As I write this, I just returned from the Forum’s annual planning retreat, held this year in Asheville, NC. As it has each time I have attended, the planning retreat recharged my enthusiasm for all the Forum does, and amazed me both as to the scope of our activities and the energy that the Forum’s leadership group brings to them. The planning retreat gathers the members of the Forum’s Governing Committee, its officers, and the chairs of the Forum’s Divisions for four days of meetings and events, mixed with free time, all directed toward planning the year ahead and reinforcing the Forum’s core values and positive culture. This time spent together also builds on our longstanding traditions of collegiality and inclusiveness. Yes, that means we have fun! From a private tour of the Biltmore that included plenty of wisecracks and impertinent questions to making s’mores with the kids around a campfire, it was a memorable event. It is notably not the same group that gathers year after year, as the normal rotation of Governing Committee members and Division chairs assures that 20 to 25 percent of the attendees each year are first timers, bringing fresh perspectives and ideas. What is always the same is the end result — a Forum leadership that leaves the retreat each year excited about the year ahead and ready to work hard to implement plans hatched at the retreat.
The planning retreat this year was a bit different than most in that much of our time was devoted to working sessions regarding the Forum’s revised strategic plan, an exercise we go through every few years. The strategic planning process always involves a combination of discussions of “big picture” issues such as the Forum’s mission, overall direction and goals, along with specific new ideas and strategies for advancing those goals. We had spirited discussions on issues large and small, as a lot of bright minds who care about the Forum and its future focused their energy on the opportunities and challenges ahead of us for a few hours, uninterrupted by the client calls and day to day issues that occupy most of the time while in our offices.
The process fulfilled my highest expectations and more. We still have lots of work to do, filtering and synthesizing the ideas and suggested priorities generated in our discussions down into a coherent planning document that, with luck, will be ready for final consideration by the Governing Committee when we next convene at the Fall Meeting in Boston (October 18-19). But the process and these discussions are key reasons for doing a strategic plan at all, so we can safely say we have already accomplished much of the objective. And of course we had fun every step of the way, which remains number one on my agenda as Chair-elect — keeping the Forum fun.
On the more philosophical, “big picture” side of strategic planning is the question of the Forum’s role now and in the future — both within the ABA, the construction bar more generally, and in the construction industry as a whole. The Forum is of course primarily dedicated to providing services for its members, in the form of CLE, training and practice resources, provided through in-person programs, distance learning events (such as webinars), and a variety of publications. We are not about to downplay that primary role, and the primacy of the Forum triumvirate — “Programs, Publications, People.” But does the Forum have a broader role as well, one that extends beyond construction law education for existing Forum members? “Serving the construction industry” has long been a part of the Forum’s mission statement (the current formulation is “Serving the Construction Industry Through Education, Leadership and Fellowship of Construction Lawyers”), and through activities such as our relationships with other construction industry groups. Like AGC, COAA and AIA, we have had a working consensus that extending our reach in some ways to the broader industry is consistent with being “the Forum on the Construction Industry.” While it might be overstating to say there is unanimity here, there plainly is widespread support for some form broader Forum role. Different people articulate that broader role somewhat differently, however.
In one version, the Forum appropriately serves as a thought leader on construction law and practice issues generally. In a world where well under 2 percent of filed cases ever go to trial and there are fewer and fewer published decisions on construction law issues each year, well reasoned secondary sources setting out sound principles to govern new and emerging issues must inevitably be relied upon more and more by courts, arbitrators and negotiating disputants. (I can’t resist here referencing here my own article on the subject: “Whither Construction Law? How Can Construction Law Continue to Grow and Evolve in the Era of ‘The Vanishing Trial’?” in the Summer 2010 issue of The Construction Lawyer). The Forum is ideally positioned to foster thought leadership on construction law issues by focusing its publications and programs a bit more on what the law should be, and not solely on what it is today. Such thought leadership will aid our members to be better prepared for what lies ahead. Likewise, the practice of construction law itself is changing rapidly, and the Forum can be a place where such practice changes and their ramifications for the years ahead can be discussed and debated, hopefully also to the lasting benefit of our members. Indeed, the Forum’s 2013 Annual Meeting (April 25-27, 2013 in Dana Point, CA) will have as its theme “the future of construction law and practice,” mixing consideration of such issues with plenty of practical and current information.
The broader version goes a step further, seeing the Forum as becoming the voice of construction lawyers within the broader context of the construction industry’s other significant players. The contractors, owners, subcontractors, construction managers and even cost engineers each have their own industry association that helps promote awareness of what each does and how they contribute to the industry — so why not construction lawyers? Certainly there is much room for improvement in the industry’s understanding of the positive contribution of construction lawyers to successful projects. Many, maybe most non-lawyers think the industry would be better off without lawyers; our constructive role in structuring contracts and relationships that significantly increase the likelihood of successful projects is, to put it mildly, greatly underappreciated. As the largest organization of construction lawyers in the U.S. and the world, the Forum is certainly a logical candidate to help fill this void. While ABA rules impose some restrictions in this regard, there is still much that the Forum could do here.
Such big picture issues certainly do not get resolved in a single planning retreat. It is an ongoing discussion, in which all Forum members can and should have a voice. I look forward to being a part of that discussion, and at least for the next year as Chair, helping to orchestrate it. I also hope to see many you the Fall in Boston, at our program focused on the inhouse-outside counsel relationship: Construction Counseling, Pulling Together For a Winning Strategy, on October 18-19, at the Sheraton at Prudential Center in Back Bay. Once again, we will combine a very strong one and a half days of CLE with plenty of fun!