In this issue , we are showcasing Jeff Cruz, Regional Corporate Counsel and Business Unit Ethics & Compliance Officer of Skanska USA Building Inc., as part of the series featuring members of the Forum on Construction Law (FCL). Jeff is an in-house attorney with an impressive range of experience in the construction industry and the battle scars to prove it.
Over the course of Jeff’s thirty-one year career in the construction industry, he has worked both in private practice and as an in-house attorney with different types of companies. In 2007, Jeff left private practice to become an in-house attorney for Bear Stearns. While there are aspects of litigation that he misses, he has found in-house practice both motivating and challenging. “I really enjoy the relationship with the client in this practice setting…when you’re in-house, you give advice and you don’t leave the room; you’re there for the consequences and the next question.” He said about his current role, “I get to see up close the value in everything that I’m asked to do by my client. In many ways it’s a coaching role. We’re part of a construction company but we don’t build, we read contracts, handle disputes, and give advice…It’s a matter of getting our people to appreciate and manage the risks.”
Jeff’s passion for the construction industry, particularly in the New York metropolitan area, is evident when he talks about his practice, “New York, and especially Manhattan, have been transformed over the last three decades….You can see the tower cranes and the new buildings. But spending time on the heavy civil side of the business got me to appreciate what [project work] is happening under your feet.” Jeff has no hesitation about visiting a project site, and with so much development happening in his region, he does not pass up an opportunity to see what his company does firsthand, “I get questions all the time from the field. Having visited a project helps me visualize and understand the problem.”
When asked what advice he would offer to new construction attorneys, Jeff said, “whether you are in-house or with a firm, it’s really important to get to know the business, and by that I don’t just mean the technical aspects of the work.” He emphasized that lawyers need to understand how companies in this industry achieve success and how they can fail. It’s important to ask questions such as, “How does your company make money, and how do they lose it?” New attorneys should “learn [the client’s] vision of success – beyond profits – and how that can be achieved.”
Jeff would also encourage new construction attorneys to join the FCL. “There are state and local bar associations that have construction groups, and those can be very fulfilling. But the Forum is available to everyone in the country, no matter where you are.” He emphasized the value of going to the meetings on a regular basis and seeking out opportunities to be actively involved, “if you are lucky enough to serve in leadership; it’s a force multiplier. The benefits of being in the Forum go well beyond the scholarship.” Jeff certainly knows of what he speaks. As a long-standing member of the FCL, Jeff has been the Editor of Under Construction, Chair of Division 11 (Corporate Counsel), Chair of the Technology Committee, and a member of the Governing Committee, as well as the Publications, Membership and Diversity Committees. He was also a Program co-chair of the 2015 Annual Meeting. To say that Jeff has served the FCL is an understatement.
As Jeff’s office is in Manhattan, deemed a pandemic hot zone early on, I asked Jeff about the impacts of COVID-19 on his practice. He described his company’s focus on the safety of workers, on the projects and in the corporate offices, and the legal team’s work to advise their internal clients amidst new and unpredictable legal restrictions. Jeff noted, “like most lawyers, [I’m] used to being hands on, interacting with colleagues about problems and how to attack them.” Although he has adapted to the new normal of daily web-based meetings as the only way to connect with his colleagues he admits, “it’s a challenging way to devise solutions to problems.”
Jeff’s diverse range of experiences give him a rare perspective that few practitioners can match. Jeff recounts, “I’ve been lucky that I’ve worked in a small construction law firm; a large construction law firm; in-house with an owner; in-house with a heavy construction trade contractor; and now in-house with a large [Construction Manager/General Contractor].” In addition to his demanding career as a construction attorney, Jeff somehow has found time to become a skilled furniture maker. And, I can tell you that he is a true “foodie.” If you see Jeff at an upcoming FCL meeting, be sure to ask him about any legal issue and you’ll benefit from his words of experience. If you happen to run out of things to talk about, ask him about his favorite pizzerias in the city.