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Learn to love your lawyer

Lawyers. Slimy, sharp-suited, smug, sharp tongued, public school- educated, pompous, pedantic, manipulative, money-grubbing, conceited, word twisting, wig wearing, greedy, nit picking, hair-splitting, arrogant, ambulance-chasing lawyers.

And those are just the guys working for you. The ones on the other side of the table are even worse.

It would be fair to say that the construction industry as a whole does not have the highest regard for the legal profession. They are often blamed for encouraging the litigious, adversarial nature of the industry and making their clients pay through the nose for the pleasure.

But the wisest construction executives recognise that to survive, let alone prosper, in the current market place without quality legal support is about as sensible as Murdoch bidding for Middlesbrough instead of Man U. Some lucky ones even develop a relationship with their lawyers which keeps them out of trouble and ahead of the game.

Each year the Chambers guide to the legal profession (see News) gives an unparalleled insight into the relationship between the law and its clients. Identifying the leading firms and practitioners in each sector through over 4,000 interviews with lawyers and clients, the guide demonstrates that the relationship between the two need not be one of mutual distrust.

What makes the Chambers guide so fascinating is that it not only ranks the leading firms, but the lawyers within them. Individual contributions can have a massive impact on a legal team's performance. Their skills and personality make a difference, and often their mere presence will attract the brightest rising talent to work alongside them. On top of this, some professional reputations can have the competition quaking in their boots.

Nowhere is this more true than among leading London firms and lawyers, whose star performers can earn up to pounds 800,000 a year.

The highest rated London construction law firm is Masons. Fittingly, it is led by the UK's leading construction lawyer John Bishop, described as having 'great vision and a mind like a man trap'. Unsurprisingly, the firm has six of London's top 25 lawyers on its books, with Bishop and the 'horribly good' Phillip Capper standing out.

However, Masons is not one of the City's glamour firms, something reflected by the relatively low average profit share (only pounds 194,000 per equity partner!). This may be why Chambers says that 'although the senior lawyers are superb, many of the foot soldiers are average'.

One of the two firms snapping at Masons' heels, Cameron McKenna, also boasts a near-legendary figure - Ann Minogue - 'Queen Ann' to many clients and fellow lawyers.

Minogue made a name for herself as a contracts draughtswoman during the rise of construction management/manage- ment contracting in the 1980s. So influential and ubiquitous was her work that the guide says 'some practitioners claim to have built careers almost exclusively litigating documents bearing Ann Minogue's initials'.

The other leading London firm, Rowe & Maw, has made its name taking a less aggressive approach than many of its rivals. As Chambers says: 'If you have to work with your opponent again, R&M may be the firm for you.' Perversely, and no doubt to R&M's irritation, clients sometimes worry that the firm 'never quite puts the boot in'. The importance of individual lawyers is underlined by the guide's comment: 'It remains to be seen how the loss of Tony Blackler (previously perceived as key to the

firm's success) will affect the firm.'

Time and again, the guide's message between the lines is that outside the top solicitors practices and barristers chambers (and sometimes even inside them) it is worth ensuring that you get the right individual to handle your case and don't rely purely on the firm's reputation. It is, after all, a lesson construction clients are also increasingly learning and reacting to by developing partnering arrangements.

Ironically, construction firms are going in the opposite direction with their law firms, preferring to spread their legal workload among perhaps half a dozen firms to prevent any of them becoming 'complacent' - not the best approach to building a close relationship.

Construction companies might enjoy the boot being on the other foot for once, but - in the long run - it is likely to do them little good.

Alastair McLellan

Chambers & Partners Guide to the Legal Profession 1998-99. pounds 45. A CD- Rom is also available.

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