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Firm: Charles Russell Speechlys LLP
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.
Having just celebrated her twentieth anniversary 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 was always interested in the advocacy and contentious side of things,” she says, explaining that this interest nearly led her down the route of becoming a barrister, rather than solicitor. However, 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.
Dealing with the tangible world
What so appealed about the practice area then? “I loved the fact that you work on matters to do with the built environment. It means you see the tangible results of your deals. You could be working on something to do with a stadium, office or large residential building and then later you get to walk past the building and show it to your family.”
The varied nature of the work was also a selling point for Rupa, who explains that “all different aspects come up within the construction industry– matters of contract, tort, all manner of technical issues which affect or the project or else because it has taken too long. It’s really broad and you’re always learning!”
It was always the contentious piece for Rupa who now specialises in contentious construction work, dealing with all types of dispute resolution: “whether that’s mediation, adjudication, arbitration or proceedings in the High Court”. It’s not just formal disputes, however, as Rupa is keen to clarify that her work means that “I often get involved when problems arise in projects and people want to resolve it without a formal dispute. I enjoy that troubleshooting aspect of the job”.
From trainee to partner
To provide a real example of the broad and varied work of a construction solicitor, Rupa discusses two tasks she’s currently working on. “Firstly, I have to review a report that’s come in from an expert about an acoustic issue at a project,” she says. “My role is to look at the technical advice and understand both what was required and what’s happened. I then look at the contractual position and provide a written note of advice on remedial strategy and of course liability.”
“You don’t need technical knowledge, but you must be prepared to do your reading and engage with the issues”
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. “You don’t need technical knowledge, but you must be prepared to do your reading and engage with the issues. One case I worked on was about a defective bridge and we had to produce a report on the different structural forces at play. At first, I didn’t have a clue but by the end of the case I could tell you a lot about it.”
Her second task of the day involves meeting with a client to follow up on a letter of advice regarding a potential dispute: “I’ve recommended we commence an adjudication, so I’ll start drafting the pleadings and putting together the documents for that.”
Aside from the legal work itself, partners must partake in management work too, and Rupa spends time in her week having meetings about the running of the department, and also reading up on case law as “you have to stay up to date with what’s going on”.
Looking back at her career evolution from trainee to partner, Rupa identifies the key differences she’s discovered as she’s progressed. “While my training contract was hands on and a great introduction to the necessary skills I needed to know, the work I do now is different because I’ve built on those skills and am now leading the strategy and meetings I’m in.
“You’re always learning but your experience and increased technical knowledge helps drive your intuition”
“The fundamental skills don’t change between training contract and partner, but your perspective broadens as your experience develops. Those skills become multi-dimensional. I now have to take into account much more than just the legal answer –the client’s position and their key drivers, whether they’re commercial, personal or legal. You’re always learning but your experience and increased technical knowledge helps drive your intuition. This develops significantly over time.”
Solving the client’s problem
It’s this necessary commercial perspective that features heavily in Rupa’s recent career highlight, which involved a successful result in a dispute for a client in a tricky situation. Rupa elaborates: “It was an important project and had met with some significant difficulty due to covid and some problems with the main contractor. I helped the client navigate through the obstacles to deliver the project on time and preserve a crucial relationship with a key tenant.
“I advised on a bold strategy to which the client agreed. They put their faith in the advice, and while difficult, it was worth it because we achieved what we wanted for the client. It was a great moment of satisfaction for me personally as well as my team.”
Solving the client’s problem is the crux of Rupa’s job, and one of the aspects she most enjoys. While cases can be somewhat similar, “advising in contentious construction isn’t formulaic as every project is different”. For those looking to follow in her footsteps, 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 double whammy of Brexit and covid-19 has caused severe disruption and change. And with more change on the horizon, Rupa singles out the rising price of materials and shortages of supply and labour as upcoming challenges in the practice area. The political and legal ramifications of the Grenfell tower disaster and subsequent Building Safety Act is also on Rupa’s list of challenges: “there’s a huge amount going on to navigate and understand as we advise our clients”.
“there’s a huge amount going on to navigate and understand as we advise our clients”
Rupa also mentions the implementation of the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam, which has seen a big overhaul in how solicitors qualify into the profession. “I hope this new route will make the profession more accessible to a diverse range of applicants from different backgrounds,” she says.
Speaking of diversity, she also comments on her personal interest in the continuing challenge of “enabling more women to achieve and retain leadership roles within the profession”. Another issue to watch, 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. “Students today have more access to information than ever before – so get an insight into a practice area or see what a day in the life of a solicitor is really like,” she points out. “A career is a long time so try to understand as much as you can before going into it. Of course, you’ll never fully know until you get there, but the more you can research and speak to people, the more informed you’ll be.”
Her future career plans are clear: “I’ve done 20 years already and hopefully have another 20 years ahead of me!”