Meet a partner and a trainee in construction and engineering

Mayer Brown's Chris Fellowes tells Hannah Langworth about their work at this global firm

In order to qualify as lawyers, graduates joining a City law firm after university and law school must complete a training contract, which usually means spending two years sampling the firm's different departments and, sometimes, spending time at one of its overseas offices or on a client secondment. On each rotation, or "seat", they'll be guided by a senior lawyer known as their supervisor. We spoke to a supervisor in Mayer Brown's Construction & Engineering department to find out more about training at a City law firm, and what the department has to offer junior lawyers.

Chris Fellowes

Partner in Construction & Engineering and trainee supervisor

What does Mayer Brown's Construction & Engineering department do?

We do a mixture of construction and engineering-related work, in a range of sectors including real estate, energy, mining and infrastructure. This comprises transactional work - the drafting of construction and engineering contracts, insurance related work, which normally comprises insurance claims relating to defective construction work or professional negligence, and dispute resolution work in the construction and engineering fields, both UK-based and international cases. Our clients are a mix of owners (often known as project sponsors) of an asset being constructed, or contractors, sub-contractors, consultants or lenders. I am primarily a transactional lawyer, although I also do some dispute work.

What do you enjoy about working in the construction field?

I like the fact that my deals end in a tangible finished product coming out of the ground, of which you can say: �I worked on that." I also have a personal interest in architecture and, as I started my professional life as a surveyor, in how buildings are put together.

What are the current hot topics in construction?

The UK's Construction Act, which governs payment and the settlement of disputes in the UK within the construction industry, was revised at the end of last year, so people are discussing these changes and how they will be interpreted by the courts.

Internationally, the big topic is where the money will come from to pay for construction and engineering projects in the future, because funding from the banks has dried up. For example, there's been talk about investment funds providing new sources of funding.

What can a seat in Construction & Engineering offer trainees?

Construction and engineering law would appeal to people interested in buildings, or those who like to see something physical resulting from their work. There's more to it than houses and office blocks - for example, you can become involved in oil and gas, mining or energy projects. It's also heavily based on contract law so someone interested in this area would find the seat interesting.

While construction is a specialist sector to some extent, you'll also get experience here of commercial issues that are relevant to any corporate or commercial deal. And about 10 per cent of the UK's GDP comes from construction activity, so you'll be getting involved in a significant industry for the economy.

Also, the construction group at Mayer Brown is unusual in that you can do both deal-related and disputes-related work here. So if you're not sure which side you want to go into, you get the chance to do both as a trainee and also for the first few years after qualifying.

How does the training contract at Mayer Brown work?

At Mayer Brown, as at many other City firms, trainees usually do four six-month seats. The Law Society requires all trainees to gain some contentious (disputes-related) and non-contentious (deal-related) experience, which you'll get at Mayer Brown. Here you'll also get to go on secondment overseas or to a client for one of your seats.

Supervisors here are always partners or senior associates, and you'll nearly always share an office with yours. You'll get the biggest percentage of your work from your supervisor, but they will encourage you to work with other people in the department to give us a wider view of how you're doing and so that you get to see the range of work the department does.

How might a supervisor and a trainee work together on a matter?

When Seb was sitting with me, we had to negotiate and draft agreements between an energy supplier client of ours and its contractors. In the initial stages of negotiation I didn't need very much trainee support, but Seb and I worked closely together in the latter stages of the deal.

My role was to engage with the client, run negotiations, and think through the issues. Seb took control of the documents, that is, making sure that they were always in the correct forms, updating them when necessary, and sending them out to the right people. He also did some of the drafting. Sometimes he'd work independently, or independently after speaking to me. Sometimes I or the client would give instructions to him, or sometimes we'd work on things together.

Trainees are a great support with drafting, negotiating, and producing documents. And however inexperienced a trainee is, if they're bright and interested in our work I always learn something from them.

What makes a good trainee?

The first thing is technical ability - that they understand the main aspects of a point of law or can work it out by themselves or with a bit of help from me. The second thing is attitude, being willing to listen, to learn, and to make the best of the opportunities they're given. The final thing is a sense of balance - you don't want a trainee that never says anything, but you don't want someone asking you questions every five minutes.

When I'm interviewing someone for a training contract, I like to see that they're articulate and positive and that they come across as someone I'd like to work with. In addition, if the interviewee knew they were being interviewed by a construction partner, they'd get an edge if they had something to say about what's happening in construction, for example, the potential Thames Estuary airport or the proposed new toll roads.

How can a trainee at Mayer Brown expect their supervisor to help them develop? What does a trainee need to do themselves?

Supervisors should give trainees decent work which enables them to become involved and makes them feel they're part of the team. They should also give trainees feedback as they go along, rather than just at the end of the seat or halfway through it. On the trainee side, you need to show an interest in the work of the department and to pursue feedback.

What advice would you give today's trainees?

Have an open mind. When I started at Mayer Brown I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do but as I progressed, I changed my mind. You can't do every single seat, but be open to undertaking work that you might think is not something you want to do, as you might like it!

Seb Cunningham

Trainee

What is a training contract all about?

After studying at university and law school, you need these two years to learn the practical aspects of being a City lawyer. Being exposed to different areas as you move through your seats makes you aware of the breadth of work your firm does and gives you the rounded understanding of the legal profession that clients expect.

What seats did you do before coming to Construction & Engineering?

My first seat was in finance. Here, I worked on a lot of securitisations, which are essentially a way of raising working capital for a client by converting some of their future incoming cashflows into debt products to be sold to investors. Securitisation deals are very document-heavy because of their complexity and one of my key tasks was document management. I also drafted some of the smaller documents, like board minutes and resolutions.

Next, I went to Hong Kong. I did a finance seat there too, sitting with the ship finance team. Living in Hong Kong was good fun, and it was interesting to compare the office out there with the London office. I worked on deals where banks were taking legal rights over a ship as security for a loan to finance the purchase of that ship, which works in an essentially similar way to a mortgage arrangement for a building. I also worked on matters where banks were financing the building of a new ship - there are always a lot of legal and commercial issues to be resolved between the builders, owners, banks, ship manager and charterers of the ship. As part of my work, I got to do some drafting and had a lot of exposure to the clients.

How was your seat in Construction & Engineering?

It was different in many ways to my year in finance, but also very interesting. I did a mixture of contentious and non-contentious work, which I liked. The main contentious matter that I dealt with, which eventually settled before trial, was a dispute between a retailer and a contractor who had built a car park for them that the surrounding properties' owners alleged had caused their properties to flood. My work on the matter involved a lot of research on a number of different issues, including the legal issues at stake in the dispute and, once we settled, on any applicable tax which might have been payable on the settlement agreements.

On the non-contentious side, I worked with Chris for an energy supplier employing a number of contractors who wanted to establish a framework agreement for their dealings with each of them. I got to go to the meetings and listen to why the parties wanted various provisions included, and worked on amending the draft framework agreement accordingly.

Have you been happy with the seats you've been given?

Before I started, I thought I'd be interested in transactional work, so was happy to be put into the finance department for my first seat - and I can't complain about going to Hong Kong for my second! I didn't know that much about construction before I started, but it ended up being a very good seat for me. That's what can happen in a training contract - you can't tell what something's going to be like until you're immersed in it. I've just started my last seat - in Corporate, which is an area of work I wanted to have a chance to explore and I am already noticing the different challenges in the work.

How does the seat allocation process work at Mayer Brown?

You usually have a discussion with HR before you start your training contract to discuss what you're interested in, and before your second, third and fourth seats, you fill in a form stating what your preferences are and why. They then allocate the seats as fairly as possible, and I think it works well overall. I think the secondments to an overseas office or a client that Mayer Brown offers all trainees are a very good thing - everybody gains a lot of out of this time.

How do you think you've developed since you started your first seat?

I'm a lot more organised - when you work on big transactions you jump up a few gears in terms of organisation as you realise just how much information you need to stay on top of. Another thing is attention to detail - I think a lot of lawyers would say this skill is key in the profession. My communication skills have also improved because as a trainee here you have to deal with a range of people - everyone from the people in the post room, to secretaries, partners, lawyers on the other side and, of course, clients.

What role have your supervisors played in your development?

My supervisors have taken a real interest in me and have helped me by highlighting areas where I could develop. Sometimes, that has meant being given constructive criticism, which isn't always easy to hear, but you don't make the same mistake again. They've also encouraged me to work with other lawyers in their departments to get exposure to different types of work. And because you get to share an office with your supervisor here, you get to see how they deal with clients on a day to day basis, which is useful.

Do you think you'll feel ready to qualify at the end of your final seat?

Yes, I think so. I feel I'm ready to work more independently with clients, which is the objective of the training contract. But I've also been reassured that there will still be support available if I need it - it's not that you qualify and are suddenly on your own as it's in everyone's interest to maintain a level of support.

What knowledge and skills would you like to develop over the coming months and years?

I think my organisational abilities will continue to improve. I find it impressive that the partners I work with, although they're working on several matters, are absolutely tuned in to everything that's going on in each one of them.

I also expect to continue to develop my legal knowledge because, whether you're a trainee, an associate or a partner, you always need to know what the latest developments in the legal market are.

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