TLS Dubai’s Iustina Alban jumped on a Zoom call with Paula Boast from Charles Russell Speechlys Bahrain. They discussed construction disputes, technology and mountain trails over a virtual coffee.
In this Talks with TLS blog post, Iustina interviews Paula about her career and how she became both an expert and inspiring leader in the legal industry.
Tell us a bit about your career thus far and what made you choose the Middle East.
I didn't choose the Middle East, the Middle East chose me!
I was a junior lawyer in London, I worked a couple of years at Charles Russell between 2003–2006 and chose construction law as my focus.
I moved to a firm in 2006 that did a lot of work in the Middle East, so we went to Bahrain regularly.
Between 2006 and 2009, the market shifted and we headed into the recession. Major construction clients in London were “land banking” – keeping their land but not building on it.
The Middle East, however, was still building, so we focused our attention on emerging clients and developers there. I was spending more time in the Middle East than the UK, so I moved and never looked back!
What drew you to projects and construction?
When I was a trainee, I actually wanted to be an employment lawyer. That was where I focused my work.
In the UK at the time (roughly 1999 to 2002), employment law changed as a result of EU law backing up UK law. It became a very “sexy” focus area. And I really enjoyed it.
On one hand, I liked achieving results on a personal level for people. On the other hand, I enjoyed helping companies do the right thing. I think it tapped into why I wanted to be a lawyer in the first place: to help people.
However, during my training period, the firm was inundated with construction work in London. And as a trainee, you do whatever is put on your desk. So I picked that work up and I enjoyed it. It’s a very pragmatic sector. I liked the clients.
Overall, it felt like a good trajectory for me.
When I qualified as a solicitor, I looked for an NQ job. The recruiter kept saying, “Everyone wants to be an employment lawyer, but we know people looking for construction lawyers. We don't have many of those on the books.” So I was like, “okay.” As a newly qualified lawyer, your biggest fear is not getting a job, so it was a no-brainer. Construction law is all I’ve done since!
For anyone looking to replicate your career path, what are three key tips to be successful?
1) Look after yourself.
2) Look after your people.
3) Look after your clients.
In the legal profession, you have to be on top of your game at all times. Be a good manager, leader, developer, mentor and teacher.
You have to look after yourself and prioritise your own well-being to be able to do that effectively and look after your team. We work very hard, and in reality we sometimes forget to look after ourselves!
You have to be energetic, positive and dynamic for your team because they're always looking to you for direction, guidance and development.
If you don't look after yourself, they won’t look after themselves. If you unnecessarily work late every night, they will work late every night. Your team mirrors you.
We want to develop good lawyers and look after our clients.
Clients are like gardens. Every one of them is different, and you have to pay them the attention they need. They need to be taken care of, nurtured. They need to know that you always have their back and their best interest at heart.
When you spend time with a client, you develop a trusting relationship. That is where the success comes from. Because if they trust you, they will stay with you, and they will come back each time they have a problem.
You’ve been in the region for a few years, and this year has probably been the most transformative. Are there any changes you see happening in the next five years that will have a direct impact on construction disputes?
I can see a big shift in health and safety on building sites in the Middle East. COVID-19 has forced our hand on that. In reality, we’ve needed to up our game on health and safety and labour camp accommodation for many years.
We will see more regulation, enforcement and progress on that front, which is great because: 1) health and safety is always important and 2) it’s good for funders, developers, employers and contractors to know that positive things are coming out of their projects.
I think we can expect changes in regulations, especially in the PPP space. I see more finance coming from contractors. Middle Eastern governments will be busy covering costs that came out of their budgets during the pandemic.
How do we replenish budgets to ensure projects go ahead? We must have projects attracting higher standards of contractors, bringing in international contractors and creating joint ventures with local contractors, all with a view of bringing the project to completion.
We will also see more finance supported by export credit agencies such as UKEF rather than just the banks.
Where project disputes are concerned, I anticipate an increase in arbitration proceedings. Continuing economic instability in-region meant those numbers were already up. COVID-19 will add to that.
Construction disputes are known to be data heavy. From your experience, are clients expecting lawyers to leverage legal technology to manage data?
We see the value in the technology, and we always try to pass that down to our clients. We encourage them to embrace it where they can, even in the simplest ways, like using share file rooms or data rooms for bulk disclosure. Technology helps resolve their disputes quicker, easier, and more efficiently.
More clients are grasping the importance of it and more clients are using it. The balance sits between adding value and adding costs.
Clients are very direct and always ask how much it will cost. So that’s tricky. It is not always affordable, but it’s not my job to sell. It is, however, my job to make sure that I provide options to clients and ensure they’re informed of the benefits.
Now the elephant in the room: COVID-19. What were your biggest professional and personal challenges during the past six months?
Professionally, the challenge was keeping clients focused and helping them understand that they will get through this. The project risks arising out of it must be managed on the front end.
For example, they’d ask: Will I have to close my building site? Will I have to stop my projects? Will I have to let my labour force go? Will they stop the finance? Will I have to wait too long on product imports? These are fairly basic project questions that are often met with, “It's the contractor’s responsibility,” which isn’t helpful.
So, I adopted a “let’s get everybody in the room” approach. It makes sense to deal with this from a collaborative perspective because it is in everyone’s interests that projects continue.
I have tried to move everybody away from the idea that everything to do with COVID-19 is force majeure.
Instead, the focus has to be on taking the right measures to get the project over the line. COVID doesn't have to stop your project. In fact, I have not had a single project come to a complete halt.
That said, the key challenge has been to keep everybody working, keep everybody on site, and keep everything moving logistically. The positive that has come out of these challenges is increased collaboration.
Personally, my husband lives in the USA. He’s in the military, so we're used to long absences. I feel quite lucky, though, because I’ve watched other separated couples really struggling.
I’ve also hated not being able to visit my family in Ireland or have them visit me here. There is an added worry of relatives being furloughed or getting sick, or worse.
Being in another country makes you feel like you can't really help or that you're not giving the level of support you normally would.
Over time, it has become more manageable. I’m sure many of us have seen varying levels of family collaboration coming out of it all as well.
If you could go back and pick a different career, what would you do and why?
I’d probably get a degree in geology and be a mountaineer. I love the mountains – they are my “go-to” place.
If I’d known 20 years ago what I know now (not that I don’t love being a lawyer, but if lawyering had not been in the cards and I'd had more visibility and knowledge…) who knows. That is the thing – when you're younger, you just don't know, and you’re not meant to know!
What’s your favourite thing to do in your free time?
I am currently training to be a yoga teacher. It was a personal decision during lockdown because I’d been planning on doing it for years, but never seemed to get around to it.
The ideal scenario of going to India or Bali for a month to immerse myself just wasn't going to happen. So I thought, “This is my chance” and found an online course. It gave me something else to focus on and to occupy myself – to make me close the laptop at the end of the day. I didn’t anticipate that when the course said it required 200 hours, it meant an actual 200 hours, so that was fun!
Lastly, because it’s summer, and I’m dreaming of a holiday – what’s your favourite holiday spot?
I'm a bit spoiled. I've been to so many places over the years. But if I could go back somewhere tomorrow because it was going to be the last trip I would ever take, then I would go back to Patagonia. Beautiful mountains and so much water – It is truly a pristine and beautiful place.
For more information on construction disputes, read our previous blog post here. You can also visit our website to learn about how TLS can support your arbitration.