Built to last: Tracey Wood, Costain

Costain is one of the UK’s oldest construction companies. For over 140 years it has helped lay the foundations of modern Britain, from the water supply to the road network. You can even see the company’s name stamped on railway tracks as you glance out of the window on the train into London.

This sense of tangible achievement is something Costain head of legal Tracey Wood takes particular pride in. “I like the fact that we can go on site and look at the whole project,” she says.

Since leaving Hammonds in February 2006, Wood has made her mark at the building giant. She made the decision to sit in on board meetings and recently published risk-management guidelines for Costain’s commercial directors.

And last month she oversaw the creation of Costain’s first formal legal panel, casting aside a raft of firms in favour of three main advisers.

The winners – Pinsent Masons, Addleshaw Goddard and Bevan Brittan – will account for the bulk of Costain’s £1.5m annual legal spend, with Slaughter and May handling corporate matters.

Wood says the £1.5m is divided roughly equally between contentious, non-contentious and other legal work, which includes employment, property and health and safety.

This figure has remained steady for several years, thanks in part to Costain’s reluctance to instruct external advisers unless absolutely necessary.

“The whole philosophy in our legal department is to do as much in-house as we can,” says Wood. “We outsource it if it’s not in our core skill-set or we can’t resource it ourselves.”

Under Wood’s leadership the legal department has roughly doubled in size and now boasts four lawyers in total, as well as company secretary Clive Franks. The team is now confident enough to tackle even complex litigation.

Wood recently went to the High Court over a claim against the builder, instructing counsel herself without turning to any of Costain’s regular advisers.

She explains: “We are handling a lot more litigation in-house. The advantages are cost control. You are cutting out the middle person. You get to control your legal spend.”

But will the introduction of a panel alter this arrangement? Well, no, according to Wood.

“The panel won’t change things – we will continue operating in the same way we have been over the past 20 months,” she says. “What it will change is the way we interact with our supply chain.”

Costain, along with most major construction companies, is reducing the number of key suppliers it uses – and law firms are no exception.

CMS Cameron McKenna and DLA Piper both enjoyed regular work from Costain in the past, but look set to lose out once the panel beds down.

However, Costain’s legal relationships are complicated by the fact that many of its major projects are carried out in a consortium with other builders.

Communications director Graham Read explains that the largest schemes, such as Costain’s work on the new international terminal at King’s Cross St Pancras, were increasingly cooperative efforts.

“The way the construction industry trade is going, you are getting bigger and bigger projects with higher value,” he says.

This means Costain does not always have the luxury of choosing which law firms it hires.

Wood explains: “If you are a minor venture partner, you won’t have any power to instruct. It is not necessarily in our gift to instruct external lawyers.”

While off-panel firms look set to remain on Costain’s books for the time being, Wood says she hopes to cement the relationship with the company’s chosen advisers.

In April Costain is holding a panel conference, where the company’s heads of sector will give presentations to its external advisers about where the industry is headed over the next few years.

Wood adds: “Rather than law firms presenting to us, we will present to them so that they have access to our senior people and really understand what our business is.”

She is also looking into the possibility of sending members of her team on reverse secondments to panel firms to gain added experience.

“That is the beauty of the panel,” says Wood. “Part of the services they offer are in training.”

Name: Tracey Wood
Organisation: Costain Group
Title: Head of legal
Sector: Construction
Reporting to: Chief executive Andrew Wyllie
Turnover: £878m
Number of employees: Approximately 2,000
Legal capability: Four lawyers
Legal spend: £1.5m
Main law firms: Addleshaw Goddard, Bevan Brittan, Pinsent Masons, Slaughter and May
Tracey Wood’s CV
1988-91: Warwick University, LLB (Hons)
1991-92: College of Law, Guildford, Law Society Finals
Work history: 1992-97: Trainee, Bower Cotton Khaitan
2002-03: Associate, Lee Crowder (now Cobbetts)
2003-05: Senior solicitor, Hammonds
2005-06: Partner, Hammonds
2006-present: Head of legal, Costain Group