Construction law: area of practice

Technological developments and Brexit are likely to greatly affect this field in coming years – explains Ryan Lavers from Womble Bond Dickinson (UK) LLP.

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A single solicitor could run a large matter on their own if needed, but a complex dispute can involve teams of ten or more lawyers.

Work in the construction sector involves both the drafting and negotiation of contracts relating to the construction, demolition and/or repair of infrastructure, buildings or other structures, as well as dispute resolution relating to the same.

What types of work do construction lawyers typically specialise in?

Construction solicitors often specialise in transactional or disputes work, although some will undertake both. Those specialising in transactional work tend to work on multiple projects simultaneously, the actual number depending on the scale and complexity of the projects; one complex multi-jurisdictional engineering project could make up a full workload, or it might be that the solicitor is working on dozens of smaller projects as part of real estate support (eg retail parks, residential tower developments, etc).

On the disputes side, construction cases mostly use the process of adjudication or arbitration to settle disputes. Whereas arbitrations take a long time to complete, given that they are in essence a full trial, adjudications are intended to provide a temporary binding decision on parties to construction contracts and so can be completed in just a few short months. This shorter time period can result in more focused times of activity in the office, as the lawyers involved in the case have to meet strict deadlines for the filing of replies to the other side and the independent adjudicator. Lawyers will also be expected to be adept at mediation, as clients seek to resolve disputes before the more formal processes indicated above.

When working on contracts, solicitors generally have to fit their work around the client’s agreed times with other third parties based on several parts of the construction process. The most important of these is the ‘start on site date’, the date at which the agreed work actually begins. Disputes-related work will follow the ‘traditional’ timeline of a case, moving from initial instructions to the service of a claim, then from the evidence gathering and submission in the case to a decision.

How large are teams in construction departments?

A single solicitor could run a large matter on their own if needed, but a complex dispute can involve teams of ten or more lawyers, from partners to paralegals. Construction lawyers will also often work alongside other teams in a firm, including the property/real estate and planning, and project finance teams.

Who are the typical clients in construction law?

Typical construction clients will be property development companies, public bodies with a remit involving the construction/maintenance of public facilities, manufacturers with a need for factories, housebuilding companies and any professional services provider that would usually be involved in the development of a project (architects, engineers etc).

What developments in construction law do aspiring lawyers need to know about?

One of the main areas that has developed increasing traction over the years has been ‘modern methods of construction’ (MMCs). This is an attempt to use more modern building techniques and processes to drive change across the industry. Examples of MMCs include the use of modular housing, building information modelling (BIM), and the use of drones to conduct necessary surveys.

New developments have come out from the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire with regards to fire safety standards and the use of cladding on buildings. These could impact on the overall practice area by providing clients with a new standard to adhere to, and this would subsequently mean that new clauses need to be added to template contracts so that any additional risks are covered.

What do trainee lawyers in construction departments do?

Trainees in a team will be expected to assist with one or both of the areas of transactional or disputes work. This can include helping with the creation of bundles to be submitted to court or an adjudicator, taking witness statements, and the drafting of full construction contracts. Trainees can be given access to external clients and third parties from an early stage of their careers.

What skills do construction lawyers need?

  • A keen eye for detail.
  • The ability to think practically and commercially about what certain parts of a contract might mean for the entire chain of contractors, sub-contractors and consultants.
  • Teamworking skills and the ability to keep track of multiple people’s work on a project.

Types of law practised

  • Contract.
  • Dispute resolution.
  • Tort.

RYAN LAVERS is a solicitor in the construction and engineering group of WOMBLE BOND DICKINSON (UK) LLP . He graduate with a law degree from the University of Exeter.

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