From Construction Apprentice to Construction Attorney: An Interview with Adjunct Professor Joseph Bucci

Juris Magazine’s Samantha Cook sat down with Joe Bucci, Adjunct Professor of the new Contract Drafting Simulation course, in December 2018 to discuss his unique educational and professional background that led to his career as a construction attorney. 

Some portions of the following interview have been edited or omitted for clarity.


Samantha Cook: Could you tell me a little bit about your background and how you ended up in construction law?

Joe Bucci: I started working in the construction industry as a Steamfitter, so I worked with the tools in the field. I would work in the day, and in the evenings, I would go to the apprentice training program. The unions had an apprenticeship program, so you would go to school a couple of nights a week [to] learn welding and the technical aspects of the trade, but during the day from 8AM ‘til 4:30, you worked with the tools in the field, you know, getting dirty. So, I worked in the field, and then I went to school at night for the apprenticeship training program, but at the same time I was finishing my undergraduate. I had completed my first two years of undergraduate in day school at Duquesne as a day student, but then I became married and had a child, so I had to work, full-time to support my family.  I went to work in construction and I tried to continue my education concurrently. I did it at night, but it took about five years to finish the last two [years]. By the time I finished my undergrad, I was also finishing my [apprenticeship] in the Steamfitters Union. So, I became a journeyman Steamfitter and worked in the field, but I also had my bachelor’s degree, so I wanted to use my education as opposed to my back.

From the field, I went to work in a construction company, inside the office.  The company was called Mellon-Stuart Company. [It] was founded, in 1903 and lasted until maybe the 1990’s. It was an offshoot of one of the Mellon family sons, and it was a very large, successful construction company for many, many years. It built the Gulf Building, PPG Place, Fifth Avenue Place, CNG Tower, Liberty Center, among others. When I went from the field to the office, I learned estimating, project engineering, project management, contracts, subcontracting – I really learned the construction industry from the office end and from the management end.

While at Mellon-Stuart, I could see how the legal aspects of the industry were so prevalent. I had always wanted to go to law school, but because I got married young and had a child young, I thought that was a foregone conclusion. But Mellon-Stuart had a continuing education program, so I applied for continuing education. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to go to law school.  The President, David Figgins said, “That’s great!” They had plenty of people who had master’s degrees, they didn’t need any more master’s degrees, so they said, “Go to law school.” So, I went to law school.

I worked for Mellon-Stuart maybe 50-60 hours a week, then each evening I went to Duquesne for the [four-year evening program]. When I finished law school and passed the bar, I stayed with Mellon-Stuart working as in-house counsel. I soon realized that there really was a need for construction attorneys in the law firm setting. I wanted to actually learn the legal trade from a law firm perspective, so I then started to work with law firms that had a practice in construction, engineering, [architecture], or real estate development – and that’s what I’ve done ever since. I know the business from the ground up, and that’s my marketing slogan to our clients: “Here’s someone who knows your business inside-out.” The clients like it when you’ve been in the industry and your hands got dirty.

SC: So your work experience prior to starting law school has benefitted your career?

JB: Tremendously. If you know the industry that you practice law in, you are much more effective. You need to understand the factual and the technical aspects of whatever area you practice. You need to really understand what’s going on. If you know what’s going on from a technical, factual standpoint, then you can apply law to the facts. It also helps because you know the mindsets of the people in the industry. I can talk to the man in the field who’s working with the tools; I can talk to the owner of the company; and I can talk to everyone in between, and I know exactly what to ask them. I know exactly what their roles are and the information they can provide. It makes it easier to navigate the legal issues and formulate a legal strategy when you know the industry.

SC: You’re teaching a brand-new contract drafting simulation course. What made you want to teach that course?

JB: I wanted to teach. I like to teach. I think I’m a patient person, so I’m always interested in teaching, and I think I can relate down to the students’ level. I can communicate the knowledge I have in a way that they can grasp. I think it’s a natural instinct to want to teach and help others. Not that I’m special or have any great gift, but it’s rewarding to be able to teach others and help them with their career and help provide guidance that you may not have received otherwise. A lot of times I didn’t have guidance in my career, so I’m just trying to communicate from my perspective, because you know, everyone’s perspective is different. The way that I went through my career, and I was able to become an attorney, is much different than a lot of other people. I would have preferred to teach a construction law, or engineering law, or real estate development law course, but this course came up and I was happy to have the opportunity! Of course, from my perspective, I was going to lean on the construction industry. I think the construction industry is well-suited for a simulation course because we deal with a lot of agreements, a lot of documents, and they’re very interesting. They go over a wide range of subject matter. I thought that I could use real-life experiences with the students and explain to the students what really happens in the business world and what you may be faced with as a young attorney. That’s kind of the focus of the simulation course – to introduce the students to real-world experiences and treat them as first year associates. Not so much in an academic setting, but in a practical setting.

SC: Have you seen any changes to the legal field or the types of legal jobs since you started practicing? Or [any changes] to the way law school works since you attended?

JB: Being back at law school is refreshing. The students and their energy and their knowledge is very refreshing. The legal community changes every year. Law firms change, the composition of law firms has changed greatly. More practitioners are going on their own or going to smaller firms. Larger firms are falling by the wayside because they’re dinosaurs. Many law firms try to change, but they really can’t change. Unfortunately, the focus always remains on the economics of the legal industry. In law firms, the bottom line counts.

SC: What are some of the most common mistakes you see young attorneys make as they enter the firm?

JB: Maybe being overly self-confident. Not dedicating the time and effort that young attorneys should dedicate to their career. The law firm environment was much colder in the past. It’s now much warmer and much more people-friendly. It’s much more congenial. The focus is still on production, the focus will always be on production and billable hours, generating revenue and serving clients, but it’s a different environment today. In the past, there was no flexibility. There was no concept of working from home. Of course, you didn’t have the electronics that you have today. It was a much more disciplined environment. You were expected to be there early in the morning; you were expected to stay there late at night. You were expected to be there one day on the weekend. Your physical presence was expected. So, it wasn’t so much a lenient environment where the partner would say, “Well, as long as they get the work done, we don’t care if they do it from the office or from home.” They did care. In the past, they cared very much and you knew as a young attorney that it mattered.

SC: It’s a nice option now.

JB: Correct! It’s more flexible, but I will tell you that I really think it’s better for young attorneys to spend time in the office, to spend time in the Firm, and to spend time with their colleagues. It’s that interaction that leads to development and professional growth. You can’t grow in a vacuum. It’s good to have that personal interaction. It’s good to have that camaraderie if it can be achieved. It’s good to be able to walk down the hall and ask someone a question, “What do you think about this? What’s your approach to this? Have you ever done this before?” Those types of interpersonal interactions save a lot of time and provide you with insights that allow greater productivity.

SC: Did you have a mentor or anybody who helped guide you as you were making all of your decisions through your education and early professional years?

JB: No, not really. I was kind of isolated. My father was an immigrant, so he had no education. He had a difficult time with the language here, so you know, he couldn’t provide any guidance. His only guidance was, “Go to school, study, and work.” I didn’t have any relatives who were attorneys. A lot of the people in my class had family members who were attorneys, so I really had no guidance other than what I could learn on my own.

SC: I’ll leave it with this: Do you have any other advice for law students?

JB: I guess, just take your career seriously. Take your profession very seriously. Dedicate the time that’s required. Make sacrifices early in your career. Learn as much as you can from whatever source, and master your trade. Master your profession. Be very diligent. Be focused on quality control. Don’t try to do things fast. Put extra time in if extra time is needed. Don’t watch the clock all the time. Consider value to the client, you know, always consider, “Are you delivering value to the client? And at what cost?” Build trust with your clients and go the extra mile for them.  Treat your client’s matters as your own.  I think those things would serve you well.


Joe Bucci was formerly an Evening Articles Editor for Juris Magazine. To view one of his publications, click here: Juris 1989 Issue 1 Volume 22.





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