Aspiring solicitors and newly qualified solicitors often ask me whether it is possible to change practice area once you have qualified. My answer is always that you must choose a practice area you enjoy because while it can be done, moving practice area can be difficult once you have qualified. If you are going to spend the rest of your career doing it, you’d might as well have fun while doing it. That said, an option, and one that I took, is to specialise and develop a niche.
I started life as a solicitor in commercial litigation. I knew very early on during my training contract that contentious work was my cup of tea. Commercial litigation was fun, varied and I enjoyed the fast pace of it. I got an incredible amount of experience on a wide range of topics which was what any newly qualified solicitor would want. However I also knew that at some point in my career I wanted to be a specialist.
At 3 years PQE I had got through the initial daunting fog of being a newly qualified solicitor. I was itching to start becoming a bit more specialist and identified a gap in construction disputes. I had encountered a small number of cases involving construction projects during my time in commercial litigation and enjoyed the technical aspects of the projects, which gave you the ability, over time, to become a true specialist. Construction is usually seen as an area of law that is quite separate to other general commercial areas of law because the operation of a construction contract is embedded in statute and specialist knowledge of the legislation as well as a thorough understanding of the technical and unique aspects of construction projects is paramount to being able to provide sound advice.
I was still very much a disputes lawyer and so I made my move from commercial litigation to construction dispute resolution. Strictly speaking, it was a change of practice area, but at the same time it was not, because I am still a disputes lawyer and the skills learned during my first few years after qualification were fully transferrable.
Life as a construction disputes lawyer involves far more adjudications than court proceedings, although we do occasionally go to court, which can make it significantly more fast paced than commercial dispute resolution because of the tight timescales within which adjudications run. I am also very often dealing with “live” construction projects where the “show must go” on, so a full blown lengthy fall out between the parties is not in anyone’s interest. Managing the dispute with a close eye on the smooth running of the project means a more conciliatory approach is sometimes necessary and indeed in the parties’ interests.
Aspiring solicitors often have a perception that to be a good disputes lawyer you have to be brazen, aggressive and argumentative. The reality is often quite the opposite, although there can occasionally be a time and place to turn the heat up. The clue is after all in the name – “dispute resolution”. Working with your opponent rather than against is often the key to a successful and speedy resolution of the client’s construction dispute which in turn ensures the successful delivery of the project. Day to day you will also find me advising clients on dispute avoidance rather than dispute resolution, again a key aspect of ensuring construction projects do not grind to a halt while parties resolve their differences.
Construction dispute resolution also offers the ability to specialise even further given the vast array of projects and sectors which fall under it. Apart from the usual construction of buildings which would immediately come to people’s mind, construction disputes can include a variety of other projects such as renovation, mechanical and electrical works, infrastructure, energy and waste, to name a few. These can be further broken down into sectors. Each type of project and sector has its unique set of demands and needs, and the opportunity to specialise further as you work your way up the ladder attracted me to this area of law as it allows you to develop an even more in depth understanding of the client’s requirements to deliver the best outcomes.
For aspiring solicitors, construction is often a little known area of law but one I would urge them to explore.
Manda Banerji is chair of the Junior Lawyers Division and a construction dispute resolution solicitor at Freeths