Still building on a long career in law


PROFILE:Max Abrahamson, construction lawyer

MAX ABRAHAMSON has been described as one of the most experienced construction lawyers in the world.

He now works as a consultant with McCann FitzGerald, but over his 50 years as a solicitor he has run his own specialist firm, consulted in 65 countries and advised on projects ranging from the Bahrain Causeway to EuroDisney.

He has also lectured in King’s College London, Trinity and in China, while “the Abrahamson principles” – named for a theory he devised to allocate risk in construction contracts – have become a widely-used philosophy worldwide.

And yet, even with such an illustrious résumé, he remains forward-looking and hugely interested in the development of his profession.

“My view is that we’ve got to integrate the legal profession both horizontally and vertically,” he says. By vertical integration, he simply means considering what can be done at each stage of a transaction or project, starting with contracts, to prevent disputes from arising later. If “the worst comes to the worst” and a conflict does arise, that’s when horizontal integration becomes important, in that the various methods of dispute resolution – from the courts to arbitration, mediation and conciliation – need to be joined up.

“What we need to do is consider what is the best way to resolve disputes. We’ve got to take into very serious account the cost and the enormous stress . As a lawyer, you tend to very easily forget that. You get used to going into court, but for the rest of the people involved the stress can be appalling,” he says.

He believes that at the moment, the way in which disputes are resolved is set up largely to suit the legal profession, when it should be the other way around.

He also believes an extremely valuable opportunity for the reform of the Irish legal profession currently exists.

“What you have at the moment is a Minister who is prepared to push the legal profession, and you rarely have major legal reforms without a very strong push from someone or somewhere, whether from the public or politicians. This is an opportunity which, if we lose, we’re not going to get again for a long time,” he says.

One of the big changes he has observed over the years in law is a shift towards a more adversarial approach. When he started out in the profession, the two solicitors on the opposite sides of a case would “speak frankly” to each other and try to sort things out through a conciliatory sort of approach. “That has tended to go. “We now have a great emphasis on everything being adversarial.”

He believes this attitude has also seeped into broadcast media, where the idea of a forensic interview has become prevalent. This type of aggressive approach is “not cross-examination”, he says.

“I would hate the idea that lawyers only have one weapon and one expertise and that’s being adversarial,” he says.

“We should be as good at settling things and facilitating things as we are at fighting.”

Abrahamson hails from Dublin’s Jewish community, which has contributed numerous solicitors, barristers and judges to Ireland’s legal system.

His grandfather was born in Russia and emigrated to Ireland around 1900.

His father became a distinguished physician, and Maurice, Max’s elder brother, was called to the bar but spent his career in stockbroking, and was considered a pillar of the financial world.

So how did Abrahamson wind up becoming such an eminent construction and arbitration lawyer?

“Complete luck,” he says. He entered Trinity in 1949 and from the first day of studying law he was interested not just in the academic side, but also how law worked in reality (or “the muddy side” as he calls it), which explains why engineering law appealed. A year or so after graduating, thanks to the support of two professors at the college, he won a hotly-contested race for a lecturing position in Trinity.

While lecturing, he was also attempting to build his own practice. “The practice was not hugely time-consuming for the basic reason of a lack of clients. Those were pretty soul-destroying days in the 1950s. Ireland wasn’t in a slump – you couldn’t call it that because we didn’t have a boom.”

He went on to write what is now a famous construction law textbook, began to have “a lot of luck” and started to travel for work, getting his boots muddy at engineering offices and sites around the world where he advised on projects like bridges, tunnels and pipelines. It was this international work that carried him through the tough times of the 1980s.

Abrahamson’s conversation is is peppered with anecdotes and great humour. When asked if he has any plans for retirement, he answers with one of his favourite jokes: An old convict appears for sentencing before a judge. He’s been up many times before and the judge sentences him to 25 years in jail. The convict says “I’m 70. I’ll never be able to do it”, to which the judge replies “Well, do the best you can.”