James Bremen is a partner and chair of the construction and engineering practice at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. Though based in London, James also has responsibility for the firm’s office in Doha, Qatar. A solicitor advocate, James is qualified in England and Wales, and Australia. Prior to joining Quinn Emanuel in 2016, James was a senior partner at Herbert Smith Freehills. For over 20 years James has represented parties in some of the largest and most complex construction disputes worldwide, often as advocate.
What motivated you to specialise in construction law?
I trained in Australia in the 1990s. Mining and construction was a high growth area, with lots of opportunity for early responsibility and an international flavour. I did a number of summer clerkships in construction practice groups as a law student, and enjoyed the legal and technical complexity of the area – and, at that time, the travel.
How has the market changed since you first started practising?
When I first began, construction departments did contentious and non-contentious work. Over time these departments split into separate projects and construction disputes groups. In the past decade many of the contentious construction departments have become much more generalist and have been subsumed into broader arbitration and litigation teams. Apart from the bar there are now very few people in private practice focusing on large-scale construction disputes, and fewer and fewer very experienced people. This creates unique opportunities for the few of us remaining who are true specialists. This is particularly so where the construction disputes market itself continues to grow.
What do you most enjoy about working in dispute resolution?
Winning cases. The theatre of hearings. Knowing that you have given literally everything to make the case for a client. Working with and against, and appearing before, very clever people, which forces you to always do your very best work.
Looking back over your career, what is the most memorable case you have been a part of?
There are two arbitrations I must mention. The first was in Mexico where I was sent as a junior lawyer while at White & Case in the early 2000s to “just sort it out”. It was on a large oil refinery and the sums in dispute were in the billions. I was two years qualified. I learnt a lot, and still can’t eat Mexican food. The second case is the large Sidra Hospital ICC case, on which I have been acting for the Qatar Foundation for the past five years. This matter has taught me more about hospitals than I ever cared to know.
You work a lot with clients in the energy sector. What impact is the increased use of renewable energy having on your practice?
I have been very fortunate in that most of my clients in the energy sector are either national oil companies or their affiliates. While I have done some renewables disputes work, given that I specialise in very large disputes, on and offshore oil and gas projects have been a consistent source of work for me throughout my career.
A significant part of your practice involves working with emerging markets. What challenges do you face working in these regions?
People are people. It’s very important to build trust with clients. Take their cases personally and be patient. Too few lawyers invest the time to build the right rapport with clients, but once you have done that, the issues are the same as for any other client – albeit sometimes arrived at through a slightly different route.
How would you like to see your practice develop over the next five years?
My team and I are extremely fortunate to have great clients from all over the world. We have never been busier. Over the next five years, I hope to slightly expand our geographic footprint, and to be able to provide opportunities for some of my senior lawyers to progress to partnership.
What advice would you give to younger practitioners hoping to be in your position one day?
Make sure you want it. If you do, understand that it requires your total commitment. That it is often a heavy price. Be resilient – you won’t win them all. In hearings, always appear calm and confident, regardless of the situation. Don’t ever cut corners, either in rigour or ethics, no matter what. Always be honest and candid with colleagues and, importantly, those you appear before. Always over-prepare.