This third article in the Member Feature series showcases Asha Echeverria, Shareholder and Construction Practice Group Chair at Bernstein Shur in Portland, Maine. Asha is also a licensed professional engineer with LEED certification. Before practicing law, Asha established herself as a civil engineer at Parsons Brinkerhoff designing and coordinating large construction and energy projects. Members of the ABA Forum on Construction Law may also know her as the incoming Chair of the Publications Committee, contributing editor to the Construction Lawyer publication and current editor of the 2X4X10 Newsletter issued by Division 10, focused on transportation, energy and environmental law.
Asha has been practicing law for over thirteen years and, when asked what keeps her interested in the construction industry, she had a ready answer, “I love the learning aspect of it; you have to get to know everything about the project and each project has its own particularities.” Bernstein Shur has a general practice, which allows her to consult with colleagues on matters such as financing, leases and other areas of expertise that play a role in her projects. Asha is also a member of her firm’s Coronavirus Legal Response Team and has had to quickly adapt her leadership style during the pandemic as the manager of numerous associates. She notes, “I worry about associates and the impact of missing impromptu human contact.” Throughout her career, she has continued to learn every day and much of that learning has come from the opportunity to interact with her colleagues in the office, acknowledging that even though each lawyer must prepare to handle unique and novel issues, there is immeasurable value in the exchange with other partners. “I love chatting things out with colleagues and that hasn’t been possible since the pandemic,” she said. Physical distancing “can hinder making the phone call.” She understands that downsizing and eliminating offices are very real considerations for firms in this pandemic environment, but also believes that “someday, we will be back to having two people in the kitchen getting coffee.” Alternately, Asha feels some changes from this period of the pandemic on the legal practice are here to stay, speculating that, “we may never have to require an insurance adjuster to appear in person again.”
As the head of her firm’s construction group, she keeps abreast of what is going on with the cases of her associates. She is not shy about contacting an associate with the message that “we are setting up a call and going through all of your cases.” This interaction has been important with respect to identifying areas where an associate would have, in the pre-COVID environment, had an opportunity to learn about issues from other colleagues through face-to-face conversations. “I’ve taken things off the associate’s plate because I realize, had the person been in the office, we would have had that conversation.” She also sees this as a teachable moment for senior lawyers. “It’s important to consider how to make associates more comfortable in this environment.” She views the consideration of all these issues to be part of her role at the firm.
When asked what advice she would give lawyers who are new to the construction industry or at the beginning of their legal careers, she advises, “Be organized. Figure out a way to manage what you need to do and when. That is how I sleep at night.” In addition, “Be indispensable…anticipate what partners need and do it.” One example she gave was cite checking, recalling when she was an associate supporting partners, “I would never hand a document back without cite checking.” She also strongly advocates that new lawyers join the Forum’s Young Lawyers Division to get gradual exposure to all of the opportunities that the Forum offers.
Asha has been active in the Forum since her days in the Young Lawyers Division more than ten years ago. Although she misses the collaborative and learning environment of the Forum’s national meetings, she still views the Forum as a way to learn about construction projects that are happening in other regions of the country. For example, “there won’t be a light rail up here in Portland…I enjoy hearing about what other people are doing.” She also observed that Forum opportunities facilitate “learning from the podium; as well as learning from social interactions.” In the new norm of the pandemic environment, she misses those interactions. She noted, “It is so much about the people.” Despite the isolation, she is grateful for the Forum-sponsored breakout room calls and happy hour video calls where multiple attorneys can participate in the discussion.
In addition to being the chair of the Publications Committee, and a steering committee member for Division 10, she has also been a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Asha viewed the Forum’s 2019 Fall Meeting in Philadelphia, “Building a Better Construction Industry through Inclusion, Diversity & Professionalism” as groundbreaking. “These are important issues, and we need to be conscious of them,” she noted. Asha also observed that these discussions can help change people’s opinions about what a construction attorney is supposed to look like. She has observed firsthand the increase in the number of women of color in the Forum and the change in attitudes that have occurred through more Forum Chairs who are women. She noted that past Chairs such as Wendy Venoit and Kristine Kubes “have done a lot to bring about this change.”
When asked how she spends her free time, Asha talks about her husband and two daughters (a three year old and seven month old) and a whole host of animals. The same decrease in human contact that concerns her at the firm also occupies her mind with respect to her children. Because of mandatory quarantining, she said her older daughter, “hasn’t gone to the park and hasn’t had an opportunity to be exposed to other little people.” She recognizes how important the role of time spent with her family is for helping her children develop social skills. A self-described “gentlewoman farmer” she enjoys gardening and animal husbandry, including caring for their pig Elizabeth I, named after the British monarch. Many of her animals bear the names of dictators or authoritarian rulers throughout history.
If you are fortunate to be on a video call with Asha, or see her at a future national meeting, do not miss the opportunity to get her input on a complicated construction issue, and, just for fun, ask her to recite the names of her farm’s “court” of monarchs and dictators.