What do I do? In short, I represent owners, architects, contractors, and subcontractors in disputes over quality of work or someone not getting paid for work on a construction project.

Construction lawyers draft and negotiate construction contracts, try cases involving construction projects in court, counsel construction companies on employment and labor issues, and defend businesses in administrative actions brought by licensing boards, OSHA, and other governmental agencies. The bulk of a construction lawyer’s time, however, is spent preparing a case for mediation, arbitration, or trial. This work includes reviewing thousands of documents, interviewing witnesses, researching legal issues, working with expert witnesses, taking depositions, preparing and arguing motions in court, and haggling with the opposing attorney.

But what truly makes a construction lawyer a construction lawyer is knowing how construction works. An experienced construction lawyer will know when to ask for trip tickets, how to read geotechnical reports, the difference between cement and concrete, the elements of a building envelope, the responsibilities of a PM and a super, and what the terms “lump sum,” “design-build,” “GMP,” and “CMa” mean.

Beyond the practical knowledge, there is a body of substantive law that construction lawyers must know to properly perform their job. I have been privileged to serve once again as the Managing Editor of the North Carolina Bar Association’s North Carolina Construction Law Deskbook. The Deskbook, published every three years, provides me a great opportunity to revisit the construction law canon. The table of contents of the Deskbook is as good a summary as any of the areas of law construction lawyers must know:  

•     Alternative Dispute Resolution (this includes arbitration, mediation and other methods of resolving disputes outside of court)

•     Case Law Summary (updated legal decisions on contract law, tort law, and other topics)

•     Construction Claims

•     Construction Industry Standard Form Contracts

•     Constructions Liens

•     Bankruptcy

•     Environmental Issues in Construction Law

•     Federal Public Construction

•     Green/Sustainable Construction

•     Insurance Issues and Construction

•     Employment Immigration and Labor Issues Facing the Construction Industry

•     Licensing and Construction Professionals

•     Surety Law

•     OSHA

•     Project Delivery Systems

•     State Contracting Procedures

•     State Building Code, Building Permits, and Related Issues

Some of these subjects, such as employment law and bankruptcy law, are discrete areas of law practice in their own right. Other subjects, such as lien law and the building code, are subsets of construction law. But it is contract law that occupies the center of the construction law universe. My first-year contracts professor, Bill McHugh, told us: “If you want a lawyer who understands contracts, hire a construction lawyer.”  I understand now what he meant.  Construction disputes are fought on the complex multi-tiered web of contractual relationships between the owner, the architect, the engineer, the contractor, the subcontractors, and the suppliers. Each of these relationships involves its own claims, defenses, and remedies. A construction lawyer must know contract law like the back of his or her hand.  

So, all that being said, what do we do? You’ll find us in court, at a conference table hunched over a set of mechanical plans, on a call advising a client how to handle an OSHA inspection, arguing with opposing counsel about which party wears the black hat, or editing a delay damages clause in a construction contract. In short, we are lawyers who serve the legal needs of the construction industry

(c) 2019 Gregory L. Shelton

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