21 Oct 2022

Construction, Law and Being Female

Construction, Law and Being Female
Image: Buro Happold

Written by May Winfield, Global Director of Commercial, Legal and Digital Risks at Buro Happold and a London Build Construction Idol for 2022.

Throughout my career, I have encountered many misconceptions and attitudes that I have had to challenge and overcome. Being an exotic-ish looking female who was predominantly educated abroad and who looked like she coloured outside the lines, these were often encountered whilst working as a senior lawyer in London.

When explaining the importance of networking with female colleagues to increase my client reach, an ex-boss once told me “Be yourself…but not too much of yourself – you don’t want to scare them. Just talk to them about shoes. Girls like talking about shoes, right?”. He said this with good intentions, which gives a sense of the prevailing environment at the time.

But what I really wanted to talk about was how gadgets worked, the intricacies of human decision-making, the flavour profiles of complex cocktails, and rock music. Throughout my law studies and career, I subconsciously rallied against the strict expectations and restrictions of the ‘typical’ legal mindset and career path. 

I learnt to code as a young child, and that desire to understand how things operated never left. I was always curious about the drivers of people and business, and how to operate the risks of a new process or invention. I wanted to see how the advice I gave had material impact in the real world. 

Fast forward to today, and I am now a recognised international legal specialist in BIM and construction technology.  I have the honour of leading the legal and risk aspect of the digital journey for Buro Happold, one of the most forward-thinking engineering organisations.  I balance a young family with conference speaking and lead the writing of a number of industry standard form contract documents and guidance.

I have been named Woman of Construction Law 2021 in the Women in Construction and Engineering Awards in recognition of my endeavours to progress legal and contractual awareness of digital and BIM issues, and more recently, I was named as one of 10 Most Inspiring Women Leaders to Follow in 2022 by Insight Success.  So how did that all happen?

In 2011, the UK Government introduced the UK Construction Mandate which required the use of Building Information Modelling (‘BIM’) in all centrally procured government projects by 2016.  BIM, at its simplest, is the use of technologies like 3D computer modelling, as well as other processes and policies, enabling multiple stakeholders to work collaboratively throughout the design, construction and operation phases of an asset. 

This drew my attention, here was a potential opportunity to combine my ongoing personal interest in tech with my professional career.  I started to attend conferences on the topic, any and everyone that I could find.  I still recall the first BIM Live Show I attended. Most of the talks were technical presentations on software use, and perhaps as the sole lawyer I stood out like a sore thumb. The most common question I heard was: “Why are you here?  BIM has nothing to do with law”. 

Similar to my earlier career, I was again challenging outdated but prevailing attitudes. Despite this, the digital and tech community were welcoming – accepting my curiosity and answering my ‘stupid’ questions like “What if it all goes wrong?” and “Who’s responsible for doing that bit?”.

In the meantime, I furthered my interest in the subject by giving the occasional talk on BIM, and digitisation in construction to clients of the law firm I worked at. After some months, my supervising partner pointed out that, unless it was a significant income generator, it needed to be pursued outside of work due to the financial expectations and performance pressures within a typical law firm. 

So, for a couple of years, I kept it to what is now colloquially known as a ‘side hustle’: attending events, reading about digital construction and BIM voraciously, and writing papers late into the night. 

But then, I got the chance to work on secondment at constructors Carillion. It was there I had my first experience of being recognised for my knowledge and commercial acumen without any judgement of my gender, racial background, age or legal qualifications. I was travelling weekly from London to Carillion’s office in Wolverhampton until 8 months pregnant and ended up returning full time after a short maternity leave.

During my time at Carillion, I had the chance to lead significant legal and contractual progress in digital process while also risk-managing and standardising contracts with our key consultant collaborators and our defence industry clients.

At the same time, within the wider industry, the digital and tech community had gotten used to having me around and had started to listen to my championing of the need to mitigate the potential time-bombs of uncertain liability and risk allocation in vague digital requirements and mismatched expectations. 

After Carillion’s sad demise, however, I attended a number of interviews with both law firms and companies where I was told, in rather blunt terms, that my digital specialism was a distraction at best and an obstacle at worst, to a successful legal career within the construction industry. It had been one step forward, two steps back.

Then came Buro Happold.  So, what is so special about Buro Happold?  Among many things, it is the real feeling of family that believes in supporting everyone to be their best self, in all available colour facets.  There is a true commitment to its central pillars of equity, sustainability, and technology.  These aren’t just words but an ethos that is truly put into practice.  We don’t just say, we do.  In the words of the Buro Happold CTO, Alain Waha, “it is in our DNA”.  And you could say, it is in my DNA too. So for this and many reasons…working at Buro Happold is finding a true home.

Source: Buro Happold

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