Construction & engineering

Construction & engineering

Michael Tetstall


University: University College London
Degree: Law

Contentious construction work involves the resolution of disputes by way of litigation, mediation, adjudication or arbitration. Non-contentious work involves drafting and negotiating contracts and advising on projects, insurance, health and safety, environmental matters and insolvency. Clients range from industry associations, insurers, contractors, architects, engineers, public authorities and government bodies to major companies and partnerships.

Law was initially more of an academic interest than a burning vocation for Michael Tetstall; it was only when studying at UCL that he finally decided this was where his future lay. Once that decision was made, however, it wasn’t hard to decide which branch of the profession to pursue.

“The chance to be an advocate appealed to me,” he explains. “That was definitely something that I wanted; but also the chance to spend more time focusing on law rather than the huge volume of work that goes into running a case as a solicitor. Getting into the gritty legal problems – that was probably what I enjoyed most while studying undergraduate law. Then, as I looked at what was involved in the two careers a little bit more, the idea of being self-employed and being able to manage my own practice with a degree of autonomy also seemed attractive.”

Michael’s first experience of construction law was while working as a legal assistant at a law firm before securing pupillage at Hardwicke. And when two of his three pupil supervisors had construction-focused practices, this reinforced his desire to explore the area further.

Starting in the shadows

As a pupil, Michael’s early days were spent shadowing and learning from his supervisors, assisting where possible with research and small pieces of work here and there. As time passed and he became more experienced, he was asked to provide more substantive assistance, such as writing first drafts of documents and preparing research notes. He found this a valuable learning experience which exposed him to some interesting matters.

“I was involved with one of my supervisors on a claim for a demolition contractor against an employer in a big commercial premises,” he recalls. “There was a range of claims and both the facts and the law involved contained a high level of interest and complexity. It was great to be involved over an extended period to see it through from its relatively early stages to a conclusion – to experience first hand client conferences, going through the documents and assisting with some of the work for my supervisor. Just to see how a large, complex, multi-party claim comes together and how that is translated into litigation was very useful.”

Complexity at all levels

Since taking tenancy, Michael has developed his own practice. He does a significant amount of construction work of his own, alongside acting as a junior to more senior members of chambers on higher-value cases. His practice involves advising clients as well as appearing in court as an advocate. Outside court, he is also frequently instructed as an advocate in alternative dispute resolution processes such as adjudication and mediation.

“Construction law at the Bar is quite varied,” he explains. “From small contractor/ employer disputes or domestic disputes between homeowners and contractors to the bigger stuff – large contractors with a number of subcontractors below them and a multinational developer as an employer. Ultimately, the sky’s the limit with construction claims and the more senior you become, the higher the value of the cases you work on and, in theory, the more complex. However, things don’t always work like that and you can end up with some lowvalue matters at the junior end which can still present quite difficult, thorny issues.”

"Ultimately, the sky’s the limit with construction claims and the more senior you become, the higher the value of the cases you work on and, in theory, the more complex"

It is those thorny issues which attracted Michael in the first place and they remain one of the things he enjoys most about the area. “There is a lot of law in it, which I really like,” he says. “It doesn’t just involve disputes that are entirely decided on the facts; there are a significant number of both factual and legal disputes, and I find that really interesting as a barrister. I also feel that I am constantly learning. You work with experts in a lot of different fields that you may not have come across before and you have to come to understand those fields with their assistance – whether it be different methods for pouring concrete or forensic accountancy. You are working with a diverse team of people and learning a lot as you do so, which is really rewarding.”

He suggests that any budding lawyers thinking of practising in the area can get a feel for the sort of work that they might be doing by visiting a hearing at the Technology and Construction Court, a specialist group of courts within the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice; although he warns that some of the jargon might be a little technical. He also suggests that a number of different chambers (including Hardwicke) publish online construction newsletters, which provide information in a more accessible form.

Mini adventures

By far the best way to gain experience, he believes, is to do mini-pupillages – not just to bolster a CV, but to understand more about the profession. “Mini-pupillage is really important,” he states. “People sometimes think of them purely as a requirement for an application form, but I think it’s easy to overlook the fact that at their heart they are about gaining an insight into the law, into different areas of law at a different chambers, and that is a vital aspect. You need to do mini-pupillages for your own benefit, to help you work out what appeals to you, the area in which you want to work and the sort of set in which you’ll feel comfortable.”

Beyond that, Michael has some advice regarding the level of commitment needed for a career at the Bar: “In terms of overall advice, it is important to be determined and, if you decide that the Bar is for you, to stick at it and show that you have a real, genuine interest in getting there. You should be under no illusion: getting pupillage isn’t an easy process and practice at the Bar isn’t easy either, so you need to have that genuine desire to do it.”