Construction law falls into two main categories: non-contentious and contentious.
On the non-contentious side, lawyers are involved in negotiating contracts and general procurement, before the actual construction work begins. Construction projects involve a wide variety of people and organisations, and construction lawyers will therefore work with those initiating the project (for example developers, or government bodies); those financing the project (for example, banks), those designing the building (architects); those doing the actual construction (construction companies, developers, contractors), and so on.
Construction law becomes ‘contentious’ when something goes awry, for example, the project is running late, or terms of the contract have been breached. The contracts drawn up at the procurement stage will set out how any disputes should be dealt with, and usually (in an effort to minimise costs) it is resolved through adjudication, or arbitration. If a case does go to court, a specialist barrister from the construction bar would usually be appointed to advocate.
Project work can be either international or domestic. Project lawyers work with project companies, interdisciplinary legal teams, local governments, and financial backers (for example, under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) private investors are allowed into the public sector) in order to bring large-scale projects to a successful conclusion.
What does this type of lawyer do?
Unsurprisingly, contract law features strongly in the work of construction lawyers, who will be engaged in negotiating and agreeing terms with all relevant parties. Construction lawyers will continue to be involved throughout the duration, for example making site visits, and liaising with all parties to ensure everything is running to plan.
When things aren’t going to plan, lawyers will be involved in gathering evidence, advising on the strength or otherwise of their client’s position, and advising on the appropriate course of action as set out under the terms of the contract. This may entail instructing counsel, and attending proceedings with the client.
What skills are required?
Construction law demands a high degree of client contact, with a range of different clients: from contractors to financial backers and other lawyers. You need to be able to build rapport with a wide variety of people, be able to see things from your client’s point of view, and offer commercially viable advice in terms that your client can understand.
The contracts involved in construction law can be very complex and technical, and you will need to have a good grasp of contract law and tort, as well as having excellent analytical skills and attention to detail. However, this is a very ‘hands on’ practice area, and common sense and a practical attitude will also go a long way.
You need to have a genuine interest in the sector: while previous experience in construction or engineering is not essential, obviously if you do have such a background it will help with your understanding of the technology, terminology and indeed most crucially the market in which your clients operate.
Usually when the economy is down, as a very general observation, work decreases for non-contentious construction lawyers (as their clients are not bidding for or procuring new work) and increases for contentious construction lawyers (as hard times lead to problems and disputes, provided of course the defendant is still solvent enough to be able to pay any damages awarded!).
The economic downturn had a significant impact on the construction section – and therefore on the work of many lawyers in this area. With the upturn in the economy in recent years, along with government policies and investment, this is changing. There are huge infrastructure and commercial projects planned (from rail lines to nuclear power stations) and a huge emphasis on house building.
What's it like in practice
Find out what some of our people who have practised construction and projects say about it, and the advice that they would give those interested in a career in this area. Look at the following Case Study:
The student guides to the legal profession have useful information on working in construction law. Look at:
- Lawcareers.net: http://www.lawcareers.net
- Chambers and Partners Student guide: http://www.chambersstudent.co.uk
- Target Law: https://targetjobs.co.uk/career-sectors/law-solicitors
In addition, keep up with construction news: