As a bar student with an interest in construction law, I thought it would be a good idea to spend some time with a building company.
So I spent an edifying summer in Buckinghamshire, working in the surveying department of a well-known national contractor. I went there under the impression that contracting was all about building buildings and - a measure of my ignorance - that the surveying department would spend its time, well, surveying. I came away under no illusions: contracting is all about making money, and the surveying department particularly so.
When I started practice I thought the law was all about fine ideals and learned processes acted out in historic settings. A few trips to Greenwich juvenile court rapidly disabused me of all three notions. Once I found my vocation in construction disputes, slowly the penny dropped that construction law is all about documents.
I have recently been working with a huge team on a huge claim with a view to preparing for a hearing before the end of the year. I started out thinking that my job was to find out what the issues were, assess the evidence in support or otherwise, and then look up a bit of law.
Several weeks later I am now in no doubt whatsoever that my single objective is to somehow save myself from drowning in a deluge of documents.
We had to prepare a trial bundle. Easy enough, you might think. Simply a matter of identifying which documents support the case. The contract correspondence files had been reduced to a manageable 50 or so lever-arch files and the subcontract correspondence was a perfectly reasonable 10 files. When I was about halfway through someone appeared with another couple of boxes.
These were the documents in support of the counterclaim which might also go to other aspects of the claim, if I could look through them and check.
About three-quarters of the way through someone got very excited about getting hold of the subcontractors' documents. Perhaps I could have a look through them as well.
When I was about done, the first version of the trial bundles was produced by the other side.
Huge sigh of relief from the team that now the documents had a file and page reference. No need now to use those protracted site references when trying to distinguish between one of the 10 or so letters sent from site on any given day. We checked through our insertions for duplications, numbered them chronologically, indexed them, photocopied them and sent them out for insertion. They sent them back. There was not room in the files for the additional documents.
We could break up the files and renumber them, but then the references we had been using for the witness statements and experts' reports would be wrong. And by this time the files had been copied any number of times for the team.
Instead, we weeded out the duplications and inserted the additional documents into the handy gaps. Then someone pointed out that not all the documents used for an earlier hearing had been included in the trial bundles as we had believed.
The trial bundles had to be cross-referred to those used previously and the omitted relevant documents identified, numbered, indexed, copied and added in. Oh, there may be high-powered meetings going on between the clients, the lawyers and the experts, but I tell you, the really difficult decisions in this case are being made in the photocopy room, usually late at night.
One veteran litigator complained not about the late nights but about the backbreaking strain of lugging all these documents about. The suggested solution was to reduce each A4 sheet to A5 and use double-sided copying.
That way four A4 pages of, for example, an expert's report can fit on one sheet of A4. You can then bind them as A5-sized files.
The intimidating row of 20 lever-arch files of correspondence has been reduced to a dinky collection of paperback-sized mini files. The other advantage is that, for the first time since taking up this particular challenge, I can see my way out of the documents.