What first attracted you to law?
I was a debater in both high school and college, and that helped me realize how much I liked advocacy. I enjoyed speaking and presenting arguments, so law school seemed like a natural progression. I don’t have any lawyers or contractors in my family but somehow wound up being a construction lawyer.
How did that happen? How did you pick your specialty?
I went to work for Bradley Arant in 1993, expecting to work on complex commercial litigation cases. The firm had a very strong construction-law group, and a few of the senior lawyers in that group were willing to take the time to mentor me and help me learn how to be a construction lawyer. I found that I enjoyed the work, and I connected especially well with the clients.
You have been a construction lawyer at Bradley Arant for more than two decades. What keeps you loyal?
We have a great firm and great clients. The work is challenging and rewarding, and I am fortunate to work with many talented people who are also my friends. Our firm has more than 400 lawyers in seven offices, so I can find someone at the firm who has dealt with almost any kind of problem that my clients might encounter. I’ve also been able to observe many different lawyers over the years.
What have you observed?
Different lawyers have different styles. Some are loud and aggressive while others are quiet and calculating. Some try to be intellectual while others rely on folksy Southern charm. All of these different styles can be effective, and I’ve been able to watch my colleagues use them all. You can’t just copy someone else because you will not seem authentic, but you can definitely start to hone in on what approaches might work best with your own strengths and abilities by watching what other lawyers do.
“I ask a lot of questions. I’m genuinely fascinated by what my clients do; I never lose sight of the amazing things they accomplish.”
Jim Archibald, Partner
How would you describe your style, and how has it helped you develop an expertise in construction law?
I ask lots of questions. I’m genuinely fascinated by what my clients do; I never lose sight of the amazing things they accomplish. They take a vacant piece of property, and they figure out how to organize many different people and companies to build something that’s never been built before, usually on a tight schedule and budget. I try to pay attention to the challenges they encounter and the details that make them successful so [that] I can anticipate ways to help them in the future.
Talk about the challenges of construction law.
Construction law is usually straightforward: the party that breaches the contract pays foreseeable damages. The challenging part is applying that law to very complicated facts. You have to understand the project and appreciate what might be motivating the different parties on the project to be able to give sound, practical advice and untangle those complicated facts—which is why I ask a lot of questions.
What emerging factors are changing your role?
Technology is the biggest factor. There’s a whole new generation of construction professionals out there with tablets and smartphones and design software. They can come up with amazing solutions to complex problems in a matter of minutes, often in the field, moments after the problem has been identified. That allows the industry to move quickly, but moving too quickly can sometimes result in mistakes and disputes.
And there are legal issues behind that?
Collaborative problem-solving in the field with tablets and smartphones may blur some of the traditional lines that once separated what contractors do from what designers and owners do, creating uncertainty as to who agreed to do what. If there is a problem, delay, or injury, it may be harder than ever to identify the responsible party. I try to remind my clients that, no matter how fast they are going to keep the job on schedule, they need to remember to document what they are doing and preserve the records and data that show what they did.
What else is changing?
Everyone is trying to be more efficient, and one approach we’re seeing involves collaborative contracts where the project participants are forming a “team” to share risks and rewards and work together toward common goals instead of entering separate contracts based on checks and balances that often turn into adversarial relationships.
How did the recession impact your work?
A lot of our clients started pursuing federal government projects and overseas work because those were the jobs that were available. Federal government jobs require compliance with intricate regulations, and failing to do so can lead to major civil and even criminal liability. On the international side, construction disputes may be complicated by language barriers, different laws, and competing courts and arbitration tribunals. Like our clients, we have been forced to learn many new things to adapt to the unique challenges of federal work and international work.
Hopefully, the recession is ending and private construction will start to pick up again domestically. The recession unfortunately eliminated many contractors, leaving a lean, efficient, and tough collection of survivors. They’ll use new technology and the strategies that helped them survive the recession to deliver better-quality projects more efficiently than ever.
What does it take to do your job well?
It’s always important to understand my clients’ goals and then help them realize those goals. Sometimes the goal is to go to court and win. Other times, the goal is to come up with a quick, amicable resolution that avoids litigation. Regardless, I have to make sure that what I’m doing will help my clients achieve their goals. I have the utmost respect for the people who make their living in the construction industry, and I never lose sight of how difficult it can be to do the things they do. Helping them continues to be very rewarding for me.