Do you have a particular interest outside of becoming a lawyer? With how incredibly broad the law is, a niche practice area might just align with your passions. For Arlan Lewis, his experience in architecture and some serendipitous happenings in law school led him to a fulfilling career in construction law. DeMario Thornton talks with Arlan about his career path, the nuances of construction law, and his top advice for today’s law students, no matter what area of the law they choose to pursue.
Arlan D. Lewis is a partner at Blueprint Construction Counsel, LLP.
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Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads from finals and graduation to the bar exam and finding a job. This show is your trusted resource for the next big step. You’re listening to the Legal Talk Network.
DeMario Thornton: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the ABA’s Law Student Podcast. I’m DeMario Thornton. I’m your host and today we have a very special episode. I want you to hold up. Wait, I know I say it’s a very special episode every single time, but this is a very niche episode. So if you are interested in any type of niche law, this is probably be the best thing for you.
So today we have the one and only Mr. Arlan Lewis. He is a partner with Blueprint Construction Counsel. How are you today, Mr. Lewis?
Arlan D. Lewis: I’m well DeMario, thank you for having me.
DeMario Thornton: Okay, so let me tell you a little back story. So, how did you get here? So I — my first summer, I summered at Bradley Arant in Birmingham, Alabama. I’m originally from Birmingham. And at the time I was the only black male associate, I’m sorry summer associate and every day, I would talk to a paralegal and she would tell me oh, you remind me of this guy who used to work here. I’m like, who is he?
And she said, let me go and look him up and she looked you up and it was Arlan Lewis and she said he worked in construction law and he was bad. He really knew her, and I think he owns his own law firm now.
So the next summer I came back and she told me again and I said, you know what, I didn’t follow up. Let me look into this. Fast forward at the end of the summer, I select construction law. I’m going to be a part of the construction practice group, and I just saw your trajectory and I was like he is one of the people that I really want to speak to because we are going to be in the same field and I think he is a leader in the field. So that is the origin story of how you got here.
Arlan D. Lewis: Well, that is very interesting and I’m glad that someone at Bradley thinks well of me. So, you didn’t mention the paralegal’s name but maybe I’ll figure that out. We’ll talk about that off air and I’ll have to thank him or her for that reference but that’s great.
DeMario Thornton: Yeah. So you have a background in construction. You went to I believe Hampton University, correct?
Arlan D. Lewis: Correct. Correct.
DeMario Thornton: You went to Hampton University and you have a background in architecture. Is that right?
Arlan D. Lewis: Yes. Yeah, for however long, as I can remember I don’t remember where the notion to be an architect first entered my mind. I just remember that as a young child, I decided that that’s what I wanted to do. And so I had some artistic ability and ended up going to Hampton University for architecture. It was either going to be Hampton or University of Southern California, completely different coasts but I ended up going to have Hampton primarily because their financial package that they offered me was just so much better for me.
USC was very expensive. I didn’t come from a family that could just write a check for tuition. So I was looking at — carrying a lot of loan debt from USC and made the decision to go to Hampton and I’m glad I did.
DeMario Thornton: I’m glad you did too because that’s historical college university and I actually went to Talladega College so that’s a HBCUs, where they didn’t go to Southern University. So, you always had a notion that you wanted to work in this field somewhere in this field. So you have a background in architecture. I know a lot of law students are listening, does that mean that you were good with math and science?
Arlan D. Lewis: It means I was sufficient in math and science. I was good enough to get through obviously with architecture you’ve got to take the physics and you’ve got to do a class or a series of classes called structures, which is really applied physics and mathematics. So I was good enough to get through all of that. So good is a relative term.
DeMario Thornton: Okay, so you finished Hampton and you go straight to law school. You go to Vanderbilt Law School. When you go to law school, do you know you’re going to work in some sort of construction law?
Arlan D. Lewis: That’s an interesting question. And before I answer it, let me back up and just give you a little bit of how I even got interested in going to law school. Yeah, I mentioned that I was, I thought I was interested in being an architect, so I went to Hampton. And, for those of you who don’t know, architecture is a five-year program. It’s a fairly intense program and about my third year through architecture school, I was introduced to a class that was called professional practice and that was the first time that I was introduced to the notion of contracts related to the construction industry.
And I really, really was intrigued by that class and the things that we learned and the concepts of contracts and liability and responsibility. And I was a fairly good writer and so I was just very, very intrigued with that. And at the same time, I was beginning to realize that the problem solving aspect of architecture is what I enjoyed more than the “design” aspect or some of the other purely architecture related things.
So I just kind of filed that in the back of my head, but went ahead and finish the entire five-year program. But that’s when I decided that I would consider law school. And so, I applied to several law schools. Ultimately, ended up choosing Vanderbilt and I used to joke with my architecture classmates that I would represent them when they screwed something up.
Yeah, that was and it really was a joke because at the time I didn’t realize there was a niche for construction law. I just again was intrigued by the concept. Obviously I was familiar with the industry and so I really went to Vanderbilt thinking that I would practice corporate law.
DeMario Thornton: Okay.
Arlan D. Lewis: It really wasn’t even thinking more toward litigation.
DeMario Thornton: Okay. So well first of all manifestation is powerful because you were joking but so you are already seeing that. So you’ve basically filed in the back of your mind that I like this little piece, this little aspect. So when you get to law school, you are throughout your course of law school, are you still in the mindset, I’m going to do corporate, I’m going to do transactional.
Arlan D. Lewis: You know when you go to law school, oftentimes you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do because you don’t know what you don’t know. And you know the field of — the profession of law is so broad that you can — there’s so many areas that you just will never even know exist.
And so I am the first lawyer in my family so I had no frame of reference. I had no one to sort of bounce things off of and say, hey, should I do this? Should I do that? So I just went with an open mind of you know look, I know Vanderbilt is a great law school, I’m going to go check it out and we’ll see where things go.
Vanderbilt does not or at least, I don’t think they have, at this time and they certainly didn’t when I was there, they don’t have a construction law class so that wasn’t an introduction. I will tell you how I came upon construction law as a niche.
As you know, when you go to law school, one of the things you want to do is find work in the summer, right. So as a 1L this is going to date me quite a bit because I know now everything is electronic but at the time there was a resource called Martindale-Hubbell, sort of bios and this is where you would pull out actual books and all of the firms has firm bios and bios of individual lawyers.
Well, I knew obviously a Bradley because Bradley was a large firm in Alabama, and I knew that they recruited heavily at Vanderbilt. So I’m flipping through Alabama firms because I’m thinking, okay, I have an Alabama connection. I’m not sure I want to go back to Alabama to practice, but, let’s start there because I was looking for ways that outside of just my resume and my transcript, how could I make a connection with firms that I’m talking to.
And so I said, well, I’ve got an Alabama connection so it makes sense for me to at least look in that direction. Let’s start flipping the pages through Martindale-Hubbell, I come up on Bradley and I’m reading down through some of the bios and I come across all these lawyers that talk about construction law. And I mean, it’s pretty extensive information regarding construction. So it’s not like they just handle a case here or there and there are several lawyers that had these extensive bios related to construction.
So the light bulb in my head went off and said, hmm, maybe I need to pursue this. I’ve got an architecture background. Again, this is something I felt could be an advantage for me, because it’s not a usual precursor to law school. So my stumbling upon construction law was purely out of a self-serving need to find work as a 1L.
DeMario Thornton: We’re going to take a quick break and we come back, I have a quick little story. We’ll be right back.
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DeMario Thornton: All right, we’re back with Mr. Arlan Lewis and he was telling us how he stumbled upon construction law. What is eerie to me, is I literally stumbled upon the exact same thing. Well, not the book, because that was like, it not bad. But I stumbled upon on the boards that we use, and I saw Birmingham, I’m originally from Birmingham, so I was just like, oh, well, I’ll do that because I have a connection.
In my mind, I am going to be the first lawyer in my family as well, but the only thing I had reference of was criminal law, I am like, well you mean, this is what I see on TV. This is what I know. So this is what I’m going to do. I was afforded to have good grades to be a viable candidate but I literally like Mr. Bean just like stumbled into like the firm but I wasn’t looking at construction. I was just like, I’m just going to put my hat in the ring.
But once I got there, the construction group took a very good interest in me and that’s when it opened up my eyes to all of the different things. But me, personally, I have a degree in mass communication so it wasn’t like a just a synergized fit for me. I just kind of like was like okay these are the people I like I’m very, very good at contracts. Okay, we’ll see what goes on here. So you stumble upon construction law. You worked there for two summers. Do you do the work for two summers?
Arlan D. Lewis: Yeah but I’ve got another little, I got lots of little stories.
DeMario Thornton: I am ready.
Arlan D. Lewis: Cut me off.
DeMario Thornton: Drop these nuggets, I am ready.
Arlan D. Lewis: But they all sort of lead to where we’re going. So I find out that Bradley does a lot of construction law and at the time at Vanderbilt, the way it works is you sort of toss your hat in the ring. The firm gets to pick 50% of their interviewees and then the other 50% are sort of randomly selected from all the students who toss their hat in the ring. Needless to say, I wasn’t on either list.
DeMario Thornton: Okay.
Arlan D. Lewis: So, I’m like, okay, well, that’s, that’s interesting. I mean sometimes that’s just the way things shake out. So I already had another job secured for the first half of the summer, but it was again, this is 1L and not all law firms hire 1Ls.
DeMario Thornton: It’s more prevalent today, but I’m sure back then that was like no.
Arlan D. Lewis: Right, right. So, I had a job for the first half that was in Nashville, but it was a non-paying job, but I was going to take it just because I was like, I did it to build my resume, and I need the experience. And so I was really needing one of these pay jobs. So the schedule for Bradley was posted outside of the particular interview room that they were on.
So I went, had my resume, had my transcript and I noted what time they had a break. And so after they finished an interview and while they were on their break, I just walked in.
There were two lawyers there, introduced myself said, hi I am Arlan Lewis, I’m an architecture major. I grew up in Alabama. I noticed that you all have a lot of lawyers that do construction law. That’s an area that I’m interested in, I wasn’t on your list. But here’s my resume, here’s my transcript. I’d love the opportunity to chat with you guys at some point. And obviously they were caught off guard.
DeMario Thornton: Right. I can imagine.
Arlan D. Lewis: And both the lawyers are still at Bradley and they’re both very dear friends to me now. But, they kind of stumbled through there like well okay and that was that and I left, and my mindset was I have nothing to lose, right.
DeMario Thornton: Right.
Arlan D. Lewis: I need a job. I don’t have one, I’m interested in this firm, I’m interested in this practice group. I have nothing to lose. So, I didn’t try to force an interview at that time. I just drop that off, said a couple of words and the next week, I got a call saying, we’d like for you to come down to Birmingham to meet some of our lawyers.
DeMario Thornton: And, let me just stop you, that’s probably the best feeling because you didn’t have the stress of like are they going to call me? Are they — you just kind of like just dropped it off and forgot about it, which is probably the least stressful thing ever.
Arlan D. Lewis: I guess it was least stressful because I’d already figured that worst-case scenario, I’m in the same position I was.
DeMario Thornton: Right.
Arlan D. Lewis: And so, the stress began, when they called back and said we’d like to have you come back down.
DeMario Thornton: Of course.
Arlan D. Lewis: So I did, I went back down. I met several of the lawyers and both in construction and in other practice groups and few weeks later they called and said, hey we’d like you to come down and spend part of your summer with us.
DeMario Thornton: Wow.
Arlan D. Lewis: So that was my connection to Bradley and I worked primarily with the construction group during that summer and they made me a permanent offer after that first summer. So I felt like –
DeMario Thornton: After your first summer?
Arlan D. Lewis: Yes, yes.
DeMario Thornton: Is that unheard of or is that heard of for the times?
Arlan D. Lewis: It didn’t happen frequently but I think it may have happened with at least one other person that I clerked with that summer Bradley and Bradley had large clerkship classes at that time, 60-70.
DeMario Thornton: Oh okay.
Arlan D. Lewis: Yeah.
DeMario Thornton: Is that across all of them or just in Birmingham.
Arlan D. Lewis: That was across all of them because at the time, Bradley only had the Birmingham office was the main office, they had Huntsville. And I don’t remember whether they had just opened up Montgomery, but it had not spread out vastly, like it is now.
DeMario Thornton: Got you. Got you. Okay so you get the permanent offer and we’re at the same place. Well, I didn’t get mine in my first year, I just got an offer to come back the next summer and then offer after that. So now in your mind you’re like I’m in law school, I’m going to be a construction attorney, you know this.
Do you gear any of the classes that you choose? Are you just going through just as you were before or did you change like what are you going to – the tools you’re going to put in your tool belt?
Arlan D. Lewis: No, I really didn’t change, change direction. Obviously when I got into my second and third years I was thinking about my electives and even though they extended the offer, I didn’t accept it right off that first year because I wanted to also explore some other firms and see what else was out there. But I didn’t take intellectual property, but I made sure I loaded up on legal writing courses.
DeMario Thornton: Right.
Arlan D. Lewis: Obviously contract courses and the other electives I took either, I thought they would be useful or I knew the professor to be engaging.
DeMario Thornton: I got you, cool. So we will be back with Mr. Arlan Lewis after these messages.
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DeMario Thornton: All right, ladies and gentlemen, we are back with Mr. Arlan Lewis. He is the premier construction attorney in the United States. Did I even mention that he is the leader of the Construction Practice Group for the ABA? Is that correct?
Arlan D. Lewis: Yes, I just finished my term as Chair of the ABA’s Forum on Construction Law.
DeMario Thornton: Got you. So, let’s talk about the practice of construction. I think this is where all my questions come. So, like I said, I am also going to be the first lawyer in my family and when I explained to them that I’m going to be in construction law, they’re like that is not your personality because I can’t see you in steel toe boots and a flannel shirt and driving a tractor. I’m like, well that’s not going to be what I’m going to be doing. But how would you describe the practice of construction law to a layperson?
Arlan D. Lewis: I get this question a lot particularly if I’m traveling on an airplane and people say well what do you do? And I mention I am a construction lawyer. What they generally say is oh, what’s that?
The best way I have found – or the most succinct way I’ve found to describe that is you know look I help entities in the construction industry draft and negotiate contracts. I render project advice if things are happening on the project. And if things go very wrong, I get involve and help them resolve disputes like the project is late, who’s responsible for the delay and then of course time is money. And so or if the project runs over budget, I get involved in helping to decide who is responsible for the cost overruns. That’s about the most succinct explanation I can provide.
DeMario Thornton: Okay. So most people don’t know this, but most construction litigation does not happen in the court system, it happens in arbitration. Do you feel that you missed out on, well I can’t say missed out because you thought you were going to be a corporate or transactional attorney. Do you still get the excitement of disputing when it’s just arbitration?
Arlan D. Lewis: Oh, absolutely. Because arbitration is really, it’s just like a trial. The only difference is depending on what rules you’re bound by and whether or not you’ve agreed to apply the civil procedure rules of a court which you typically don’t. There is — you have everything. You’ve got the arbitrator or the panel of arbitrators, who essentially act as judges.
They are the fact finders, they will ultimately determine what the outcome is. You present evidence, you present witnesses, you cross-examine witnesses, you take depositions in preparation for it. You go through the discovery process. It’s just you have all of those things but it’s slightly different than it is in the courtroom.
DeMario Thornton: Right.
Arlan D. Lewis: So arbitration does not get you out of the dispute process. It’s just a slight difference from the court.
DeMario Thornton: Would you say that most of your law is based in contract law?
Arlan D. Lewis: Most of it. Most of it starts with the contract. Obviously, you could get into torts in certain cases but most of it is based in contract.
DeMario Thornton: Which is a win for me because I mean, I’m not an expert but I mean that’s my most expertise would be in contract law. I enjoy contract law. Is there a certain personality type that would do well in construction law?
Arlan D. Lewis: I don’t think there’s a certain personality type because one and you’ll find this when you start working at Bradley. Within that construction group, there are so many different personality types and through my involvement with the ABA Forum on Construction Law, I’ve met and deal with construction lawyers from all over the country, and all over the world and their personalities are as varied as you would find in any other compilation of people.
So, no, there’s not a specific personality type that’s better or worse for construction law in my opinion.
DeMario Thornton: Got you. All right so right now you started in big law and now you’ve moved to another firm. What has that transition been like or is it just the same?
Arlan D. Lewis: There are certain things that are similar. For example, one of the things I enjoyed about working in big laws is the complexity of the matters that you deal with and that is pretty much the same because my other partners have also spent some time in big law and what not. And so the matters that we work on just as complex, just as large and just as interesting.
There is a major difference though and that is I’m a lot more involved in the management of the day-to-day practice, right, when you’re at a big firm, you pick up the phone and you call a paralegal if you need one, if they’re not available, there are several others on the bench.
Well now if I need a paralegal to the extent we have them already employed. Yes, same process but if I need some service or skill that we don’t have in house, well that means I’ve got to do the business analysis of, okay, is it time to hire somebody, is it time to hire them full time, do I need to start part-time? Do I need somebody on a contract basis? That business analysis is a lot different when you’re in a smaller firm.
DeMario Thornton: Got you. Do you believe that there is any type of prerequisite in majors or anything like that to be successful in the construction practice group?
Arlan D. Lewis: No, you know, obviously my connection came through my background.
DeMario Thornton: Right.
Arlan D. Lewis: And I do think it is appreciated by other lawyers as well as my clients. So like, okay, this guy is an architect or if you’ve got a background in construction, you served as a project manager or something like that, that’s very helpful, but it is certainly not necessary. I would say that a majority of construction lawyers that I know came from backgrounds that were completely unrelated to that.
And in fact, some of the absolute best construction lawyers that I’ve dealt with, they’ve been English majors, history major, it’s not absolutely necessary because you will learn what you need to know as you practice. Don’t shy away from construction.
DeMario Thornton: Yeah, don’t shy away. All right, so this is the final question. Now, this is where the lights come down. Who wants to be a millionaire? Who wants to be a construction attorney? What do you wish you had have known while you’re in law school to increase your chances or to help you today?
Arlan D. Lewis: I guess I could phrase it in terms of what I wish I had known or maybe it’s easier, more easily translated in what I wish I had done more of and been aware of and this is not just related to construction law. I think this could apply to any segment of law that someone is considering. I guess I wish I had realized how important it was to maintain and foster the relationships with your classmates in law school.
Because what you’ll find is once you leave law school, everybody goes their separate ways, everybody does their thing. But even though your classmates maybe going to different law firms today. 10 years from now, 15 years from now, they may be in a general counsel role at an industry that seems completely unrelated to, what they said they were going to do in terms of where they go to practice law.
And if you maintain those relationships, you never know how that’s going to come back around and be a value to both you or you to them. And so, I wish I had taken more time and made more of an effort to develop more relationships with my classmates.
I mean, obviously there are plenty that I did maintain and that I maintain today but had I known then what I know now. I would have been more strategic and when I say strategic, I mean just reaching out and taking the time and making the effort to know more of my classmates.
DeMario Thornton: Do you think it helps a little bit that we have social media now and you can just like, send people like just stay abreast on their lives?
Arlan D. Lewis: Yes, that certainly is helpful but I would encourage you to develop personal relationships. Because nowadays, the thing about social media is well, it’s easy for anyone to reach out. So let’s say one of your classmates ends up as the general counsel of a major construction company 10 years down the road, maybe you passed him in the hall couple of times in law school, but you didn’t really develop a relationship with them.
Well, if you’re a construction lawyer and you see that they’re at this construction company and now you reach out via social media, it sends a certain message, not necessarily a bad message but it’s one thing. It’s another thing if you know that person have developed a relationship with them aside from their current status, it’s just a different dynamic.
DeMario Thornton: Got you. So, ladies and gentlemen, you’ve heard it here first. Upon graduation date, don’t cut the people off just because you’re tired of being in class with them, okay. So Mr. Lewis, I want to thank you so much, you’ve really given some gems and I’m going to take some of these things. I’m going to share it, there are people that are listening they’re going to take these. If they want to reach out to you, where can they find you?
Arlan D. Lewis: Sure. The best way to reach me is by email and that’s [email protected]. I will say this just because you send an email doesn’t mean I’ve seen it. It doesn’t mean I’m ready to respond to it. So give me a little time. But if you tell me that this is how you came to hear of me, I’ll certainly be glad to reach back out to you.
The other thing, I would encourage anyone to do who may be interested in construction law is to, one, join the Law Student Division of the ABA. I think it’s free and look for the Forum on Construction Law. I don’t recall exactly, but I think membership there for young lawyers is either free or severely –
DeMario Thornton: 25, I think.
Arlan D. Lewis: Okay. Yes, that’s extremely low. That is a — that organization is a wealth of knowledge. It is the place where I outside of the practice group, that’s where I acquired the most valuable knowledge of construction law generally.
DeMario Thornton: Got you. Got you. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. This has been an excellent conversation and thank you again.
Arlan D. Lewis: Well DeMario, thank you, and I hope that you will look me up when you get to Birmingham.
DeMario Thornton: I definitely will.
Arlan D. Lewis: I’ll look forward to staying in touch with you.
DeMario Thornton: No problem. Say fun, fun on you.
Arlan D. Lewis: Sounds good. All right thanks DeMario.