It’s all in the details

Glaholt Bowles' Charles Powell drawn to complexities of construction law

It’s all in the details
Charles Powell

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With a practice that takes him from Toronto to Madagascar, construction lawyer Charles Powell says in this area of practice, you’ve got to be prepared to specialize.

“You have to get into the technicality of things and understand how projects are put together — you have to be fully invested,” Powell says. “Every construction case is different and getting into the nitty-gritty details is important.”

The complexity of the projects is what pulled Powell to a career in construction law in the first place. He got his first taste of the area while summering at a law firm in his hometown of Thunder Bay, ON. He was involved on a construction file, it caught his interest and he knew early on he wanted to specialize. For his articling position, his search for firms that practiced exclusively in construction law brought him to Glaholt Bowles LLP — and he never left.

“Glaholt Bowles is a leader in the industry and I wanted to learn from the best,” Powell, now a partner at the firm with a focus on large scale infrastructure projects, says.

When he first came into the practice, Powell worked closely with Duncan Glaholt, founder of the firm, and learned a lot about arbitration. Alternative dispute resolution is prevalent in the construction industry because there are mechanisms in place, such as dispute review boards, that are different from other areas, and Powell now specializes in international and domestic construction arbitration. Though still requiring a staunch advocate for the client, it’s different from litigation, Powell notes, adding ADR procedures “always interested me because you can craft the dispute resolution mechanism to what the project needs are or what the clients’ needs are.”

Putting the client’s interest first is one of the firm’s core values, and Powell learned early on if you do that, everything else seems to fall into place. Taking the time to work with the client from the start to determine what the theory of their case is and what their interests and goals are helps the team “give them the best we’ve got,” he says.

Especially in the construction industry, clients also have resources lawyers can leverage. Given the highly technical nature of the projects — building a power plant or a refinery, for example — the engineers and other  professionals who know how it all operates can be an “invaluable resource to collaborate with to make sure we’re putting the clients’ interests first,” Powell says.

Using all available insight and support as well as keeping on top of changes in the industry is key to success. Recently the Ontario Construction Act was amended to change timelines — which means teaching an old dog new tricks, Powell notes — and to offer adjudication processes, and that’s a change Powell’s keeping an eye on. The last information from the Ontario Dispute Adjudication for Construction Contracts (ODACC) stated they had made determinations in over 20 adjudications on projects, which he calls interesting considering it just came in through the legislation to allow disputes to be resolved as projects are progressing.

“The whole industry is looking at this because it’s a new procedure and a new remedy that’s available,” Powell says.

Although COVID-19 had an impact, construction is booming here in Toronto, across Canada and around the world, Powell says, and although the pandemic also caused disruption by forcing all proceedings online the firm didn’t let that stand in its way — Glaholt Bowles was one of the first firms to perform an arbitration virtually and while it was a learning experience for everybody, they adapted quickly.

Moving forward, it was a challenge to change his whole practice — to understand how to display things to arbitrators, how to make submissions, how to set up clients and witnesses to call in for a Zoom hearing — but Powell says the transition has been fairly seamless, and many in the industry now prefer it because they can do it from wherever they are. At the firm, with files all over the province, the country and internationally it is much easier to do hearings from the comfort of the office.

A lecturer at George Brown College, Osgoode Hall and the University of Toronto’s faculty of law, as well as a regular contributor to the firm’s podcast and author of various articles, Powell says his extracurriculars fit into the firm’s overall mandate to give back to the industry, which he says is a building block of Glaholt Bowles’ ethos. 

“As leaders in the industry, people look to us to see what our views and opinions are and we’re happy to give that out,” he says. “We want to share knowledge that people can use to either drive their projects to completion or when they come to a dispute resolution stage.”

Glaholt Bowles is a close-knit team that works collaboratively both among themselves and with their clients, and as a partner Powell is invested in the continued growth of the firm and set on staying the course it has been charting.

“To continue to be recognized around the world as Canada’s top construction law firm — that’s my goal.”

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