The legal profession is one of the few still prospering, which is why so many QSs are clamouring to enter it. But how easy is it to make the switch?

Doesn’t it sometimes feel like lawyers are the only people making money? Unfortunately, it is true that in times of market adversity disputes are more frequent as everyone tries to claw in all the money that’s due to them. The upside to this is that it offers a career opportunity for construction professionals with a scholarly bent – most often QSs, who are traditionally closer to the contractual arrangements on a project and use similar skills in their work.

“Most of us in dispute resolution don’t set out to do it,” says Richard Morris, head of dispute services at Systech Group, which employs more than 500 people across the world. “I started out as a mechanical and electrical services QS. In a tough market like this you find a lot more claims, so people like me get brought into the dispute resolution arena. Once they get exposed to it, they think it’s a good skill to have. The more interested people get, the more they want to pursue it formally.” Systech’s current workload is split 70:30 between dispute resolution and commercial services. “It used to be the other way around, but this year and in 2010 a significant volume of our work will be dispute resolution.” Morris is recruiting, though he is mainly looking for applicants with previous experience of claims.

Where to begin?

There are several avenues open to you if you want to work in construction law, though some of them are pretty hard-going. The simplest is to move into dispute resolution or expert witness work. This could either be within a specialist practice or a department within a larger consultancy, and could also lead to work as an arbitrator, adjudicator or mediator in disputes. You don’t necessarily need an additional qualification, but a law degree or a masters in construction law would be useful.

If you’ve really been bitten by the law bug, you could 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.

Ronan Champion used to be a QS; now he’s a director of specialist dispute consultancy Acutus and chairman of the Society of Construction Law. Champion started as a QS and found he was concentrating on dispute resolution work. After about a decade, he decided to study part-time for a law degree, and then the bar exams. “I wanted to understand more about the industry I was working in, rather than practice law,” he says. “It was hugely useful. Dispute resolution work can be particularly attractive to those at the more academic end of the spectrum.”

At Hill International, senior vice president David Price is another evangelist for the value of a legal qualification. “It just gives you a greater breadth of understanding of how deals are put together and you become more attractive to clients because you can offer legal experience,” he says.

Like Champion, Price is also qualified as a non-practising barrister, which means he took a law degree and then the BVC but stopped short of a pupillage. When he began studying in the eighties while working at Knowles (now part of Hill International), he says it was unusual to hold qualifications in both construction and law. “Now it’s becoming more popular because people have seen how you can progress in business if you are dual qualified, with a legal qualification.”

He’s recruiting too. “We are always on the lookout for anyone who’s got good experience and good professional and legal qualifications. They’ll always be in demand.”

Hill International has offices all over the world, but a professional trained in English law would be most suited to working in Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand or Canada, which follow the same style of common law system, as opposed to civil law in Europe or Sharia law in the Middle East.

There’s another reason why applicants with legal qualifications are attractive. “It shows you’ve got a bit of stickability. If someone’s able to stick at the course and finish it, it demonstrates a lot about them as a person. Most people are doing these qualifications when they’ve got a young family. To finish it you have to be quite dedicated.”

A CV booster

Even if you don’t want to specialise in dispute resolution, a law qualification on your CV won’t do any harm. “People who take our course come from all areas of the industry,” says Louise Barrington, director of the centre of construction law at King’s College London, which offers a masters in construction law and a certificate in adjudication. “The mix changes every year. It equips people to do what they’re already doing, but better. People are using construction contracts all the time, but they may be doing it badly or have picked up bad habits.” She’s already seen an increase in applications since the downturn began. “People come in and say, ‘I’ve been thinking about this for a long time’. Now’s a good opportunity to take a year out to do it.”

If you’re definitely intending to remain in construction, a masters has the advantage of being more closely focused – a law degree will involve a broader range of study in areas such as criminal law, which are not relevant – not to mention cheaper and quicker.

Applicants for the King’s masters can have any background, but they should have two years’ industry experience. In particular, Barrington has seen demand for the certificate in adjudication rise, as this “quick and dirty” method of settling claims has taken over from arbitration. “Adjudication has become a major industry, and a major source of revenue for lawyers.”

Solicitors do earn a decent salary, but it takes a while. You don’t just qualify and end up in the land of milk and honey

Kevin Maguire, Pinsent Masons

A qualification isn’t legally required to practice, but it is preferred by professional bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and the RICS, which nominate adjudicators. “A lot of adjudicators are not lawyers, and they feel that these courses help not only with the legal background and also drafting judgements.” The course costs about £3,500 for one-year, the masters costs £6,800 either for a year full-time or two part-time.

The Chartered Institute of Arbitrators also runs training programmes with four pathways: arbitration, international arbitration, adjudication or mediation. For each, there is a one-day introduction module with an assignment, and then four modules, which can also be taken individually.

Education and training manager Anita Phillips says that the programme involves a mix of self-study and face-to-face tuition, and that completing one pathway takes about two years part-time. There are no set entry requirements, although students are commonly QSs or engineers. “The key benefit is professional credibility and the competitive edge this gives you,” she says. “It’s another string to your bow, another service that consultants can offer to clients. A lot of people are retraining at the moment, and dispute resolution is a good way to go.” The introductory course costs £549, and each module costs £1,549.

A different ball game?

But beware: studying the law can become addictive. Many QSs who’ve trodden the path to dispute resolution have kept on going, and retrained completely. You might be wondering how easy it would be to transfer the professional skills you’ve already developed – here, as you might expect, there are differing opinions and rhetorical flourishes aplenty.

Mark Entwhistle began his career as a QS, and gravitated towards the legal side of the profession before deciding to train as a barrister. He was called to the bar (after completing his BVC) in 1997 and now practices on his own. He reckons it’s not that big a leap. “It’s not a complete career change – it’s not like a baker becoming a lorry driver. QSs tend to be concerned with aspects of the contract. The QS skillset is fundamentally based on logic and thoroughness, and you need to address arguments from different perspectives and work your way through the pros and cons. They really are very similar skills to those of a lawyer.”

On the other hand, Ronan Champion thinks it’s a completely different ball game. QSs converting to become solicitors or barristers shouldn’t even assume that they will specialise in construction. “Essentially, it’s a completely new life. The idea that just because you know about construction you can be a lawyer is like a lawyer converting to quantity surveying or contracting just because they’ve been dealing with housebuilding. There’s a lot of business generation work as a solicitor too. If you haven’t been able to master that as a QS, it will be even harder as a solicitor. Very few people make a full conversion.”

One person who has, and knows all about the hardships along the way, is Kevin Maguire. Now he’s a solicitor at Pinsent Masons, but he spent 14 years as a QS straight from school, studying for his surveying qualifications part-time along the way. Maguire found he was drawn to the claims side of the business, moved to a specialist dispute resolution firm and began a law degree – while he was also preparing for his APC. “That was tough going,” he remembers. “I think you have to be organised and driven. I was doing this while starting a family – my wife and I were working full-time, I was studying part-time and bringing up a young family. When I started my part-time law degree in 2001, I turned up on the first night and there were 100 people. By the time I finished the course, there were a quarter left.”

But the hardest thing is getting a training contract with a solicitor’s firm once you’ve completed your studies. Maguire’s big break was moving to a local firm part-way through his law degree, but many of his peers weren’t so lucky. “Anyone who goes down this route should know it’s difficult to get a training contract when you’re a part-time student and a mature student as well. There’s a lot of competition to get into the big law firms and they have their own set of criteria in terms of what they want from a trainee.

If you’re 30-plus and entering your second career, you don’t necessarily fit. Your CV might get thrown in the bin, despite the fact that you’ve got a lot of industry experience and life skills.”

Beginning again

Crucially, while the law may look like the road to riches, you do have to start from the bottom again. “If you get a position working for a law firm on a trainee’s salary it can be a significant drop. It was difficult. Socialising, playing golf, football all went by the wayside for a couple of years. Solicitors do earn a decent salary, but it takes a while. You don’t just qualify and end up in the land of milk and honey.”

Maguire was also lucky that his employers paid for him to take the law degree and LPC, which would have cost him between £8,000 and 10,000. “Someone doing this off their own bat would need to be pretty certain it was going to take them where they wanted to go.”

But for all the hardship along the way, he has not looked back. “I had a choice – spend another 30-35 years doing what I was doing or go in another direction. I was genuinely interested in the law, and that complements my background – I can understand the contract and the particular problems that the client’s having as well as the legal issues.”

Entwhistle has some similar advice: “You need to have a love of the subject. Any individual needs to sit themselves down and ask ‘is this really what I want to do?’ There’s no point if it’s not going to be right for you.”