Degree: English literature and language
Contentious construction work involves the resolution of disputes, principally through arbitration, litigation, or mediation. In addition, the construction world has some distinctive dispute processes of its own including adjudication and dispute boards. Non-contentious construction work involves strategic advice on how to structure the parties’ roles and risks in the project, procurement processes by which parties bid to win contracts, drafting and negotiating those contracts and advising on related matters including financing, insurance, health and safety, environmental matters and insolvency. Clients range from developers, project owners, insurers, contractors, architects, engineers, industry associations, public authorities and government bodies to major companies and partnerships.
With more than 20 years working at Charles Russell Speechlys LLP, partner Rupa Lakha reflects on her career and what originally drew her to the area of construction and engineering. “I loved the advocacy”, she says before adding that when she was aged seven, she thought she’d end up becoming a judge. The advocacy was the element that almost led Rupa towards becoming a barrister, rather than a solicitor. However, it was “the idea of having more client contact, getting involved earlier on in the matter, spending more time troubleshooting and giving broader commercial advice” that confirmed that the solicitor route was for her.
It was her three-month stint working on a series of adjudications as a paralegal in what was Speechly Bircham’s construction department (pre-merger with Charles Russell) before commencing her training contract, and then a construction seat as a trainee that gave her the taste of life as a construction solicitor. She says of her training contract: “Everybody knew everybody else. I had the privilege of working across all four key divisions within the firm, and had really good exposure to client contact, getting involved in transactions and getting involved in disputes.”
What so appealed about the practice area then? “For me, having an area of law that was focusing on the contentious side was always part of the plan. I qualified into construction having enjoyed it as the final seat in my training contract.”
The varied nature of the work was also a selling point for Rupa, who explains that the work is “very diverse, and the scope of the sector is wide”. She adds: “The type of projects that you get involved in are very different and often very technical. I’ve advised on a defective bridge, where I had to look at the impact of structural forces and the engineer’s calculations had been incorrect, causing defects.” Rupa has also dealt with disputes to do with defective glazing, underfloor heating and, of course, a lot of defective cladding work. Rupa explains that “the stimulation you get on the very technical side is really what drew me in, and I liked the clients that I was working with”.
However, it’s not just formal disputes that Rupa works on. She’s keen to clarify that specialising in contentious construction work means dealing with all types of dispute resolution, including “mediation, adjudication, arbitration, and also high court proceedings”.
So as well as this, Rupa works in “dispute avoidance, which is really important nowadays, and troubleshooting. So, effectively, offering advice when things are getting bumpy”.
From trainee to partner
To provide a real example of the broad and varied work of a construction solicitor, Rupa discusses her day-to-day life at the firm. “The typical day for me, is atypical,” she says. “If I've got large ongoing cases on, I’ll have regular weekly catchups with my team to see where we are in terms of actions and what's moved. I’ll also have external meetings where I'm meeting with clients to discuss any movement on a matter or where we have a specific task to be undertaken.”
On this note, Rupa’s quick to point out that you don’t need engineering or architectural expertise to succeed in this practice area, and that lawyers get supporting technical advice on the matters they work on. In fact, Rupa is still learning in her area today and every day. “I work quite closely with technical experts, so I could have a meeting with them. So that’s a portion of my day that’s allocated to doing the learning work. There’s also time in my day that involves training and learning, and development – be it on my own as part of the business school that I’m a member of or giving the training as well.”
“When you're a partner, you're at the other end of the food chain, as it were than as a trainee. You’re making more decisions and offering strategic advice. You have to be proactive, rather than reactive”
Another task Rupa may complete during the day involves engaging with the firm’s business development, something Rupa describes as a “big element of your job” as a partner. Business development includes meeting with other people, potential clients, intermediaries, where you're forming relationships and looking at ways to try and bring in new business”. As part of wider business development for the firm, Rupa leads the firm's India desk, which means she spends “a lot of time looking at firm strategy in that regard”.
Aside from the legal work itself, partners must partake in management work too as part of the day-to-day activity.
Looking back at her career evolution from trainee to partner, Rupa identifies the key differences she’s discovered as she’s progressed. “When you're a partner, you're at the other end of the food chain, as it were. You’re making more decisions and offering strategic advice. You have to be proactive, rather than reactive. You still obviously have to know the law in terms of your practice area, but your outlook is very different – it’s more macro, looking at the bigger picture, the wider context and understanding the unspoken drivers that may sit behind a client's needs.”
It’s this necessary commercial perspective that features heavily in Rupa’s view of what’s going on in her profession, paired with the current cultural climate in Britain. To this end she highlights the recent developments in construction law and the introduction of the Building Safety Act, which came into force last year.
Rupa elaborates: “As you may be aware, the law came into being as a result of the tragedy that happened at Grenfell. The construction industry has been under very close scrutiny in terms of protections that are in place or not especially in relation to risk relating to fire. There’s also been a raft of legislation that’s been brought out, which has had significant repercussions across the industry.” The Building Safety Act has also “meant an overhaul in terms of the landlord/tenant relationships as well”, which Rupa describes as a “massive change with a colossal impact”.
Focusing on the relationship with her clients is also a key aspect of Rupa’s job. Those looking to follow in her footsteps need to know that there aren’t any “tick box exercises” in this career – and it’s this intellectual stimulation that Rupa finds so fulfilling.
As with all areas of the legal profession, the latest advances in technology aren’t lost on construction. “The development of AI is very obvious; we need to understand how we use AI to help build our practice and our efficiency, while being wary of using models like Chat GPT.”
And with more change on the horizon, Rupa singles out the challenges the profession is facing when it comes to attracting and maintaining talent. She says: “I think another challenge comes with the ways in which law firms can remain competitive against other businesses that are offering legal services and how we keep improving on the model. There are many debates about whether the chargeable hours model is dead or not. It's important to look at improving efficiencies, giving more value to the client, dealing with more sophisticated clients and saying, ‘well, actually, I need to respond to that’.”
Rupa also mentions a “further massive challenge” that law firms globally are facing: diversity and inclusion. It’s so important to create positive “movement within the profession so that it remains attractive and open to everyone”. She also comments on her personal interest in the continuing challenge of “enabling more women to achieve and retain leadership roles within the profession”. Rupa demonstrates her belief that, while progress has undoubtedly been made in recent years, the profession still has some way to go to be truly diverse and inclusive.
If a job in contentious construction sounds like it could be for you, Rupa has some final words of wisdom. “The past few years have really shown us how external factors can disrupt the services that we’re providing, whether that’s as a result of a pandemic or geopolitical developments that we couldn't even have foreseen. It's about being mindful of how they impact you as an individual, and how they impact your firm and its operations? And ultimately, how does that impact your client? How will that impact the way in which they’re able to do business? Having this knowledge at the core of your understanding and advice to clients is absolutely crucial.”
She also reminds aspiring lawyers that personality matters in a career in construction law. “You've got to make the team work effectively so you’re efficient, remain focused and deliver value across the board. You need to have resilience to drive that as well as empathy, plus a little bit of kindness to yourself.”