Big picture: the key facts about working in construction and engineering law
Practising in construction and engineering is all about the legal dimensions involved in taking a building or infrastructure project from a plan to reality, making sure the process runs smoothly and your client is protected, and helping to resolve disputes when things go wrong.
Why are lawyers needed?
Construction and engineering lawyers on the non-contentious (transaction-focused) side of this practice area are needed to produce the complex contracts between all the parties involved in a project.
They're also needed to ensure all other necessary legal steps have been taken - for example, the gaining of planning permission or environmental permits.
Contentious (dispute-focused) work involves assessing the legal position of a party involved in a construction dispute and then guiding them through the steps necessary to resolve it, which could involve negotiation of a settlement agreement, a mediation process, or even a trial.
On the job
A non-contentious lawyer acting for a developer constructing a large building might first work on the project at the planning stage, negotiating, drafting and reviewing contracts between the architects, the landowners and the developers of the building.
During the construction of the building, they'd then be on hand to advise their client on the working of these agreements on the ground and on any legal issues that arise.
A contentious lawyer acting for a contractor being sued by the developers of a large building for not completing their work correctly might first assess their client's legal position, at the same time becoming familiar with the technical details of the project and how the events that caused the dispute unfolded.
They'd then advise the client on what form of dispute resolution to adopt and on the terms of any settlement agreement.
Areas of law used include:
- contract law
- tort law
- land law
In practice: we spoke to a construction and engineering associate at a large commercial law firm
What kind of work do you do?
I do a mixture of non-contentious and contentious construction and engineering work.
My non-contentious work often involves drafting the contracts for developments - for example, the buildings contracts and appointments of consultants involved, such as architects and structural engineers - and advising on third party agreements with parties who have an interest in the project, such the banks who've lent the money to fund it.
My contentious work includes dispute avoidance and resolution, court action and adjudication (a form of dispute resolution unique to the construction industry).
Sometimes my matters only involve working within the construction and engineering department although I work alongside the real estate, litigation and dispute resolution, finance and corporate teams at my firm on a frequent basis.
What kind of clients do you act for?
I work on a wide range of matters that can vary in size from a renovation of a listed residential terraced property in central London to a large power station or infrastructure project overseas.
I've acted for developers, banks and contractors. I regularly act for international developers building shopping centres, student accommodation, office blocks, and new homes in the UK and abroad.
Can you describe one of your deals?
I recently drafted the construction documents for the development of high-end residential apartments in central London.
At the start of the matter, we visited the site and attended meetings with the client to determine their objectives and proposed deal structure. The building contract was based on a standard form contract widely used in the construction industry.
I was responsible for drafting amendments to the standard form contract to tailor it to the needs of our client for the project.
I also drafted the appointments for the professional team who were involved in the design and construction of the development. I negotiated the terms of the documents with a number of parties and worked alongside three other law firms.
What do you enjoy about your practice area?
I enjoy the variety of projects and clients and have a genuine interest in the construction industry.
I like working in an area of law where the results are tangible. It's nice to be able to see buildings that are part of the London skyline and know that I've been involved in working for the client who came up with the idea and made it all happen.
Also, I'm doing a lot of work for clients outside London working in the renewable energy field and it's really interesting to be involved in this fast-moving and innovative industry.
What kind of person is suited to your practice area?
It sounds obvious, but you need to have a strong interest in the built environment and be keen to work as part of a large team to complete transactions.
You need to be very commercial and adaptable as it can be a long process between the idea or concept for a new development and the completion of the construction aspects.
Many unforeseen circumstances can arise during the course of a development - for example, planning objections, sustainability requirements, or concerns over site noise, so you need to be good at multitasking and managing a range of issues at once.
What are the current big issues in your practice area?
There's a lot of talk about "blacklisting", meaning where particular construction workers, often union members, have been banned from working on building sites and prevented from being hired for jobs.
According to some trade unions, thousands of workers in the construction industry have been denied work, and an actual blacklist was uncovered following a raid by the Information Commissioner's Office in 2009.
Many large companies were involved with the organisation that had the list so there have been calls for a blacklisting enquiry and compensation scheme, especially as some of the workers who were blacklisted had simply raised concerns about health and safety practices on site. A new code of practice covering employment in the construction industry is being called for.