Here’s the story of a solicitor whose knowledge of building was mainly from contract documents. Until she spent a week on site …

I have just come back from a week’s work experience on Costain’s North Orbital Road project in Corby, Northamptonshire. Sadly, the mud on my boots has now dried and my hard hat is sitting forlornly in the boot of my car with the rest of my personal protective equipment. So why did I, the company’s head of legal, spend a week in the cold, scanning a site for buried services and learning about how to capture great-crested newts?

Well, because I wanted to investigate whether a legal professional could ever properly advise on a construction matter without fully understanding the challenges facing those who operate at the coalface.

Most external lawyers only ever visit sites if there is a particular problem. Once there, their time is normally focused solely on that issue. The result is they may become knowledgeable about the benefits of bored piling over driven piling, for example, but have little understanding of the difference between a project manager and site agent or what “walking time” really means.

As an in-house lawyer I have probably spent more time than most external lawyers on site, but there are still gaps in my knowledge. I thought that by shadowing each of the key roles on site I would gain a better understanding of what each involved. More importantly, I would see the interaction between those roles on site – something that is often only ever glimpsed when looking through documents.

Obviously, a week spent on site only gave me a taster, but it meant I was able to understand some of the issues faced by the “front line”. One of the key things I noticed was that sites were much less claims-oriented than I, as a construction lawyer, had thought. Indeed, it was noticeable how much a true partnering ethos prevailed.

For example, the site had open-plan offices and the employer’s representative sat as part of the site team. This meant that problems were dealt with quickly and openly, and not allowed to fester.

Furthermore, with integrated supply-chain management Costain has developed closer and longer-term relationships with its suppliers, which has meant fewer disputes. All this makes my job back in the main office infinitely easier.

Being on site made me realise the importance of extending the partnership ethos, not just on site, but as a whole.

I also learned that if one is to ensure there are no significant gaps between the commercial side of the business and those constructing projects, it is important to make law relevant to the people on the front line.

If the foreman is to give early warning of a possible compensation event to the project manager, then he must understand the specific project risks and opportunities. In turn, if the project manager is to manage the situation he must understand what is, and is not, possible on site so he can stop the problem from escalating.

For example, the discovery of great-crested newts – a protected species – on site could have caused delays, but by working together the project manager and the newt fencing contractor were able to ensure the creatures were captured speedily.

Seeing this in action underlined, for me, the benefits of project-specific seminars for all site staff. Often such briefings can be as simple as a toolbox talk on a topical site issue.

On the commercial side, if you have an in-house legal resource it is important that people are aware of it and use it. Being on site has made me realise the importance of extending the partnership ethos around Costain as a whole, so that speaking to the in-house legal division is a first resort rather than a last one. This will help head off problems, rather than having to deal with the fall-out later.

Finally, my experience confirmed how incredibly hard people work on site. It’s not often you would find a City lawyer in the office at 7am, completing a 12-hour day and then retiring to a caravan next to his office.

So will I be dusting down my personal protective equipment to use again soon? I hope so – if they’ll have me, that is.