Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord often stresses the need for better communication and cooperation between the Department of Defense and our Industry and academic partners. It comes as no surprise then that DAU brought in Karen Thornton, a George Washington University Law School (GWU) legal writing instructor, to share her knowledge with ACQ 370 (Acquisition Law) students during virtual sessions June 15, 16 and 22.
“The more we each understand about the different perspectives each professional brings to the acquisitions team, the more we can respect and learn from the varied approaches to problem-solving,” Thornton said. “I think that makes the team stronger and the results are better.”
Conducted by Michael Rodgers, DAU Department Chair of Basic and Advanced Contracts, ACQ 370 provides an overview of government contract law while examining intellectual property and fiscal matters. Also present to ensure the remote course went off without a hitch was Janelle Wallace, a professor of contract management who piloted ACQ 370’s first Virtual Instructor-Led Training (VILT) version.
“[Something] that’s interesting about this course is, because it’s taught by lawyers, students can get credit with the bar,” Rodgers said, referring to the bar exam that law students must pass before practicing law. But the course is more than annotating case studies and dissecting the legal system. While it’s largely based on participation, Rodgers warned that “people who don’t put in the work are self-selecting themselves out of it.”
Prior to his time teaching ACQ 370, Rodgers was an instructor for CON 360 Contracting for Decision Makers, which he cites as a “nice pre-condition for students coming to ACQ 370.” Since then, he’s made a point to migrate some his teaching concepts, such as critical thinking and writing, to the material he currently oversees. This includes how courts interpret law and contracts--Thornton’s area of expertise.
“One of the nice things about having an outsider do it sometimes, it doesn’t chill the learning environment,” Rodgers said. “It’s more transactional than being the instructor over the course of four or five days.”
For her part, Thornton was happy to preside over the course as a guest lecturer after being contacted by Rodgers and Wallace. According to her, there’s a great benefit to be gained through GWU’s engagement in an educational partnership. The same goes for DAU.
“There’s a lot of mutual respect between the two organizations,” Thornton said. “We immediately connected in terms of our learning objectives.”
Wallace and Rodgers adjusted the course curriculum to include two blocks of instruction for Thornton. From there, Rodgers said they had to figure out how to “find and preserve those pieces of the curriculum that directly supported the learning objectives.”
Equally important was finding the balance between the existing curriculum and Thornton’s contributions of a comprehensive overview of the principles of acquisition law and tips for how to read cases and write a memorandum.
“The approach that I took was that you never remember more than three things from any block of instruction,” Thornton said. She further elaborated that in "demystifying how lawyers think and communicate, I explain the iterative process of reading, thinking and writing; explain the structure lawyers use to organize their analysis in any given situation; and encourage the students to adopt a growth mindset, practicing the skill of welcoming feedback throughout the process."
At the beginning of her first session, Thornton emphasized the requirement for three key factors in writing and interpreting law: structure, audience and maintaining an open mindset. She explained she organized her presentation around “how lawyers work within the rule structure – how they use that structure to think through the facts, analyze risks and anticipate the problems that may arise, and then write clear guidance for how to achieve the best outcome.”
A great method for determining that structure begins with understanding the iterative writing process, the foundation of critical reasoning — a highly sought-after core skill in the acquisition workforce, which mandates that the writing process consists of four primary components:
“We have more impact when we write with respect for our reader's time and when we anticipate their concerns," Thornton explained. "The more you welcome feedback in the drafting process and treat writing as a collaborative effort, the more success you’ll find in connecting with your audience.”
It was important, as part of her involvement in encouraging active learning, that Thornton had the authority to assign homework to students. Doing so allowed Thornton to gauge how students were responding to her teaching. She also took the opportunity to commend Wallace and Rodgers’ methodology.
“I was very impressed by their expertise and their ability, as non-attorneys, to break down concepts and organize their thoughts,” she said.
Likewise, Rodgers shared his appreciation for how Thornton’s ability to give constructive feedback, a major asset in operating a course that leaves a lot of room for subjective opinions.
“My personal goal has been to break down any barrier between attorneys and our fellow acquisition team members, use a common reasoning method, and work better together to achieve our common mission," Thornton shared.
According to Thornton, in the end, the willingness to collaborate and accept feedback is what makes for both an exceptional lawyer and acquisition professional.
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