How do you get into construction law and become a construction lawyer? When I was a boy, I liked to build toy forts in the roots and branches of a brooding elm tree in our front yard. I used twigs, twine, mud, and imagination. I thought I would grow up to build bridges, but I didn’t (…build bridges, that is; I did grow up).
Along the way from that elm tree to law school I earned a little money and learned a few life lessons from delivering newspapers morning and evening, counting cars at intersections, pumping gas, changing truck tires for Goodyear, cooking hamburgers at a diner, coding computer cards for Gallup, writing reports on poverty programs for a Congressman. I was even a singing waiter in Colorado (although I can’t sing a lick).
From all this I took a prime lesson: listen carefully. And you will learn. Watch closely. And you will see.
In college, I did not learn how to build bridges. Instead, I studied English literature and learned something about communicating complicated ideas and emotions. I then spent some time at sea in the Coast Guard. One night we had to sail between two hurricanes in the Atlantic, waves higher than the bridge of the ship. All we could do was steer into the waves and hang on. We would roll to port, sometime more than 45°; then that old ship would slowly right herself and roll to starboard. I loved that ship then; she would not quit on us.
I came to Bradley straight out of law school, and I started practicing in the area of general litigation. I worked on a number of construction cases early in my career, but I did not concentrate in that area until after I had been at the firm for six years or so. As an associate, I prepared and tried a variety of cases, including cases involving insurance coverage for Travelers, breach of warranty and fraud for Ford Motor Co. and a heavy equipment dealer, personal injury product liability claims against General Motors and other product manufacturers.
My first trial took place one week after I passed the Bar exam. It was a small insurance coverage case. Although I won the case, I learned quickly that some people will brazenly tell a story that contradicts the written record.
Still in my first year, I was involved in a lengthy trial arising out of a failed effort to develop a vacation resort facility. I learned how important planning was to the success (or failure) of a large enterprise. I also learned about the need to anticipate problems before they occur and about the importance of getting contract language right.
When I was still an associate, I represented a general contractor which had a contract to build modular structures in Oakland, California for ultimate use at the North Slope of Alaska. There was a small window of time in the summer when the Bering Sea was not iced in. To get through that window, the structures had to be ready for shipment by barge in a convoy that left in late June. If the contractor missed that deadline, it would have to wait one year for the next convoy. I learned how delays lead to acceleration costs, inefficiency costs, and claim battles. I also learned how good contractors do their best to carry on, to honor their contracts.
As a young partner, I successfully tried a lengthy arbitration with my partner, Mabry Rogers. We were prosecuting a claim for a general contractor against a mid-western utility arising out of the expansion of a coal fired power plant on the Ohio River. The arbitration lasted 54 trial days. I learned that although arbitrators are well-educated, experienced decision-makers, they are not disembodied minds; they have hearts and souls like jurors. In complex litigation, thorough preparation is vital to success. When your team of lawyers, legal assistants, and client representatives is knowledgeable, experienced, and dedicated, then hard work is even more rewarding and even fun.
I represented another general contractor in a suit against the University of California at Davis. The contractor had built a new veterinary sciences class room and lab building. There were all the usual problems – delays, inefficiencies, acceleration, and extra work. All the major subs eventually became involved in the lawsuit, and the case sagged under the weight of cross claims and counterclaims. I saw what can happen when feuding parties who should know better will not cooperate with one another.
I have been fortunate to work for companies that have had international projects. I have been to Western Australia and Thailand to prosecute and negotiate claims. I have tried international arbitrations in Cairo, London, and Mexico City and a lawsuit in the courts of Aruba. From these experiences I have learned how important a curious mind, opened to the ways of other legal systems, can be.
I like to grapple with complicated matters, reduce them to essentials, and make them simple and clear. A federal judge in Little Rock once told me that my opening statement to the jury in a construction defect case was the best presentation of a complicated set of facts and issues he had ever heard, that I had taken something difficult to understand and made it easy to see. He reinforced for me how important it is to get to the essentials and simplify the complicated.
An old mentor once told me, “Any lawyer can find problems; a good lawyer finds solutions.” He also taught me to listen to clients, learn their business, understand their problems, and then find practical, cost-effective solutions. “Your job,” he said, “is to fix the legal potholes, ditches, and speed traps that get in the way of your client’s path to his goals.”
That elm tree from my childhood is long gone – a victim of Dutch elm disease – but the urge to build is still there, only now I help build solutions to legal and business problems.
Another mentor told me lawyers should give back to the community. For many years I was on the board, and then president, of an inner-city parochial school until, sadly, we had to close it for lack of money. I also served two terms on the board of the Alabama School of Fine Arts.
My three children and my two grandsons all live in Birmingham. This is a great blessing for which I am thankful every day.