Richard H. Steen’s mix of strengths makes him a powerhouse at the negotiating table
Published in 2012 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine on March 16, 2012
Q: What drew you to the law?
A: One of my uncles was a lawyer—he was a law professor—and I had an interest, which really developed through high school and college, in social issues and legal issues. My undergraduate work was in engineering, which is nothing like the law, but as I got to be maybe a junior or so, my thoughts turned to staying in school, and law [was] something that interested me. I decided that I wanted to take a shot. I had a passing interest in politics as well. I thought law would be a good opportunity to explore some of the things that were happening in the ’60s and ’70s. I thought I could be useful [by] making a difference. Our conversation over coffee between classes at law school was what was going on with the Watergate situation, which was a fascinating way to spend your time. It was a genuine constitutional crisis in the making.
Q: Your interest in politics showed up early in your career.
A: I was a [state] legislative aide staff attorney.
Q: And when you left state government?
A: I started lobbying for the state bar association. I joined the staff as their legislative counsel in the late ’70s, having been in state government and seen the way the legislative process worked and laws were passed and legislation was influenced, and listened to some lobbyists as a staff person. Switching hats, if you will, working for the interests of lawyers and for the bar association … I enjoyed that very much. Lawyers in general probably have the broadest range of interests in legislation. We were involved in an awful lot of different topics, obviously affecting different substantive areas of the law. In addition to advocating on issues that affected lawyers, we were able to assist the Legislature from a technical point of view, and provide them with insight into the effects of proposed legislation.
Q: Can you give an example?
A: One of the issues we spent a lot of time on was the then-evolving concept of no-fault automobile insurance. Our civil trial bar section had a very strong legislative presence in making sure that the rights of injured victims were protected. We were on the other side from the insurance companies and tried to seek legislation in the face of what was a relatively new concept of no-fault automobile insurance. The no-fault concept included some limitations on the right to sue, and we were trying to minimize those limitations. The other side of that component was the medical payments for injured victims. We were generally successful. It’s always a tug-of-war between the representatives of the insurance industry and the representatives of the bar in terms of what those legislative changes look like.
Q: How long did you work as bar lobbyist?
A: About 4, 4 ½ years.
Q: Where did you go next?
A: I went in-house with an engineering and construction firm, where I spent almost the next 20 years dealing with what, at the time, was a relatively new, emerging area of law called construction law. Because of my engineering background, I had some ability to appreciate not only the legal issues that were involved, but some of the technical and engineering and architectural errors-and-omissions issues that come up during the course of some construction projects.
Q: Did you enjoy getting back to engineering?
A: I did. It was certainly not a public policy kind of position anymore, but it was something that I had been interested in. Really, the parts of my career that I’ve found most interesting were involvement in two evolving areas of the law: one being construction law and the other being alternative dispute resolution. The timing of what I decided to do in terms of a career and the evolution and growth of those two practice areas coincided quite nicely.
Q: How did alternative dispute resolution come into the picture?
A: The construction industry was one that was fairly far ahead … in [finding] ways to resolve disputes without having to go to litigation. The industry had been using binding arbitration for probably a hundred years or more. Many of the construction contracts had arbitration clauses in them, so that if a dispute couldn’t be negotiated, there would be binding arbitration in front of an industry expert, as opposed to a traditional litigation format with all of the discovery and then [presenting] frequently complicated technical issues to either a judge or a lay jury. In 1981, I started serving as an arbitrator.
Q: And at some point, the industry began to embrace mediation.
A: This was client-driven, largely. Arbitration was fairly well-established; the construction industry in the mid- to late-’80s turned to mediation … to try to resolve things in a way that didn’t rise to the level of binding arbitration. There was an interest in the industry in moving the dispute resolution process back in time so things could be done quicker. If you’re in the middle of trying to build a construction project and the parties get into a major dispute, one of the concerns certainly is that that dispute is going to overshadow getting the project done. So the consideration of time and cost for construction was [such] that the industry … [looked at] using people who had substantive knowledge to try to assist the parties in negotiating. Mediation was a process that, in many cases, was able to bring parties together a lot more quickly. Parties maintain control of the outcome—unlike arbitration or litigation where you turn the decision over to someone else.
Q: With the shift toward ADR, are you concerned about the decrease in trials?
A: The ABA has decried, and the statistics certainly show, that the number of trials is dwindling, markedly so in some jurisdictions. That is a concern from a number of different points of view. An example is [that trials are] proving grounds for young lawyers to get experience. There certainly are matters that can be resolved short of trial and other matters that have to be tried, and should be tried, not only for the merits of that particular case, but also in terms of having an evolution of the substantive law and having precedent to guide other parties in the future. So I think there is always a place for trials and there is always a place for looking at whether a particular matter can be resolved short of trial.
Q: How is the construction industry faring during the recession?
A: I’m hearing complaints from clients all the time. As is the case in most of the country and many parts of the world, the [New Jersey] construction industry is being very, very impacted by the downturn in the economy. Private commercial construction; residential construction have slowed way down. There are some public infrastructure projects that are going on, but many, many people in the industry are hard-pressed to find work in New Jersey and elsewhere. During my 30 years we’ve had a couple of economic downturns, but it seems to me this one is lasting longer and the bounce-back hasn’t happened yet.
Q: Has that affected construction lawyers?
A: All of the attorneys will tell you it’s harder to get clients what they want; it’s harder to get paid by clients, so I think it’s kind of across the board, and a lot of other practice areas are similarly affected. Bankruptcy is doing well. In construction, the one area that seems to be doing very well is the idea of alternative energy and green technology; that’s a busy area in terms of practice and in terms of actual construction going on.
Q: Why is mediation so strong in New Jersey?
A: One of our Supreme Court justices, Marie Garibaldi—she was the president of the state bar association when she was appointed to the court—she took it upon herself in the ’80s into the early ’90s to take charge of the Supreme Court committee that was charged by the chief justice with looking at and developing alternative dispute resolution programs. She was interested enough in the subject to really keep up with the pulse nationally in the evolution of these programs. She was the chair of the Supreme Court committee for many years, and I had the pleasure of serving on that committee for most of the time that she was chair. This was something that our court saw value in and was out-front on.
Q: You were state bar president in 2010 to 2011. What was that like?
A: It was a lot of fun. Probably one of the highlights of my year as president was to go all over the state of New Jersey and talk to lawyers in different areas—geographic areas and substantive-practice areas. It really reinforced to me that people who are lawyers in New Jersey are a group of genuinely caring, concerned, active, interested and collegial people.
Q: How has the law changed in your area of expertise?
A: My practice area, construction law, has kind of become a distinct area. It’s really evolved into a specialty, and certainly alternative dispute resolution has done the same thing. I was active in the state court committee that deals with the court-annexed ADR programs. We were able to establish in New Jersey a mediation program for cases in court. Between the time the complaint’s filed and the case gets to trial, there’s some mediation oportunity. We were relatively advanced; we have a national reputation for our mediation program, and a number of our other court-annexed dispute resolution programs have been of great interest in a number of other states.
Q: Have things changed over the years for law school graduates?
A: Yes, it is a very different world. My career path … wasn’t the traditional path. Around 2000, I decided to move from the corporate world [and] I opened a solo practice. I was primarily concentrating on the combination of construction law and alternative dispute resolution. One of the programs that we started at the state bar association when the problems with the economy hit was a program for lawyers who were starting their own practices. Those were either students coming out of law school—new graduates who were not able to achieve employment in the law—or people who had been in the law and suddenly found themselves available to start their own practices. The bar association was very responsive in trying to provide resources to attorneys who were starting out on their own, who may be a new attorney or may have … found themselves out of a job. The employment scene over the last three years for attorneys has been abysmal. I think when it struck me was … up until three years ago, you were pretty much guaranteed that if you got a [judicial] clerkship, at the end of that clerkship you would find employment with a law firm, probably in the part of the state where you had your clerkship. But even the law clerks—many of them, I think, over the last three years have not had job offers when their clerkships have been over.
Q: What advice would you offer would-be attorneys?
A: It’s really a matter of persevering. Work hard in school; there’s still a large relationship between your class standing and your opportunities for employment afterward. One of the things I have told students is to make sure they take advantage of the clinical opportunities … to really learn about practicing law. I saw a headline somewhere in the last few days to the effect of “Why law schools don’t teach you how to be a lawyer.” I think there’s a general recognition that the practical [side] of practicing law is not something that law schools tend to spend a lot of time dealing with. But the clinical programs are certainly one area where you get a chance to work with clients and get up on your feet in front of judges and really learn how to be a lawyer. Those clinical opportunities in law school are very important—not only as experience that’s marketable when you get out, but it’s also experience you have if you end up opening your own practice.
Q: Would you still advise young people to go into law?
A: I would still recommend law as a career. I would not have done anything differently. It would have been a lot more stressful doing it now. I’m sure anybody who’s a grown-up would say it would be more stressful to do it all over again in this atmosphere than it was in the ’70s. It has to be something that interests you. I think it’s one of the most rewarding—from a lot of points of view—and one of the most flexible educations; and it’s a career that offers you a great deal of flexibility in terms of the kinds of things that you can be interested in and the difference you can make.