Growing up with six siblings taught me how to be a good negotiator, so I guess you can say I developed that professional skill early in life. I also learned very early the value of a strong work ethic from the professional dedication my dad, who was an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, showed in his career as a physician.
Joseph Portela: Career Highlights
1984: Graduates from Rutgers University with dual degrees in history and political science
1987: Graduates from Syracuse University with a JD in law and a master’s in international relations
1987–1990: Works as an assistant corporation counsel for the New York City Law Department
1990–1993: Works as an associate for Thelen, Marrin, Johnson & Bridges, a national construction law firm
1993–1994: Works as an associate for Lum, Hoens, Conant, Danzis & Kleinberg, a New Jersey construction law firm
1994–1996: Works as an associate for Greenberg, Trager, Toplitz & Herbst, a long-established New York boutique construction law firm
1996–2010: Works as in-house counsel and then general counsel for Bovis Lend Lease, an international construction company
2010–Present: Works as general counsel for Dragados USA, an international construction company
Following college, I earned two graduate degrees: a JD in law and a master’s in international relations. My first job out of school was as an assistant corporation counsel for the city of New York, where I was assigned to commercial-construction ligation. It was one of my favorite jobs because it provided a solid building block for my future career. Several senior staff members took me under their wing and really helped me learn the ins and outs of construction ligation. I continued my litigation experience with three different construction law firms, where I worked representing public and private clients involved in all phases of building construction and gained extensive experience litigating major construction claims, including trial work in the state and federal courts as well as arbitration hearings.
The opportunity to be in-house counsel came when one of my firm’s clients—an international construction company—hired me to be an in-house counsel for their US headquarters. The transition from litigator to transactional lawyer brought a big learning curve. However, I believe that litigators, through their training, can see potential problems, and my ability to spot issues helped make the transition much smoother.
I am proud to say my work included helping to negotiate major construction contracts for landmark buildings in Manhattan such as the Time Warner Center, the Bloomberg Building, and Citifield Stadium—all of which ended up being profitable projects for my company at the time. Besides steel, bricks, and mortar, a lot of paper goes into construction projects.
Dragados USA came along at the right time in my career. An international construction company based in Madrid, they were looking for general counsel for their US headquarters to Americanize the legal department. Dragados’s area of focus, the public infrastructure market, also was a rising market, and the combination of a growing company and the ability to build the legal department from the ground up was too great of an opportunity to pass up.
I find that I expand my knowledge with each new role I assume. While the bulk of my day-to-day work at Dragados is very similar to my previous position—managing litigation and transactional work—I’ve also been challenged to learn the legal regulations and governance of working with federal, state, and municipal government contracts. This field requires extensive subject-matter knowledge [and] the ability to translate that knowledge into practical solutions for your client. Working as a general counsel also requires you to wear many hats and be proactive. You are the first line of legal advice, the member of the business team who just happens to have legal training, so you have to be reliable in giving the best answer you can as quickly as possible, but you also have to know when to put the brakes on.
In today’s business climate, projects are fewer and competition is greater. As a result, construction companies are under greater scrutiny. As such, I am often reminded of a favorite quote: “Success is not the same thing as winning. It is about the demonstration of competence.” Counsel are relied upon to be competent so as to help their company to succeed, and in turn, that becomes a measure of your success. ABQ