Building Blocks of a Legal Career

John Warren’s experience on construction sites inspired him to go law school and now fuels his success at Cokinos, Bosien & Young

Houston-based law firm Cokinos, Bosien & Young handles a wide range of legal services, including construction law. John Warren, a principal with the firm, followed an unusual path to become a practicing attorney in that specialty. In 2015, Warren became the youngest partner in the firm’s history. He took some time to speak with American Builders Quarterly about his role and career trajectory.

You originally studied architectural engineering and worked in construction project management before going to law school. What prompted the transition?

On job sites, I was regularly exposed to various legal issues and disputes. Design issues, change orders, delays, unforeseen site conditions, and payment disputes were commonplace. I didn’t fully appreciate the rights and responsibilities of all the players involved, but eventually realized there might be a legal niche for me if I could focus on construction, where I already had some knowledge and expertise.

How did you handle the change in roles?

I actually enjoyed the transition. I was able to draw on my prior education and experience and get involved with a much broader range of projects. I’ve had the opportunity to work on matters involving convention centers, airports, petroleum processing facilities, high-rise offices, schools, pipelines, condominiums, commercial/retail buildings, and residential developments. I’m involved in a variety of different capacities, like negotiating construction contracts, taking depositions, mediating, and going to trial or arbitration. I also still often get to visit job sites, which I enjoy.

What similarities exist between the two professions?

They both require a lot of hard work, attention to detail, collaboration with others, time management, and creative problem-solving. Legal reasoning, much like engineering, is also very analytical, and often calls for a methodical approach to be effective. A key issue to being successful in both, however, is understanding the client’s underlying interests. It’s not always about money. In construction, it may be preserving the client’s desired aesthetic effect. In litigation, it may be preserving a working relationship with the adverse party.

How did you manage to make partner so quickly?

First, there’s no substitute for hard work. I was also fortunate to be mentored by some very talented lawyers. My background in construction also helped me gain the trust of our senior partners and be able to work on some very large, multiparty cases. As a result, I got to observe how a lot of different lawyers handle their cases. Being in a case with 25 different attorneys with 25 different styles and approaches can really expedite your learning process.

As a member of the “next generation” of construction lawyers, do you see technology changing your practice?

We’re already seeing iPads used in litigation for managing and displaying exhibits and other documents. On construction sites, drones are being used to photograph and record progress from great angles and perspectives we couldn’t get before.

Internally, e-discovery has become a major focus, particularly in large-scale cases. It’s not unusual for a single construction matter to involve hundreds of thousands of documents. We are now using electronic document databases (some of which are in-house and others that are provided online by third parties), which enable us to review, sort, tag, and cull all that material in a fraction of the time that it would take a team of paralegals or associates to physically search and organize hard copies. With “technology-assisted review,” the software can even recognize what’s been tagged and suggest other relevant documents that are similar or related to the original. The efficiency and time savings of that kind of automation is incredible.

How is everyone reacting to the technological changes?

Along with some of the other younger guys, we’ve definitely led the charge in our firm. Some still prefer a yellow pad and pen with a stack of hard-copy documents, but when they realize that, in a matter of seconds, you can search all documents in a case for a particular key term or witness, they come around pretty quickly.

What unique perspectives does your background give you?

Like any lawyer, I want to protect my clients when something goes wrong and, ideally, try to avoid that likelihood altogether. To help do that, I can still step into my project management shoes to review and analyze drawings, specifications, cost estimates, daily logs, or change orders to uncover material that will help prove a point or help guide us to the most reasonable and expeditious resolution.

Is there anything you miss about your old project management responsibilities?

Let me say first that I get great satisfaction out of my legal work and being able to deliver good results for a client. However, there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with being able to point to a physical structure that you helped build. It’s very different from pointing to a file that you’ve been able to close through successful mediation. They’re both fulfilling, but they’re really very different.