Kara Vague (MConstrLaw 2006)

5 March 2014

Kara Vague won the Tom Yuncken Young Construction Lawyer Award in 2014. Kara, who is a Senior Fellow in the Melbourne Law Masters, talks about the award and how she fell in love with law – and large-scale infrastructure.

How do you feel about winning the Young Construction Lawyer Award?

I'm extremely honoured and very proud. It means a lot to me to be recognised not only by my peers but also by the Law Council of Australia. The person who the award honours, Tom Yuncken, and the amazing colleagues of mine that have also been awarded it in the past – it's just lovely to be recognised as part of that group. To join their ranks, it's a great honour.

What attracted you to law?

I never wanted to be a lawyer. Law was something I saw as a complementary field I could take through my career. But I started to do a Law/Commerce degree and I very quickly fell in love with law. I dropped the Commerce, went on to my Master in Construction Law and never looked back. I am not a courtroom lawyer … I love the negotiations. I enjoy reading. I enjoy solving problems. And I also think that law is a great career as you can really make a difference in some ways. You can work on transactions and then turn a corner one day and there's a building that you've worked on – I love that. I look out on the skyline and think, "I worked on that", "I worked on that", "I worked on that" …

How did law and construction come together for you?

When I was studying, I was working in an architectural firm and I looked after all their legal matters while I was doing the law degree and I just loved it. I worked with superintendents who were administering construction contracts, which was great exposure, and I also managed their legal affairs in terms of litigation. I've gone on to be a front-end lawyer – which means that I negotiate contracts and assist with the administration of them rather than the contentious and litigious side – but it's great to have had that exposure when I was at Bruce Henderson Architects. Because, in a way, I was in the tent so I could see how things worked behind the scenes before I jumped onto the scene.

Why did you make the decision to undertake a Master of Construction Law?

With the Master of Construction Law, I felt I would be able to get the experience, understanding and knowledge that I needed in order to be qualified in that area. A highlight was the calibre of the people who take the courses: the students, the leading professionals. But even being someone who was junior when they started their Masters, I still felt I could bring something to the table because you're the person who is questioning: "But why do you do it like that?" It's a great mix, it really is. It's one of the best things about it.

What do you enjoy about working as a front-end construction lawyer?

My job is different every day. If I've seen the contract before, the project will be different. If the project is similar, the people will be different. I enjoy the challenge of having a look-forward test and trying to make people really think about what we can do in the future in order to minimise disputes. And that's what I like about lecturing with the Melbourne Law Masters as well. The more people you can assist to better their careers and arm with the tools they need, the better we are as an industry as a whole.

You've worked on negotiations for some major projects in your career, including the Gold Coast Rapid Transit PPP, a $285 million rail fleet maintenance contract with the PTA and a $200 million installation and maintenance contract with Foxtel. What interests you about working on these large-scale infrastructure projects?

The bigger they are, the more I love them! The larger the projects, the more interfaces are involved and the greater the number of different stakeholders. The more complicated the issues tend to be, the more there is to consider. There's also a lot at stake in terms of the project's success. With large infrastructure you can be building a hospital, building a road – the projects are always interesting and different. There's a lot to consider about how you build a project, there's a lot of people involved, there's a lot of money. It's complicated. And my job – the people that are involved in negotiation – is to build the best outcome. So it's very interesting.

How important is it to understand the perspectives of the construction industry professionals you work so closely with?

The thing that I really try to drive when I'm negotiating is that I don't like the term "competitor". When I'm sitting across the table, I like to see people as my colleagues. So the better the knowledge that my colleagues have, the easier the negotiations are because we are all on the same page. So I like to try to improve that knowledge. I also try to assist those involved in these transactions to have a greater understanding because they have come from different backgrounds. I've worked with a lot of different negotiation styles, different personalities, and sometimes it's about the people rather than the actual project.

What's it like stepping out of that commercial world into an academic space?

I think it's really important to go from the commercial world into the academic because when you do that, you're really strengthening the tools which you then need when you're back working with your commercial hat on. However, you can know all the principles, all the legal tricks, but it's so important to then be commercially savvy and practical. Because you can have the best contractual regime but if the people you're dealing with don't want to use that contractual regime, then it can be technically and legally perfect but have zero value.

How do your students find learning from someone with that link to the commercial world?

There's nothing like a war story to teach your class! I always try to engage with the class and ask if anyone has an example where something has or hasn't worked. You'll find interest level increases when you have a story.

What are you learning from the upcoming generation of students?

The law is often about precedent: precedence in terms of the contracts we use or precedence in terms of the common law decisions that have been handed down. I think the generation of students we have coming through now don't just accept the precedent of what's been done in the past. You get asked a lot now: "But why?", "But how?" And I think that is such a great learning tool: to really stop and look and understand why things are the way that they are and the way they should be going forward.

The Tom Yuncken Young Construction Lawyer Award (Victoria) recognises excellence in the field of construction law and practice. It is sponsored by the Law Council of Australia in memory of the late Tom Yuncken (BA(Hons)/ LLB(Hons) 1972).