Shelly Ewald’s practice focuses on international and domestic construction contracting and federal government contracts. She has represented contractors and owners on a range of industrial and commercial projects including power plants, hydrocarbon projects, pipelines, and mass transit systems. She has also represented government contractors in the defense sector and telecommunications industry. Shelly has extensive experience in the power industry and has served as litigation/arbitration counsel on more than twenty-five domestic and international power plant projects.
What inspired you to pursue a career in construction law?
My government contracts professor in law school told me to go talk to two of his former students, Bob Watt and Jules Hoffar. I think he thought that our shared midwestern backgrounds were a good personality fit. I am still here at the law firm that Bob, Jules and Jack Tieder started in 1978. I was initially attracted to the camaraderie and opportunities they offered—they were willing to give me a chance to try anything. It was also quickly apparent to me that construction law was a great field for a litigator.
What are currently the most common sources of the disputes that you encounter, and how do you think clients can minimise the risks of them occurring?
Many of the disputes I encounter deal with delays and inability to perform/deliver the project as initially planned. In those disputes where a negotiated resolution is impossible, it is usually because there has been an unforeseen change in the project economics as well. While the latter is difficult to address, timely resolution of delays would eliminate the risks that can come about from litigating them later.
To what extent is arbitration now the preferred method of dispute resolution for construction disputes, and why?
In the international arena, arbitration is certainly preferred to domestic courts. In the United States, arbitration has become the preferred method to seek a faster resolution from decision makers with a background in the construction field. While I am generally a proponent of arbitration given the complexity of the issues, it is also true that a jury brings a less jaundiced eye to particular types of construction claims.
Do you expect virtual preparations and hearings to become the new normal for international arbitrations?
Yes, the convenience and cost savings that can be realized in virtual depositions, mediations and arbitration hearings are here to stay—at least for a few years. The entire industry around business travel is evolving and there is no reason to believe that arbitrations will not be subject to the same considerations.
What challenges do you expect the next generation of construction lawyers to encounter? How might they successfully navigate them?
It is much harder for young lawyers to find opportunities to go to court, much less acquire significant trial and first chair experience. However, that is necessary to build a practice and achieve autonomy in your career, which is apparently more crucial to career satisfaction than compensation. Young lawyers should search out opportunities to develop a niche practice within the construction arena that will give them an opportunity to get court room experience and first chair disputes. For me, that was volunteering to go to England and work on two power plants being constructed in China as a “seconded lawyer” for a client. Developing a niche in the power industry changed my career path in ways that were not readily apparent at the time I volunteered.