Building your law career…

Construction law centres around contentious and non-contentious work. The former involves early dispute resolution through settlements, arbitration, third party mediation or, failing that, litigation and adjudication. Non-contentious work involves a range of different tasks, from preparation and negotiation side of building projects and assisting on the procurement of various resources and materials, to advising on environment, insurance and health and safety matters.

Projects might also include: infrastructure projects for roads, hospitals, public amenities, prisons and prisons, or industry-specific projects, such as those related to gas production and hydroelectric plant developments. On each project, construction lawyers will work in collaboration with professionals in project finance and property development to see projects through to fruition.

What is involved in construction law?

Construction lawyers are required to negotiate and draft agreements between interested parties, such as property companies, landowners, builders, architects, engineers, contractors and sub-contractors. They will also collaborate with other legal departments in finance and real estate, in order to complete the necessary due-diligence, conditions-precedent and funding of the project. Furthermore, construction lawyers will need to obtain necessary civil and municipal approvals and sanctions from local authorities. They might even monitor the progress of construction projects through periodic site visits and meetings with stakeholders. Finally, on completion and handover of the project, they will assist in the completion of registration and tax formalities.

Contentious practice comes into play when disputes arise at any stage of construction, or after completion. In the past, litigation was resorted to frequently to resolve disputes, given the large amounts of money and certain loopholes in existing law which made it easier to litigate endlessly. But, in recent years, legal reforms and tighter regulation within the industry have ensured that the use of litigation as a means of dispute resolution has been strictly curbed.

The rule of thumb in the construction industry today is that all agreements must have distinct provisions on alternative dispute resolution should future issues arise. Arbitration is a mandatory clause in the newer lot of contracts, and, if it becomes necessary to seek judicial intervention, then the dispute should be resolved through adjudication.

What is needed for construction law?

A construction lawyer should be well-equipped with skills in negotiating and drafting procedures, have excellent interpersonal skills and the ability to work in large teams that are made up of different kinds of professionals.

The personal qualities you need include: creative and lateral thought-processes, the ability to breakdown complex structures and concepts into simple facts, and strategic and analytical thinking. Moreover, some technical knowledge and expertise in related professions, such as architecture or engineering, will always be a great asset.

The rewards in this area of law are good and, if you are working for the larger firms, you can even expect six-figure salaries within a few years. However, if you want to get there you will need top grades and great work experience.

A day in the life of Sarah Manfredi, Trainee, Pinsent Masons 

What’s the first thing you do when you get into the office?
I always check my email first thing. We are a large and busy construction and engineering team, so I get work from lawyers working on lots of different projects. There are a large number of documents involved in construction projects, so I need to keep track of what has come in and what is outstanding. I use Outlook to prioritise and diarise tasks to make sure I don’t miss anything, so checking Outlook is always my first task of the day.

Could you give us a quick breakdown of how you spend the average day in this seat?
I get in about 8.45am and some of the team will already be at their desks. Usually, people have an idea of timescales in advance, so will flag up anything they need me to help on. This gives me an idea of what jobs will be on my desk each day, but there are always exceptions, and work will get added to the list throughout the day.
We cover a lot of very different projects, from relatively simple construction projects, through to international engineering projects, so I know I won’t be doing exactly the same work every day.
Construction projects use a lot of standard contracts, but our clients often want to amend these from the standard form to meet their needs. I usually spend time most days proofreading and checking documents to make sure amendments are consistent and work within the standard form. I could also do tasks related to the standard contracts, such as drawing up lists of outstanding issues to be checked with the client, or checking bespoke elements against standard forms.
Projects often have a main building contract, between the owner or developer of the land and the contractor, with lots of specialist appointments for consultants like architects and engineers, who will then usually be required to give collateral warranties. These documents form a large part of the work. Part of my week will usually involve drafting documents, liaising with clients, consultants or the lawyer leading on this, producing engrossments of documents, arranging for them to be sent out for execution or checking documents that have been returned to us to make sure they are correct. I will also spend time on document and diary management, to make sure we have all of the documents needed for each project.
I will often also have one-off research tasks to support colleagues. Often these are fairly simple questions which need a quick and accurate turnaround to be included in documents that are being drafted, or to be available as background for client meetings. Sometimes I am asked to produce something more complicated, including research about the sector or potential clients to help inform bids.
Where possible, I sit in on client calls and sometimes get the opportunity to join client meetings. We also have regular ‘know-how’ sharing sessions, so I will support these by drafting agendas and tracking actions, as well as preparing and presenting on various issues as requested by the team. I usually get away for about 6.30pm but of course that can vary and always depends on the work.

How much do you correspond with senior colleagues and clients on a daily basis?
I correspond with clients most days, as the process of agreeing appointments and warranties involves liaising with clients to make sure the documents reflect their needs. I also have responsibility for keeping them up to date on which documents have been agreed or executed. There is also a lot of correspondence with contractors and consultants as part of the process of agreeing those documents.
For some of the more complex building or engineering contracts, there is less direct contact with the client but I am often copied into the correspondence, which is helpful as it allows me to observe the process and see how those client relationships are managed. As we work in an open plan office, I am able to observe senior colleagues and I am regularly given work directly from partners and the legal director. It is a friendly team and senior colleagues are very approachable.

What sort of responsibilities do you have as a trainee in construction law? Are you tackling hands-on project work or undertaking more general research and protocol training?
The work is very hands-on and you are given early responsibility for some documents, such as appointments and warranties. It is always under proper supervision and often working from agreed forms used in previous transactions with the same client. You soon feel confident in producing documents ready for issue to the client or to a consultant.

You also get to see first-hand some large and important projects through the proofing and checking of more complex contractual documents. This is more than just checking for typos and cross references—it is about making sure the different parts of the standard contract work with any amendments and working through the detail of some complex provisions to make sure, for example, that a complicated set of defined terms all fit together the way they should. You naturally don’t work directly to clients on this because of the complexity and scale, but I have seen my work included in final versions presented to clients, which is gratifying. Most research work I have been asked to do relates to specific projects too. So for example, I was asked to research public companies in different jurisdictions, but this related to a specific group of companies involved in a specific procurement process, rather than being an abstract question of governance. Even the work around general “know-how” sessions tends to be related to the specialist areas in which we work and arises from particular issues that have come up in day-to-day work, so there is always a practical application.

James Morris, a Senior Associate in Construction at Mayer Brown.

In just a few words, could you explain the sort of work you do in construction law?

Construction law involves working on technically complex disputes with a large amount of detailed factual and expert evidence.   

What sort of daily responsibilities does a senior associate have in construction law? How does it differ from a trainee role?

It depends on the particular case in hand, but usually the Senior Associate will have a large amount of responsibility for the case and advancing the necessary actions.  This means managing other more junior lawyers, trainees, paralegals, counsel, witnesses and experts to make sure the case is on track and everybody is doing what needs to be done.    I regularly draft correspondence, witness statements, instructions to counsel, advice to clients, comment on expert reports, prepare for court and arbitrations hearings as well as preparing and presenting at mediations.  Fortunately, trainees are not expected to take on such a large amount of responsibility to start with and it would be unrealistic to expect a trainee to fulfil a role of a fee earner who will typically have at least 4 or 5 years PQE.  However, a trainee will be expected to carry out a variety of tasks (some interesting and some not so interesting), show a desire to learn and take responsibility for the tasks assigned to them.

Can you give us an idea of the sort of projects you manage from day to day? Which aspect of construction law is dealt with most frequently by Mayer Brown?

I work on a number of disputes on a number of very different projects.  There really is no typical “project”.  For example, I am currently working on cases concerning: waste facilities, a pier, a sub marine base, a hotel, a hospital and a port.  All of my work is contentious and so my case load will involve some form of dispute resolution, whether that be mediation, litigation, arbitration or adjudication.  The aspects of construction law that we deal with most regularly are final account disputes, delay claims and professional negligence claims.  

What sort of clients do you generally deal with on a day-to-day basis?

We advise all sides of the industry, including Insurers, Engineers, Architects, Contractors, Surveyors, Project Managers and Employers.