Lawyers for Utilities Contractors: An Underused Asset?

By Carol L. O’Riordan

Utility contractors know that they need a lawyer, just as they know that they need an accountant, a banker, and insurance and bonding agent. And most know that the lawyer should be knowledgeable about the utilities industry so that he or she can address issues that are likely to arise in the industry, such as:

  • Defective Design
  • Unforeseen Subsurface Conditions
  • Differing Site Conditions
  • Detection, Removal and Remediation of Hazardous Materials (and Liability for Cost of the Same)
  • Changes
  • Suspension of Work
  • Delay, Disruption, Extended and Unabsorbed Overhead
  • Lost Efficiency
  • Acceleration
  • Breach Of Warranty
  • Surety/Principal Liability

Hopefully, a company’s lawyers have been chosen because they have training and skills that make them strong advocates for the company’s positions. They have taken the time to understand the work that the company does and how it does it. They understand how the company makes money and why some jobs result in losses. They have developed knowledge in the substantive areas that are important to their clients, such as:

  • Site selection and site development
  • Utilities installation for public and private owners
  • Road, tunnel and bridge construction and repair
  • Construction of public medical, water treatment and waste water treatment facilities
  • Construction and repair of piers, wharves, marine repair facilities and marine-based petroleum delivery and storage facilities
  • Construction of hydrant fueling systems

They are familiar with their client’s customers and the legal framework within which their clients must operate. They know that different rules apply to contracts with the Navy and with the City of Baltimore, and that entirely different rules apply when operating in Saudi Arabia. They know how to take what they know about the company and communicate effectively when dealing with agencies and courts, when negotiating contracts, and when making presentations to bonding companies.

All of this means that a utilities contractor should choose a lawyer who can help it think strategically about bidding issues, performance issues, claims, and disputes involving all aspects of design, development and construction.

So why stop there?

Lawyers are trained to observe, to question, to research, to problem solve, and to communicate. These skills are well suited to contract review, to regulatory interpretation, and to litigation. They are equally well suited to other, less-traditional tasks. Utilities contractors should consider harnessing those skills – and their legal team’s familiarity with the inner workings of the company — and shift other work to their legal team.

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. A second post also adapted from that article is forthcoming.
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