(s) and the kinds of clients you work with?
Ed: I am the co-chair of Cohen Seglias’ Federal Contracting Group and sit on the Firm’s board of directors. Maria is our group’s newest partner.
We represent a nationwide base of federal prime contractors and subcontractors and assist them throughout the entire lifecycle of a government contract. From the pre-award stage where proposal issues and protests can pop up, through contract performance and close-out, to the REA and claims stage, we are there guiding and counseling our clients to maximize their chance of success.
Maria: We also have substantial experience with all federal small business programs and assist our clients with eligibility and certification issues, size/status protests, teaming, joint venturing, and mentor-protégé programs
GovWin+Onvia: What is the single most important thing that everyone in the audience should know about selling to federal government agencies?
Maria: I think the key with the federal government is to really know the rules. The federal procurement process is governed by the Federal Acquisition Regulation – the FAR – and that is kind of the bible that guides everything. It dictates what bases you have for a bid protest, how you should react - or go after compensation - when something unexpected happens during contract performance, and how you can file a claim or appeal a termination. All roads lead to the FAR and the various agencies’ supplemental regulations.
Ed: Of course, an understanding of the small business program regulations is vital, too, if you are a small business competing for small business set-aside contracts. In today’s market, more and more contracts are set-asides, so familiarity with these regulations has become increasingly critical to maximizing contract opportunities. These regulations control eligibility for the various small business programs and their respective set-aside contracts, size and status protests, as well as teaming, joint venturing, and the mentor-protégé programs.
Maria: The thing to remember about the regulations is that they don’t only govern your, the contractor’s, behavior. The government is bound by the regulations too. The better you know the rules that govern the procurement process, the better you know about your rights and how to protect them, and how to get the contracts, and money, you deserve.
GovWin+Onvia: There is more focus within government now than ever before on directing contracting dollars towards historically underrepresented groups – through set-aside requirements and other eligibility criteria. How do businesses find out about these opportunities and take advantage of them?
Ed: So true! There are more and more set-asides happening now.
If you are a small business, the key is to know which small business programs you are eligible for, and to confirm that you are certified, etc. Then, you need to be on the lookout for the set-aside opportunities that you are eligible for. You can always check FedBizOpps, DIBBS, etc., but you should also network and take advantage of all of the other small business assistance that is out there. Finally, make sure you reply to sources sought and get your name and capability statements out there.
Maria: Right. Many federal agencies have small business liaisons whose job is to facilitate small business contracting with the agency. There are also a ton of small business conferences – like the National Veterans Small Business Engagement and the Department of Energy Small Business Expo – that are great. I have attended or spoken at both, and I think most contractors would say they are definitely worth it – major ROI. Conferences like these can be great places to get your company out in front of agency decision makers.
Ed: If you are a large business, the key is to master the art of teaming and joint venturing. Market intelligence solutions like GovWin+Onvia can help you identify qualified teaming partners and help you expand the number of projects your company may be eligible for, effectively increasing your government business development pipelines.
GovWin+Onvia: What are some of the top things you see people forget to do as they seek to do business with the government, either as a prime or subcontractor?
Maria: For primes, I think the biggest thing I see companies forget to do is comply with notice provisions. The FAR imposes a whole host of obligations on contractors – whereby they have to notify the government when certain issues arise or waive their right to claim compensation for that issue later. It is really important not to forget to give this notice. A legal professional can help advise you on when and how you need to give notice to preserve your rights.
Another big one is protest deadlines. They are very short and very strict. Many contractors are not aware of how quickly they need to act after a debriefing. If you think you have a protest, you should really reach out to a lawyer ASAP to ensure you do not miss the deadline.
Ed: I agree with all of that. In federal contracting, timing is crucial.
For subcontractors, the biggest thing we see them forget about relates to flow-down provisions. Without seeing the agreement between the prime and the government, many subs sign off on agreements that require them to be bound to the prime to the same extent that the prime is bound to the government! I cannot stress enough how important it is to hash out the specifics regarding which of the prime contractor’s obligations flow down to you.
GovWin+Onvia: As we know, a good response to a bid or RFP makes a big difference. Any tips on how businesses can prepare the best response possible?
Ed: Be responsive! If the RFP asks for three past performance projects of at least a certain price magnitude within a certain amount of years, give them that. Do not give them a project of a lower dollar amount or outside the year range for which they asked. Your proposal will get thrown out as nonresponsive if you try to get “creative” about fulfilling the solicitation requirements.
Maria: Yeah, responsiveness is definitely key. The other thing I would add is that you should be familiar with what type of procurement you are going after. This could impact the type of evaluation factors at play and which of those factors are the most important to the ranking of various offerors or bidders. If you know this, you can prioritize knocking it out of the park with respect to those evaluation factors. This will put you in the best position for a contract award.
GovWin+Onvia: Finally, is there anything that we did not ask that you think federal contractors need to know?
Ed: Sure. I won’t sugarcoat it – federal contracting can be sophisticated and complex, making it intimidating for some contractors. But you should not let that stop you from trying to succeed in this industry. The US Government is the largest buyer of goods and services in the world! It needs things even in times of recession when other business dries up. In 2008 and 2009, the Government was still buying and building things even though others were not. In other words, there are always federal contract opportunities available for contractors who are willing to work for them. While there are certainly challenges to doing business with the federal government, it is, for most contractors, totally worth it. You can do it!
Maria: Exactly. It might seem like a steep learning curve, but you can get there. The key is to learn the rules as well as you can and to know when to ask for help, whether it be from an accountant, a lawyer, your SBA rep, your local PTAC, or by talking to your friendly GovWin+Onvia advisor.
If you missed Ed and Maria at “Onvia On Tour” but you would like more advice on government contracting, the highlights, success stories from businesses selling to the government, and educational sessions from the event are available online for free here. The full version of our discussion with Maria and Ed is available at the link below:
Meet the Experts
Edward T. DeLisle is Co-Chair of the Federal Contracting Group at Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman PC. He concentrates his practice in the areas of federal contracting, construction law, construction litigation and small business procurement and litigation.
Maria L. Panichelli is a Partner in the Firm’s Construction and Federal Contracting Groups. As a member of the Federal Group, Maria represents a national client base of prime and sub-contractors, with a focus on federal construction contracting and small business procurement issues.