Construction Group of The Year: Schiff Hardin


Construction Group of The Year: Schiff Hardin

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Schiff Hardin LLP’s recent work advising American Airlines on a $344 million project to upgrade a New York City airport terminal and overseeing a “nightmare” of a bridge construction dispute helped the firm claim a spot among Law360’s 2019 Construction Groups of the Year.

With a team of 15 full-time workers, several of whom have spent decades working together, Schiff Hardin's construction law group is primarily based out of New York City and Chicago. In the past year, the group has made its mark in construction matters across the country, but major work in New York City has helped it follow up its 2018 Construction Group of the Year distinction.

Since last year, Schiff Hardin has been helping American Airlines develop, draft and negotiate contracts for its massive investment into the revamp of Terminal 8 at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport Airport. The project is part of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's $13 billion plan to upgrade the entire airport by 2025, which he unveiled last February.

Practice group leader Kenneth M. Roberts called the Terminal 8 construction "one of the most high-profile projects in New York City." The firm said that American Airlines plans on adding five gates and 70,400 square feet to the terminal — which will accommodate 14 daily flights to London when completed — as well as refurbishing 57,500 square feet of retail space.

Convincing American Airlines to rely on Schiff Hardin’s advice was in part a testament to the group’s experience advising retail space developments in New York City.

In 2019, deputy practice group leader Heidi Hennig Rowe led the team in advising longtime client The Rockefeller Group, a real estate developer, with change order disputes that arose in connection with a mixed-use development in Tysons Corner, Virginia. The group also represented Rockefeller with contracts related to the construction of Rose Hill, a 45-story midtown Manhattan luxury condo.

“These are complicated projects, you’re trying to build skyscrapers in the middle of one of the most dense, populated, important cities in the world,” she said.

The Schiff Hardin team also made its mark on New York City through its work for the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, a public benefit corporation that provides financing and construction services for not- for-profit institutions. The team helped the authority develop the bidding process and prepare contracts for a planned $750 million library facility and advised it through contract disputes arising from the City University of New York and City College of New York’s $700 million Advanced Science Research Center.

The research center presented a number of complex issues for Schiff Hardin, as the original construction contract included performance incentives as to what the research center’s labs should produce, Roberts said. “It was gray at best as to what was base contract and what was an extra.”

The murkiness required the team to work through not just engineering and construction issues, but to settle what was acceptable scientific work under the contract.

Throughout construction, Schiff Hardin also had to resolve performance issues involving the research center's contractor, Skanska USA Building Inc., two subcontractors and a minority-owned sub-subcontractor that threatened to hold up work.

Skanska was represented by Peckar & Abramson PC, one of the best contractor counsel firms in the country, Roberts said, and its lead attorney was a fierce litigator known in the construction world as “a junkyard dog.”

Convincing Peckar & Abramson to mediate the debacle was a credit to Schiff Hardin’s problem-solving reputation, Roberts said. “They know we’re not there to ambush them.”

Resolving the research center disputes was relatively easy compared to Schiff Hardin’s work as an evaluative mediator for a battle between a contractor and the Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of transportation.

A complicated bridge construction, which had to comply with certain environmental requirements, was at the heart of the multimillion-dollar controversy that arose when the contractor submitted several change order requests over design issues, delays and loss of efficiency, the firm said.

Every month, the parties would meet in mediation for marathon, multiday sessions to resolve design issues requiring such technical expertise that Schiff Hardin was constantly working with each side’s experts. Sometimes, up to 50 people participated in the sessions.

“It took years off my life,” Roberts said. “It was like my worst nightmare in having some of the best experts and math go up on the board.”

Rowe credits the group’s success to its team mentality, saying “there’s a lot of collaboration and consistency in our work product from one lawyer to another in how we approach things and that’s from intentionally fostering that team.”

Rowe said that when one attorney is experiencing a work issue, the team will come together to resolve the problem “and basically formulate best practices within the group.”

The collaborative spirit has allowed different group members to specialize far more than their competition, so that a client going through all the phases of construction on a project will be working with a good sampling of the team, Rowe and Roberts said.

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This article is reprinted with permission from Law360, January 23, 2020,