THE KING OF CONSTRUCTION LITIGATION FIRMS
Quick Questions for Bob Watt, co-founder and Managing Partner, Watt, Tieder, Hoffar & Fitzgerald
You're really the biggest?
Yes, we believe we are the biggest doing construction claims and litigation. We have 107 attorneys, 65 of them here in Tysons. 50% of our work is for contractors, 40% is representing sureties, and 10% is real estate. Many of the world’s largest construction companies—Fluor, Shaw Group, Washington Group International, Bechtel, and Clark Construction, and 7 of the top 10 sureties [bonding companies for contractors]—have been our clients.
What's an example of a case?
Modern Continental Construction ran out of money doing the Big Dig and other projects in Boston, the New York City area, and Fairfax County, and the surety, St. Paul Travelers, hired us because it had a number of troubled projects as part of Modern Continental's $2 billion in backlog. The Owner had claims for liquidated damages and had alleged work deficiencies. Modern Continental had affirmative claims for changes, differing site conditions, and delays.
You need to know a lot about construction yourself?
Absolutely. As much as your expert witness.
How have you learned?
I’ve been doing this for 35 years. I have learned to read plans and specs very well.
How many cases do you have at any one time?
I am probably involved in 25.
How do you keep track of them?
The good Lord blessed me with a good memory.
How fast is the firm growing?
About 10 new attorneys over the last year.
Why did you open a Las Vegas office this year?
Construction is booming there, and we have a large case representing Fireman’s Fund surety and AF Construction in a major dispute with Clark County over a $125 million regional justice center.
Next on the horizon?
Maybe an acquisition in Florida, maybe New York City. We might do an affiliated relationship with a firm in Abu Dhabi as we have done in Germany.
Do other firms want to acquire you?
Yes, but we have no interest. We like the people and chemistry here and the average income per partner is quite good.
What is the culture?
An open meritocracy. We reward people on the basis of performance, seniority counts zero.
Where are you from?
Winchester, Illinois, a town of 1700, 50 miles west of Springfield.
When did you come to Washington?
As a summer intern for Senator Chuck Percy in 1967, then to work for Senator Everett Dirksen, both from Illinois. I started at law school at the University of Illinois, and then transferred to GW in 1968.
My father was a small town lawyer who encouraged us to see the world.
How’d you get into construction law?
I had a good friend in law school who had clerked for a Tysons firm called Lewis, Mitchell & Moore, a construction firm, and I needed to work.
Had you ever done anything in construction?
I was a laborer one summer at age 17 for a small contractor.
Why did you start your own firm?
The Lewis, Mitchell & Moore firm had some difficulties so several of us partners started our own on January 16, 1978. We had six attorneys, 3 secretaries, and a receptionist. We were in the Honeywell building in Tysons, what is now part of the Sunrise headquarters. I was 32 years old.
Any others still here?
Yes, Jack Tieder -- he has been a great partner over the years.
How big did you think you were going to get?
Historically almost no construction firm grew larger than 25, although one got to 50. That was fine with us. Frankly, we didn’t sit around talking about how big we were going to be. We were thinking about six months ahead, one year ahead. We were trying to win cases and make clients happy.
How has the pace of growth been?
Fairly steady with some spurts. Business is great now, but it’s even better in a downturn because if profit margins aren’t as good, contractors are a little more likely to pursue claims against owners.