With the number of construction disputes getting ever higher, now could be a good time to hit the books and get some legal qualifications
It is becoming increasingly clear that this is the age of the lawyer. With the recession leading cash-strapped construction companies to claw back funds wherever they can, a huge rise in construction disputes has taken place – last year, the RICS alone received more than 1,000 adjudication applications – and there simply are not enough appropriately trained people to deal with them.
Of course, at the same time as this explosion in legal activity, construction professionals in general are experiencing the opposite phenomenon. Earlier this month the Society of Chartered Surveyors predicted that as many as 40,000 jobs could be lost in the property and building sectors this year. It might not be an overnight solution, but getting some legal training now could help make your services indispensable in the difficult times ahead.
Andrew Rainsberry is senior vice president at Knowles, a subsidiary of project management consultancy Hill International, which settles construction disputes. He says: “When companies are running out of work, they fight harder to get money they are owed. There is an awful lot of old money being chased at the moment. For us, hiring dual qualified staff is key. They have a very useful combination of skills as they can apply law to a technical problem, that they already understand, and there is no need to hire an external consultant.”
And he adds that there has never been a better time to get into the field – for the right candidates, Knowles will even help them through training to get the right legal qualifications: “Just send in a CV. If you are a strong candidate and curious, we can take people on here with a few years’ experience and back them through their legal training if they wish. It’s hard work. But once you’ve got those qualifications, you’ll have a very good career ahead of you.”
Getting legal qualifications could also be a way back into the industry for some of the many thousands of construction professionals made redundant over the past two years. Richard Morris, head of dispute services at Systech Group, a specialist in construction disputes resolution, says that these are just the sort of people he is on the lookout for: “The recession saw a lot of talented people in construction lose their jobs, and now we’re looking for them. In contrast to pure construction, 2010-2012 for us is looking very busy and there will be a significant amount of disputes work coming up. There is a lot more adjudication going on now as we edge out of the recession, as the banks are piling the pressure on.”
Morris adds that Systech is also looking to expand its insolvency role – to work with companies who have gone to the wall – and is always looking for the right people to help with this. “We want people with construction backgrounds because they have experience working with contractors.”
When it comes to training, there are a variety of options. Apart from getting taken on by a firm like Knowles, which may be prepared to support you through the relevant legal training, you can move into dispute resolution or expert witness work which doesn’t necessarily require an additional qualification. Chris Hill, a partner at law firm Norton Rose, where he specialises in construction and engineering law, says: “Procurement specialists already have transferable skills in project management, pricing, risk management, negotiation and knowledge of how construction contracts work.
However, he adds that additional qualifications would help you to take advantage of opportunities arising out of the rise in construction disputes. He says: “To increase your chances of getting work in the dispute side of the industry, such as in claims management or expert witness work, procurement professionals could consider enrolling for the MSc course at Kings College London in Construction Management and Dispute Resolution; that institution also offers a Diploma in Construction Adjudication.” Alternatively, there are long distance courses run by organisations such as the Leeds Metropolitan University on Construction Law and Dispute Resolution.
Another option would be to contact the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. Hill says: “In common with other organisations, it not only offers the possibility of additional qualifications but also facilitates networking opportunities. Training is offered in arbitration, adjudication and mediation, leading to membership of the institute or accredited construction adjudicator or accredited mediator status.”
The Chartered Institute of Building also offers adjudication training and accreditation. The Academy of Experts, meanwhile, offers training and advice about becoming an expert witness.
If you have the time and money, you could even retrain as a solicitor or barrister and specialise in construction cases. This will involve studying for a law degree, or conversion course, and then a further year (or two part-time) on either a Legal Practice Course (LPC) for aspiring solicitors or the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) for barristers. The final stretch is the most difficult: securing a training contract with a law firm or a pupillage at a barristers’ chambers are both notoriously competitive – for a taste, read Dee James’ story on the previous page about swapping careers from QSing to becoming a solicitor.
Hill warns: “Retraining is a substantial investment in time and money. Tuition fees average about £10,000 per year. For construction professionals who find themselves out of work and with savings this may be an option but for those in work the opportunity cost of giving up a salary is unlikely to be recovered through increased earnings.”
One thing that is certain is that any qualifications you get will always be relevant, recession or not: “Construction is not an exact science,” says Rainsberry. “There are so many variables that are not controllable, people are always changing their mind. As a result there are always going to be disputes. And so there will always be a need for people to sort them out.”
Transferring to law was a natural progression
Dee James trained as a QS at Davis Langdon and worked for Gardiner & Theobald before retraining as a solicitor with Finers Stephens Innocent and qualifying in 2006.
I have always been interested in law and had been lucky in having a lot of exposure to the legal side of construction from the time I started my career at Davis Langdon & Everest (as was), as a graduate, to leaving Gardiner & Theobald, as a senior associate. My experience includes drafting, negotiating and implementing construction contracts, associated agreements and professionals’ appointments, evaluating claims and dispute resolution consultancy. Transferring from construction to law was a natural progression.
I studied for the Postgraduate Diploma in Law and the Legal Practice Course (LPC) part-time, two nights a week, at the College of Law in London. Each course was of two years duration. Having completed the LPC I undertook a training contract with Finers Stephens Innocent (FSI) where I qualified into commercial litigation specialising in construction in 2006.
For my first seat FSI intentionally placed me in non-contentious property working on large development deals, and PFI projects, which was close to my surveying experience, to afford the smoothest transition. Other seats were in property litigation, company commercial and commercial litigation. General commercial skills are definitely transferable. Having first-hand industry experience assists in understanding the clients’ business issues, affords an appreciation of construction contracts and understanding potential pitfalls. Understanding the roles and responsibilities of construction professionals is invaluable. Being able to ‘speak the same language’ as clients, witnesses and experts helps in building rapport and eliciting and analysing information.
My advice to anyone considering changing from construction to law is to prepare both financially and psychologically, as much as possible, and speak to people who have made the transition. Studying for the courses part-time involves lectures, generally two nights a week, private study and writing assignments, which is time-consuming.
Personally, the pressure on the courses increased concurrently with pressure and responsibility at work. The competition for training contracts, and subsequent jobs, is fierce and financially the salary drop from construction to a trainee could be significant. I am not sure anything can really prepare someone for the ‘culture shock’ in the drop in position and responsibility when changing from a senior position in construction to a trainee solicitor, although the level of responsibility and type of work varies between the training seats and between firms.
All that said, I am pleased I made the change and enjoy work combining construction and law.
You need a passion for law to make it work
Nicolas Noyer trained as a QS before boosting his CV with some legal qualifications. He now works as a senior consultant specialising in disputes and dispute avoidance for construction claims and project management specialist Hill International.
When I started on a construction site as a trainee QS in 1996, little did we know how the Construction Act would revolutionise the profession. Claims and payments that were traditionally swept under the site cabin carpet by the project QSs were now served up along with the threat of a new procedure called adjudication. And with it came the scary thought of legal enforcements. By the time the first enforcement cases reached the courts in 2000, it became apparent that, if I were to survive, I would have to get up to speed with the ever growing importance of the legal system on the profession. This is something that has become even more pronounced in the recession.
Having graduated with a degree in Building Economics from France and a degree in Building Management from the University of Central Lancashire, my options were pretty open but I chose to broaden my knowledge of construction and the law with a Masters of Construction Law with the University of Central Lancashire. This sort of course is not for the faint hearted. It requires commitment and personal sacrifices, and it takes a very kind and flexible employer. This course was long distance studying, so there was no need to attend lectures (apart from two weekend seminars in Paris). All the coursework and assignments were done online which is also a reason I chose this course. You can do it at your own pace so it took me five years to complete but some of my classmates did it in two-and-a-half years.
However, you will need to have a passion for law to make it work. The cost varies depending on the course provider and the type of course you take, but it could be around £5,000. You will be giving up a lot of spare time, and taking holidays from work in order to study rather than lie on a beach somewhere. Support from your family, friends and employer are absolutely vital.
You also need to be willing to give up family events and juggle the pressures of work and clients against assignments and exam deadlines. Of course clients come first, which may necessitate you having to work late into the night and still be at your desk at 9am the next day. And finally, it sounds unimportant but learn to type! This will make your assignments and studies much faster to complete.
Having said all that, I would definitely recommend anybody in the profession to consider commencing study for a legal qualification. Although the hard work I had to put in had a profound effect on the appearance of my house and garden, within a few months my professional expertise was transformed and not only did my projects started to run a lot smoother, but I could soon hold my ground against solicitors and contractors. At the same time, my professional development was also dramatically enhanced and I found myself rapidly being promoted from QS to senior QS to commercial manager in charge of budgets worth millions of pounds.