INTERVIEW: LISA SPARKS, CONSTRUCTION LAW ATTORNEY
Lisa Sparks is a lifelong resident of Baltimore. She fast-tracked college and law school, beginning at CCBC while still in high school, graduating the University of Baltimore with a B.A. in Jurisprudence in 2005 and the University of Baltimore School of Law with a J.D. in 2007. She holds the distinction of being the class commencement speaker at both UB graduations. While in law school, Lisa was a law scholar (similar to a TA), research assistant to Judge Frederic N. Smalkin, and on the trial team. Following law school, she clerked for the Honorable Deborah S. Eyler on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
After her clerkship, Lisa became an associate at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, LLP in the construction and surety group. She also practiced with Bowie & Jensen, LLC in Towson before re-joining several of her Whiteford colleagues at the Baltimore firm of Wright, Constable & Skeen, LLP where she transitioned from associate to of counsel in 2015. Lisa has been named a Super Lawyer in several successive years by her peers and receives positive press for her Baltimore City youth outreach work in a program called “Rosie the Lawyer” which seeks to introduce young women to careers in the law. The Daily Record named her a Leading Woman in 2014.
During her clerkship year, Lisa began teaching as an adjunct in the paralegal program in the CCBC School of Justice. In 2010, the University of Baltimore School of Law invited her to teach commercial law in the evening as an adjunct. Picking up additional courses in sales and construction law over the succeeding years, Lisa expanded her teaching to a full-time load and ultimately joined the full-time faculty in 2015 in the role of Practitioner in Residence. She also serves as the special assistant to the dean for bar readiness. Lisa has received a number of teaching awards at UB: Outstanding Teaching by an Adjunct, James May Faculty Mentoring, and Saul Ewing Award for Transactional Teaching.
When neither teaching nor practicing law, Lisa practices yoga, dog sits, and reads on the beach in Ocean City.
Describe a day in the life of a Construction Law Attorney.
If I couldn’t practice in the area of construction, I probably wouldn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. When your practice is defined by serving an industry rather than just a type of law, it gives you a lot of opportunity to do different things. Some days, I review and revise contracts or provide general business advice. Other days, I work on litigation matters. Note, however, that I rarely go to trial. The time, expense, and risk of trial is rarely a good business decision for my clients, so we usually seek negotiated outcomes in the context of disputes. The best days are when I get to visit my clients on their projects – active construction sites. I love to learn about the different projects which often includes engineering, design, and construction means and methods.
I’ve been very fortunate to have lots of memorable days, ranging from exceptional outcomes for my clients to the strange and unexpected. Perhaps the most memorable, though, was my first solo fact witness deposition. I was representing a subcontractor who had sued the prime contractor for non-payment. The prime contractor was a one-man operation. He was a very skilled craftsman, but terrible at paperwork. The deposition lasted two days. I wasn’t mean at all, matter-of-fact if anything, but he cried through most of the first day. On the second day, he was more collected, but unexpectedly pulled a paper from his pocket and handed it to me, without his attorney’s prior knowledge or permission. I looked it over, asked a few more questions, and resolved the case with a consent judgment in my client’s favor shortly thereafter. Now, I wonder what I’m doing wrong when the witnesses don’t cry. And, I swear I’m not mean.
What initially attracted you to this field? What are some of the rewards of this area of law and the legal profession?
Quite candidly, I fell into my first attorney position, in the construction and surety group at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston here in Baltimore, by virtue of happenstance. I graduated into the recession and entry-level attorney positions were few and far between, so I was lucky in a lot of ways. I tried to avoid criminal practice, but otherwise kept an open mind as to practice area. A few months in, I thought about it and realized that construction was the perfect area for me and I had never really thought about it. Realistically, no one goes to law school seeking to be a construction lawyer unless their dad is a contractor. For me, the chance to learn so many new things every day is incredible. I love getting to know my clients’ businesses and being able to read plans and speak the lingo. Casual dress, with boots and a hard hat, is a nice perk for me also.
How would you compare the reality of your profession to the picture you had of it before entering and while in law school? Are there downsides to your field?
The one big component of the practice of law that no one really talks about, especially in law school, is that private practitioners have to be salespeople and bring in clients. In most other industries, professionals hire marketing people to go out and solicit business. Ethically and realistically, we can’t do that, so we spend a lot of time, often on nights and weekends, networking and building relationships to generate business. Young associates are now expected to do that from the very beginning in addition to meeting productivity benchmarks and partnership is dependent upon having a significant and reliable book of business. This is not necessarily a bad thing – I have to come enjoy attending events within the construction industry and made lots of friends there – but it is an obligation to be accounted for.
Do you have any advice for an undergraduate interested in pursuing this body of law and the legal profession?
I would encourage anyone planning to attend law school to think about industries or practice areas that might interest them and try to gain experience, through externships or paid employment, on the “client side.” In a competitive job market, having business experience, a valuable network, or demonstrated experience will go a long way in differentiating themselves.
Lisa Sparks is happy to answer questions and can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Lisa can also arrange class sit-ins and tours at UB Law for those interested.Tags: 2017, Newsletter, November, pre-law