News | Oct. 16, 2019

Eastern Region legal counsel shaped by road less traveled

By Justin Zaun DCMA Garden City

During her summer breaks from college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Andrea Benoit traded her flip-flops for steel-toed boots as a member of a highway construction crew.

For five consecutive summers while pursuing her undergraduate degree at Boston College, Benoit returned to her home state of Rhode Island and worked 10-hour days as a highway flagger, safely ushering traffic through construction zones while crews laid fresh asphalt on major roadways throughout the state.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever stood on freshly steamrolled pavement as the steam rises up, but it’s extremely hot,” she said. “I only had a heat stroke once.”

Benoit now serves as counsel to DCMA’s Eastern Regional Command, a position she has held since 2015. She credits those long, sweltering days with establishing a strong work ethic and boosting her confidence.

“It was a challenging environment for a young woman who had lived a very sheltered life to that point,” she said. “I think the experience has made me present myself in a more self-assured way because you can’t stop a motorist on the highway with a flag, you have to stop them with your gestures, and you have to be really clear what direction you’re giving them. I think that definitely helped me come out of my shell.”

Benoit and her team, based at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts, are responsible for the overall management and delivery of legal services across the Eastern Region, with legal offices stretching from Boston to Orlando, that support 18 primary contract management offices. Those legal services address a wide range of legal practice areas, such as contract and personnel law, labor and employment issues, ethics and Standards of Conduct questions, and Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act inquiries.

“The Office of General Counsel, through its individual members, brings tremendous value to the agency,” she said. “One of the greatest things we can do is help our clients avoid getting into a difficult situation. Our ability to spot issues and provide alternative courses of action are among the most value contributions we make.”

Benoit regularly visits CMOs throughout the region to meet with local counsel, assess any legal challenges, and ensure commanders are receiving appropriate legal support on their priorities and agency-level objectives. She encourages DCMA employees to visit their local attorneys for any legal assistance, and the earlier the better.

“I would like all DCMA employees to know they can come to us early with an issue,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be so far along or so significant that it requires a legal opinion, because we can help them the most if we get involved early.”

On a recent site visit to New York, Benoit met with DCMA Garden City Counsel Cliff Allen, who said such visits encourage a team effort and the sharing of information on challenging legal issues, which improves the level of support provided to CMO clients.

“Ms. Benoit is dedicated to maintaining close working relationships with her attorneys despite the geographic separation,” he said. “It is important for CMO employees and managers to know their local office is not operating in isolation. Our guidance on difficult legal matters often involves second opinions and peer reviews to ensure the best possible legal advice.”

Benoit also consults with her counterparts in DCMA’s Central and West regions to ensure they are collectively offering consistent legal advice and working together on recurring issues.

“I get to work with so many really talented people who just plain care about what they do,” she said. “They’re not just really good at it, they really care.”

Benoit attended Suffolk University Law School in Boston in the early 1990s and initially wanted to become a prosecutor. She landed an internship with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office.

During that time, she visited the university’s placement office and saw an ad for a summer job with the Defense Contract Management Command, which later became DCMA. She was hired, and except for a brief stint working for the Army, Benoit has spent most of the past 25 years with DCMA, which she refers to as the least known, most important agency in the Department of Defense.

“Everything we do at DCMA touches a service member,” she said. “We ensure what our service members wear, fly, drive, or shoot is working properly. Many service members may not have heard of DCMA, but we are essential to their success.”

Her first two years with the agency were spent working with the litigation team, litigating contract disputes before the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals, which is when she discovered her affinity for the Federal Acquisition Regulation, the principal set of rules regarding government procurement.

“The FAR was a cookbook that I found fascinating,” she said. “It was like nothing else I had worked with in law school. It was so organized and orderly as far as where the terms and conditions came from and the clauses. The whole concept of it fascinated me.”

That experience inspired her to spend the summer creating a comprehensive handbook called “An ACO’s Guide to Litigation Before the ASBCA.”

“I still have a copy in my office,” she said. “Contracting officers are responsible for issuing a final decision, but their job doesn’t end there. The intent of that handbook was to help them understand what their responsibilities would be from the date they issue the final decision all the way through litigation.”

Benoit says there are challenges in her current position, but they pale in comparison to its rewards, which include supporting service members.

“My hours are sometimes crazy, and the travel can be challenging,” she said. “But no matter how hard we’re working here, we can’t possibly comprehend how hard our service members are working for us every single day.”

And although she’s grateful for her past experiences, which have shaped who she is today, she’s in no rush to return to the sizzling asphalt of highway construction.