Steven switched to law after obtaining a civil and structural engineering degree and then working as a civil engineer for a major contractor. He advises employers, contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers on a wide range of building and civil engineering matters, both domestically and internationally. He advises on the full scope of construction issues ranging from procurement and contract strategies to dispute avoidance and resolution, and regularly sits as a TeCSA adjudicator. Steven writes regularly for Building and Construction News and is on the panel of judges for the Construction News “Specialist Contractor of the year” awards.
You began your career as an engineer. What motivated your shift to become a construction lawyer?
My civil engineering degree included a contract law module, which sparked an interest in law. Two years into my engineering career I spotted an opportunity to move into law and made the move. I think I am a far better construction lawyer than I would have been an engineer. Specialising in engineering law gives me the best of both worlds: I get to work with many talented engineers (a profession that, sadly, in the UK remains undervalued) while practising law.
How has the landscape of dispute resolution in construction matters changed over your time in practice?
When I first started out disputes dragged on for ages. Clients experienced immense frustration with the process and the expense for many companies was crippling. If people had said back in the 1980s and 1990s that many disputes could be resolved within 28-42 days, they would have been laughed at. Adjudication has changed all that and has been exported around the world. Our excellent Technology and Construction Court has also been at the forefront of many developments that have led to a streamlining of the dispute resolution process.
Looking internationally, I think the success of adjudication will lead to parties increasingly recognising the advantages of speedier dispute resolution methods. I doubt that in many cases a full-blown arbitration, coupled with huge expenses and a diversion of management from the day job, provides any more of a satisfactory decision than would have been achieved via a streamlined dispute process. UK lawyers with their experience of adjudication are well placed to showcase these skills on an international stage.
Mediation is another development increasingly seen as an excellent way of sorting disputes out cost effectively.
In what ways has your role as a TeCSA adjudicator impacted your private practice?
Being an adjudicator helps in realising the importance of focusing on the big issues, and not being distracted by taking every point under the sun – no matter how marginal. It also emphasises how being un-cooperative with the other side can frustrate a tribunal. In short, being able to see things from the tribunal’s perspective can only add value for our clients, as it gives me a wider perspective.
You write frequently for academic journals and construction news sources. How important do you consider this type of work to be as part of a lawyer’s overall practice?
As well as sharing with the industry insights into legal developments, our group is actively engaged in the wider construction community. To be seen as a contributor to debates on important issues can only be a good thing.
You are currently the head of the construction, engineering and projects group at Charles Russell Speechlys. How have you gone about building a great team?
It would be arrogant of me to suggest that I have built this team. Our great team has been built over time by many people. Over the past four years, growth has been up to 10 per cent year-on-year, which is impressive. I firmly believe that this is because the environment that we have put in place, while pursuing excellence, is supportive and encouraging. We have a great track recorded in promoting through the ranks. For example, my fellow partner Rupa Lakha – recognised as a highly regarded future leader by WWL – was a trainee with us, while our two recent promotions to partnership joined us very early on in their careers. We are expanding internationally (which gives a balance to our domestic offering) and part of this has meant we have been lucky enough to recruit Thanos Karvelis in Dubai. It is important to ensure anyone coming into our group is imbued with the same team values we have, in order to maintain the team spirit.
Considerable attention is being given to gender in the workplace at present. To what extent are gender-specific issues facing lawyers being addressed in your industry?
Over 50 per cent of our group’s lawyers are female. The challenge is to ensure that all of our talented lawyers, male and female, get to senior roles while balancing their work life with their family life. It makes no business sense to invest in people and then see them leave because we cannot get this right. Agile working is key. As regards diversity in the broader sense within the law, we all still have a long way to go.
Turning to the construction industry, it is, and continues to be, male-dominated – though this is slowly changing. Behaviours that were common 10-15 years ago are simply not tolerated now.
Construction law is an invigorating, challenging and rewarding environment in which to practise law, no matter what gender you are.
What impact do you think third-party funding will have on construction law in the next five years?
A significant one. Litigation funding’s main benefit is that it removes legal costs from companies’ cash flow; in an industry where cash flow is notoriously tight, it is likely to lead to a rise in the number of claims being brought. The other added benefit is that it removes claims from a company’s balance sheet. As more funders move into the market it may also lead to cheaper funding, and become an even more attractive option for construction companies.
Do you think that the construction industry will change dramatically over the next decade?
If one walked a construction worker of 100 years ago around a construction site today, much of it would be familiar. This at last is about to change. The industry is ripe for disruption – least of all because with an ageing workforce (almost 30 per cent of construction workers in the UK are over 50), an industry that is not attracting enough young people, and with potential restrictions on companies’ ability to bring in labour from other countries, there will simply not be enough people to deliver the necessary infrastructure and development. Digitisation, off-site manufacturing, rising/flying factories, 3D printing and robotics: all of these new developments, for the construction industry at least, will have a massive impact and catapult us into the 21st century, making it a really exciting industry to be involved in. This will feed into how lawyers operate and serve clients.