Steven Charney is chair of Peckar & Abramson, the largest construction law practice in the United States, and a professor at Columbia University. Mr Charney and his firm regularly represent contractors that are among the top 10 in the field, as reported by Engineering News Record. His background couples extensive academic and hands-on experience in the construction industry with decades of experience in litigating for, and providing legal counsel to, contractors and developers. He has handled numerous construction-related disputes in court, arbitration and alternative dispute forums.
What made you decide on a career in construction law?
A fascination with construction and architecture led to me spending the first decade of my career with the largest building contractor in the United States. My interest in law grew as I worked towards a graduate degree from an engineering college, and looked to combine the problem-solving mindset of a contractor with a lawyer’s skillset. A career in construction law was unusual at the time, since construction law was still emerging as a distinct discipline, so I worked for a contractor during the day and attended law school at night.
How has construction law evolved to embrace a range of sub-specialities since you began your career?
When I started practising, construction law was primarily based on price and schedule adjustment disputes, with some contract drafting, and default and defect-related issues, and projects rarely cost $1 billion. Now, multibillion-dollar projects are increasingly common, little is simple or straightforward, there is much more to manage – and it is still evolving. Defaults are now the subject of specialised insurance products. Building, civil and EPC projects have diverse issues. Products and systems are changing with technology. Government contracting has expanded in depth and complication. The role of compliance and ethics has grown dramatically. Project delivery methods and the complexity of contract documents are changing. Mergers and acquisitions are increasingly common, as are international issues. Labour and employment concerns have expanded. Each year brings more change, complexity, nuance and challenge, and our firm has built a series of sub-specialties in response.
When drafting construction contracts, what should lawyers prioritise to avoid disputes further down the line?
Construction contracts present unique risks and concerns, and no order of prioritisation applies to them all. Tailor each agreement to the risks, opportunities and issues presented by the specific project, contract, risk management/insurance approach and delivery method, as well as each owner and contractor’s goals and objectives. Rarely will one project’s form of agreement instantly apply to another. Additionally, be careful of terms that are not found in the contract itself, but are instead included in specifications or other contract documents.
How has subcontractor default insurance developed and why are clients increasingly interested in this?
The contracting community has embraced subcontractor default insurance (SDI) as an alternative to traditional performance and payment bonds, especially in building construction. Benefits include the efficiency by which a contractor can respond to a subcontractor default and the potential to reduce cost and delay. In turn, contractors have expanded their focus on subcontractor selection, performance and other variables that may lead to defaults. Until recently, there was essentially only one SDI insurer, but now many options are available with a wide range of specialised issues presented by the acceptance of SDI.
What was your motivation in establishing the Infrastructure Institute at Syracuse University?
The striking need for greater infrastructure improvement and development is unmistakable, posing a serious challenge domestically and globally. Infrastructure is increasingly complex and demands new and multidisciplinary approaches (eg, P3s). In other words, neither civil engineers, nor architects, nor public administrators, nor private enterprise and finance, as examples, can tackle this challenge alone. A future built on genuine, multidisciplinary engagement of diverse skillsets and capabilities is essential, and the goal is to help make that happen. The Syracuse University Infrastructure Institute is built on this premise.
How would you like to see your practice develop over the next five years?
Our goal for the next five years remains the continued development of our talent, our people, our culture of working together, and our ability to serve and deliver results for our clients. I enjoy the unique culture we have at P&A that allows me to work with so many talented and insightful lawyers. The results and service we regularly provide for our clients are a product of this culture and I look forward to building upon what we have already established and ensuring it continues.
What has been your proudest achievement to date?
More than any specific achievement I am proud of the culture we have built at P&A over the dozen or so years I have served as chair. I see the lawyers at P&A, individually and collectively, take care of our client’s needs, deliver outstanding results, and develop professionally with our support and guidance. Our culture produces these results and is the reason we have been recognised as the “go-to” law firm for so many of the leading builders in the United States and internationally.
What advice would you give to someone looking to begin a career in construction law?
Raw talent serves as a platform to build upon, but success is the product of recognising your strengths and weaknesses and learning to adapt accordingly. Patience is key (mastering the craft of construction law does not happen overnight). Keep your ego in check and look at yourself before attributing setbacks to others. Also, get help when you don’t know the answer – that is why we have sub-specialties within our construction practice at P&A.