Development Associates Inc., an Arlington consulting firm, won the right to compete for work advising legislatures of young democracies.

Three other local companies -- Financial Markets International Inc. and Development Alternatives Inc., both of Bethesda, and Management Systems International of Washington -- won access to the contract, which is administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

All four will now bid against each other for projects around the world, typically worth less than $10 million each. The contract's value, for the companies combined, is capped at $100 million.

The consultants are usually hired for specific assignments and include former state legislators and congressional representatives, sociologists, software engineers and political science professors. They work in teams, usually made up of about six people and led by a few Americans, and counsel legislators on a wide range of practical issues. The jobs usually last for three years.

In countries where the laborious process of updating laws is still done by hand or with rudimentary software, "people don't know what laws are passed and they keep passing the same law over and over again," said Jack Sullivan, an executive at Development Associates who oversees legislative consulting projects. To solve that problem, the teams set up computer systems and teach legislative staff how to enter laws and pending bills into databases.

The consultants also teach parliamentary research staff members how to respond to legislators' requests, such as a summary of laws on a given topic. They also edit early drafts of legislation and show lawmakers' staffs how to write laws briefly and clearly.

The advisers also give courses in political jockeying. In Armenia, consultants from Development Associates are counseling the legislature on how to assert itself in contests with the executive branch. That's a tricky issue in unstable democracies where a powerful executive frequently overwhelms the legislators. One suggestion: Call more members of the executive branch before the legislature to explain their actions in formal hearings.

"In many of these systems, the legislatures are rubber stamps for the executive branch and many would like not to be," Sullivan said.

Art Sauer, a consultant for Development Associates, leads a session on writing laws more effectively for staff members of Armenia's Parliament.