One of the fundamental questions you need to ask yourself when choosing the area you wish to qualify into is whether you prefer contentious or non-contentious law. Doing a seat in the area which combines the two may help you to understand which comes more naturally to you. This is the upshot of my current seat in Construction where my time is divided between transactional construction work and construction litigation.
The transactional (non-contentious) work involves procurement advice (how to set up the contracting structure for a project) as well as drafting and negotiating contracts and preparing other legal documents required for a project. As a firm we advise on insurance, environmental matters, insolvency, health and safety and all other considerations that crop up in construction. As a trainee I review and amend drafts, attend meetings with clients and prepare advice which is then finalised by the partner. Amendments are made against underlying standard contacts and because there is a fair variety of them, every other draft I prepare is a completely unknown setting. It is a very scrupulous work and it is much more exciting than it sounds! Very rewarding too as once the contract is executed you know that you have achieved the result sought by your client.
Contentious construction is about providing advice if things go wrong because (generally) the contract wasn’t properly put in place and solving arguments over construction work and housing through litigation, mediation, adjudication or arbitration. The type of work I do involves drafting letters of claim and claims, preparing various court applications, taking witness statements, etc. Very conveniently, this could qualify as a litigious seat for qualification purposes provided that a certain amount of hours has been dedicated to litigious work. There is an opportunity to sit in Court with our partner Gerald Offen who is also a Deputy District Judge.
The two sides of my construction seats are very different not only as far as the type of work is concerned but also in terms of communication styles. My natural style is a more litigious one and it is very appropriate whenever I need to, for example, write a protocol letter before action to a negligent architect. It is, however, totally unsuitable for a letter to solicitors who are negotiating a contract with our client on behalf of their client-contractor. I had therefore to develop ability to adapt and change styles along with changing my contentious and non-contentious “hats”.
Clients are also very different. For transactional work we act for project owners, subcontractors, surveyors, engineers, architects, who are planning, buying, funding, building, designing construction projects. They all are usually businesses – all generally sophisticated and each with a distinct set of risks in a project. They know their objectives much better than I do and working with them is really challenging. Getting to interact with a wide range of professionals is a great opportunity for a trainee as it provides an understanding of the industry’s needs from different perspectives. This comes with an extra requirement of being organised and diplomatic.
On litigious side we act not only for professional players but also for private individuals facing issues with their properties. Unfortunately this often happens because of devious cowboy builders and may be fairly emotional. As much as there are areas where lawyers deal with even gloomier situations, still, falling floors and rotten corners in somebody’s home does have a direct effect on people’s lives, their health, their long-term plans and definitely on their finances. We are there to help and we of course are expected to be as efficient and proactive as possible. Trips to building sites or to the clients’ properties in a disastrous condition can occur relatively often and having a spare pair of flat shoes in the office is a good idea! It is an ideal area of law for lawyers who do not want to be confined to offices all day.
Construction is considered a niche area in law and it is not an easy area at all. I have not studied construction during my degree or my LPC – and many of you would not; for this reason at the start of the seat most trainees know very little about this type of law and its intricacies. But not to worry – your firm will be aware of this and will give you necessary time to do some basic reading to acquire an initial feel of it. I have been gradually developing an understanding of the building industry and even of basic engineering with the help of a supervising partner, Brian Hitchcock, who trained and qualified as an engineer before becoming a lawyer. This is a completely new knowledge for me – as it would be, I imagine, for many of you as most of us were doing purely humanitarian subjects from post GCSE age. It is an intellectually challenging area but surely we all like challenges – otherwise why choose law in the first place?
My final hint – this area is a strategically wise choice. The construction industry faced difficulties during the recent credit crunch, which caused a decrease in the number of lawyers qualifying into construction law. The industry has substantially picked up lately and continues growing but there are not enough newly qualified construction lawyers out there. Isn’t that a good enough reason to consider construction law as a potential speciality?