Constructing a Career

How John Warren went from sweeping construction sites to representing builders in court

Published in 2017 Texas Rising Stars — April 2017

It started with Lego.

Construction attorney John Warren’s career path may have been set from an early age, when a childhood fascination with building blocks and backyard forts gave way to horse barns and more complicated projects. 

“I’ve built stuff all my life,” says Warren, whose mother and father worked in real estate and engineering, respectively. “My dad and I built a lot of things together, and any time we’d build anything, we’d sit down at the kitchen table and draw up plans to actually see how things would work. Then we’d go out and implement those plans.”

As an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin, Warren majored in architectural engineering. His father arranged a summer job for him in Houston with a local homebuilder, and Warren started at the bottom, sweeping out attics and garages. He parlayed this experience into summer gigs in Austin with a general contractor whose high-end, architecturally cutting-edge projects benefited from the city’s tech boom in the early 2000s. 

By the time Warren graduated in 2002, he was able to stay on as a project manager. “There were a lot of owners that were environmentally conscious and thinking outside the box, and I got to get involved with some really cool projects,” Warren says. “I did residential construction on a commercial scale. We were doing multimillion-dollar projects, some of which had construction schedules of three to 3 ½ years.”

Warren liked the detail-oriented nature of managing such complex projects, and spending a good deal of his time outside on construction sites appealed to him. Over the years, he became more familiar with the variety of legal issues that inevitably popped up on such complicated projects. “Design issues, change orders, delays, unforeseen site conditions; and, of course, payment disputes were commonplace,” says Warren. He began to consider branching out into the legal field as a way to expand his construction career. “I took the leap.”

In 2008, Warren graduated from St. Mary’s University School of Law and joined Cokinos, Bosien & Young, a Houston firm known for its construction litigation and where Warren had clerked as a law student.

“I didn’t go to law school to be a personal injury lawyer or do wills and estates,” says Warren. Still, the transition from construction site to courtroom had its challenges. “In the engineering world, everything was exact, down to the fourth decimal point. In law, there’s a lot more gray.”

The first case he handled on his own, however, was fairly black and white. Warren represented the owner of a lumber mill in East Texas who was being sued for overcutting timber across his neighbor’s property line. He dove into a review of the documents.

He realized after examining the cut tickets and trucking invoices that the documents dated back several years, which barred the claim because of a statute of limitations. He submitted the documents along with an affidavit and filed a motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff’s lawyer called him the following day to say the case was being dismissed. “Just like that, I got my first win,” he says, laughing. “Unfortunately, since then, they haven’t all been that easy.”

These days, he often finds himself dealing with the “hairier” issues that go hand in hand with the more involved cases he relishes, such as industrial projects, pipeline cases, and construction disputes related to airports, hospitals and schools. And while his familiarity with every phase of the construction process clearly gives him an advantage, as an attorney Warren still has to contend with the “real-world challenges” of construction.

“Details are often verbal. A lot of things are decided on or agreed upon in the field or on the phone or based on a handshake, so they’re not perfectly clear and in documents,” he says. “Most of the time that would be fine, except when it’s not.” 

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