Building a career in construction law

A single-minded vision to specialise in construction law has seen a Victoria University of Wellington graduate rise through the ranks to become an advocate for women working in construction, and her expertise has been recognised by an Australian state government.

Fionna Aitchison Reid

Fionna Aitchison Reid (nee Sutton) was the first person in New Zealand to graduate with conjoint degrees in Law (1999) and Building Science (1998). As a self-described “science nerd who also loved English and art” at school, the unique blend of qualifications was a perfect fit.

“I’d heard of construction law and thought maybe it’d work for me. So I sought some career advice about doing both building science and law, and was told I was the second person to ask about that conjoint degree that week—no one had ever wanted to do that particular combination before then.”

“In my mind doing an unusual degree was completely normal. My sister Angela [Aitchison Searle (nee Sutton)] had just completed conjoint Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Science degrees at Victoria University of Wellington and was embarking on her career in intellectual property. Angela’s achievements made my conjoint degrees seem possible and achievable.”

Fionna became utterly determined to finish first because it was initially controversial amongst the faculty and students that she was combining degrees in architecture and law.  In fact, in her first trimester in second year the Dean of Architecture and Design took her aside and said she couldn’t do it. “Some students felt the need to also share their opinion that I was either indecisive or arrogant to do both degrees at the same time and I should ‘just pick one’,” Fionna says.

The other person looking to combine the degrees was male and appeared to be sailing through without courting any controversy at all, Fionna recalls.

“I was brought up in a matriarchal household and went to an all girls’ school, where the premise was ‘Girls can do anything’. So, all the negative feedback just fuelled me to work harder. I finished my degrees as quickly as I could by doing maximum credits and summer school so I could graduate first.”

Fionna says the Dean of Architecture and Design School graciously conceded his error by the end of her second year. “My mission was not without some difficulties, but I had amazing support from my parents, which helped so much.”

The hard work paid off, with Fionna becoming the first person in New Zealand to gain the LLB/BBSc conjoint degrees. And while her first job after graduating—as a Treaty negotiator/policy analyst for the Ministry of Justice—wasn’t in the area she trained for, Fionna says it was a valuable experience.

“Here was a very young Pakeha girl, with a posh private school accent representing the Crown. I was the epitome of privilege and my privilege was the result of generations of Treaty breaches by the Crown, which had indirectly helped my family, but hindered generations of Māori,” she says. “It taught me that despite all of my privilege and the wrongs of the past, these beautiful iwi authority leaders accepted me because, through the time they and I spent together, they learnt that I genuinely cared and wanted to do the right thing by them. Their acts of kindness and acceptance were for me truly humbling and awe inspiring.”

In order to get back into law, Fionna then worked for a short period for a general practice. A year later, she was shoulder-tapped by Wellington-based Hazelton Law, where she got to put her construction law skills into practice. She was made Associate after approximately three years and stayed there for five years, but left after having her first son—Tamarau—as she did not want to continue in the role full-time.

Fionna combined motherhood with part-time work for Legal Services, teaching law students how to be lawyers. She finished in that role after a year, then had her second baby boy, Takurua.

When Takurua was still very small, Fionna’s husband Riley was offered a job by Virgin Australia in Queensland. So the family upped sticks to head across the ditch, forcing Fionna to look afresh at what she would do with her expertise.

“After my experience working as a construction litigator, I realised no law firm would hire me part-time because litigation means massive hours,” she says. “I’d been a full-time mum up to that point and I really loved hanging out with my boys so I realised it was up to me to create something that would work for me and our family. Riley was unbelievably supportive and if it was not for his confidence in me I don’t think I would ever have taken the leap.”

Fionna and Riley set up Aitchison Reid in the front room of their Queensland home. Setting up a law practice in a foreign country wasn’t easy, but they got busier and busier and so eventually moved into premises, and now have a staff of four. The firm acts for homeowners, investors and developers, and is also a vocal advocate for the rights of subcontractors.

She says the subbies and tradies she works with these days sometimes don’t initially respond well when they find out she’s a construction lawyer. “It can be like a figurative roller door is slammed shut. In their minds I’m either going to sue them, or charge them, and on top of that I am a woman,” she says. “So I’ve had to have a bit of a thick skin, but also patience and heart. When they realise that I am a genuine person, that I talk in plain English and that I genuinely care, the door is usually rolled away.”

For Fionna, setting up the practice has meant she can make Aitchison Reid the kind of law firm she had always wanted to work for. “We are really big on things like flexible time for our employees,” she says. “I’m starting to hear of this happening more in the legal industry, but seems it’s still really rare.

“There are all these intelligent lawyers with amazing brains out there who aren’t working in the law because of family or other commitments, so it makes sense to make the most of that rich talent,” she says. “Plus everyone should know that you get more productivity and loyalty from a person who is allowed to balance their personal lives with work, such as a parent returning to work from parental leave.”

Fionna’s advocacy for women has seen her establish Women in Building and Construction (WIBC). “A friend and I co-founded the group to help women in the industry. Aitchison Reid deals with a lot of small businesses, and often the women within those businesses are the wives or partners, ‘just doing the books’. But they’re selling themselves short—in reality they’re running that business. They don’t do ‘just’ anything.

“A lot of women think construction is a male-only domain, and that perception keeps them isolated and not confident to question anything that is going on in the business because they ‘don’t know’ the industry,” she says. “From a legal perspective, these women are also the businesses’ internal alarm system—generally they are the first to start worrying about unpaid debts and business risk, so for the health of the business (and frequently business survival) these women need to have a more prominent voice.

“So what we’ve tried to do with WIBC is bring together women who are engineers, architects, women on site and women who ‘just’. It’s created this amazing community. It’s been really inspiring seeing them all come together and the compassion and empathy that they have for one another.  I think we have entered a new era in female leadership and that our leadership skills are no longer proven by how masculine we can be; female leadership is about balancing grit and determination with heart and authenticity, and the women I have met through WIBC have bucket loads!”

Fionna’s work on WIBC has had to take a backseat recently, however, as she was handpicked by Queensland’s state government as one of four eminent professionals to serve on the Building Industry Fairness Reforms Implementation and Evaluation Panel.

“It’s been amazing to be part of this panel. The atmosphere was so supportive and collegial, and I learned so much from the other panellists,” Fionna says. “We were tasked with reviewing the new legislation and its implementation to see if it achieved what it was intended to achieve. Given the calibre of the panel members I did wonder at first what I could possibly bring to the table, but I learned that my experience of being at the coal face with small mum-and-dad businesses was really valuable; after all these are the very people the legislation was designed to protect.”

Fionna says she has big plans for the future. “We’ve got some awesome projects we want to get on with—we’re especially focused on how we can provide affordable early, proactive legal advice to subcontractors and homeowners, so that they can avoid the kinds of disputes we are asked to litigate all the time,” she says. “I realise that as construction industry lawyers, it sounds like we’re doing ourselves out of business, but you can’t be in this game ethically without trying to find a better way to make sure family businesses and families themselves are not torn apart by these disputes.”

Fionna has very fond memories of her time at Victoria University of Wellington’s Law School, especially of her tutors and lecturers including Dean Knight, Andrew Ladley and Richard Boast. “They were standout human beings and I learned so much from them, and they were ethical role models too,” she says. “It was such a collegial environment, and you were thinking the whole time—your brain exploded with information every day, and I loved every second of it.”