Lawyers for Utilities Contractors: An Underused Asset? (Part 2)


By Carol L. O’Riordan

In an earlier post, I discussed several good reasons why a utility contractor might wish to rely on a lawyer for a wide variety of tasks. Lawyers, after all, are trained in the skills of observation, questioning, problem solving, and communicating. Here are some specific ways in which lawyers can help.

Compliance: Utility contractors must contend with myriad laws and regulations affecting how they hire, how they train, how they purchase, and how they do their work. Owners and managers must be aware of coming changes and must be prepared to guide the company’s response in the most cost-effective manner. They need to know that the company maintains records that allow it to demonstrate that it understands and complies with its obligations, and that management has real-time access to company information when needed. For many, however, simply keeping pace with the work itself is challenging enough. Staff may have little time, and less inclination, to focus on the reporting requirements that touch virtually every aspect of operations.

The legal team can be called on to conduct objective investigations into existing operations, including review of accounting, bookkeeping, and billing practices as well as internal recordkeeping and reporting protocols (for government contracts and for commercial insurance purposes). The team can propose changes, and, just as important, can provide management with documentation evidencing that the company has taken steps to obtain outside review to ensure that it is following “best practices.” The legal team and the client can also schedule regular meetings to go over upcoming changes in the regulations that may impact operating systems and costs.

Streamlined Operations: When an emergency arises, management and staff need to be able to access critical information and make it available quickly to the legal team for response. When management is deciding whether to bring a claim, it turns over the job records to the legal team for review and recommendation. Is staff keeping the right kind of records? Are they capturing the right information, or is the company losing data that could help it defend claims, recover costs, etc.? Who designed the daily logs that the company uses? The legal team is perhaps the best positioned to look over your processes and determine if they are sufficient and, just as importantly, if staff is following them. Rather than wait for a crisis, consider bringing in the team in to assess systems and make recommendations for process improvement. Meetings where record keepers have a chance to hear from the legal team how their documents are used will educate both sides, and likely improve the quality of information retained by the company.

Investigations, Disclosure, and Response: Some things are best left to someone outside a company’s management team. The legal team can be called in to investigate alleged abuse or misuse of employer’s property by an employee, or an employee’s alleged violation of company ethics code. A legal team experienced in investigations will usually be able to (a) devise a strategy for the conduct of original investigations and follow-on reviews; (b) serve as a liaison with senior management and with forensic accountants and outside auditors, where needed; (c) direct legal research, document review and interview of personnel; and (d) brief management as to results and recommendations.

Process Improvement, Business Process Re-Engineering, and Change Management: Ready for a change? After you have prepared, advised, and trained your staff, do you think that your organization is ready to change with you? Or are you concerned that some may not yet have understood the “new order”? Your legal team can conduct a “360◦ Review” by interviewing affected staff to determine their level of comfort with the upcoming changes, and can assist management in identifying areas that need reinforcement before the launch takes place – thereby assuring a smoother, more cost-effective transition.

This post is adapted from an article that Carol L. O’Riordan wrote for the March 2013 issue of Utility Contractor Online, a publication of the National Utility Contractors Association.

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