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  • Mac Dodds

Aileen Leipprandt, Partner at Hilger Hammond: Women Who Build West Michigan

Our next interviewee was Aileen Leipprandt, a partner at Hilger Hammond. Aileen has been a lawyer for more than 30 years and it was awesome to talk to about her career outlook from her perspective. Aileen was full of knowledge and has interesting insight into what construction lawyers do and how the law coincides with our work. We will continue to highlight many roles in the construction industry to better understand that the opportunities are endless. Enjoy!

Woman in a suit holding a hammer standing in front of her law firm

How did you become a lawyer? What did that process look like?

After graduating from college, I had some decisions to make. I could pursue the business world and get an MBA or a legal degree. I considered a joint program but those were expensive. Business was always intriguing, but so was law. So, I went to Bloomington, IN and saw it was a beautiful community and fun basketball town! This had me choosing a JD (Juris Doctor) program at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Tell me about the work you do.

The mission is to counsel the client through whatever the crisis is. Oftentimes there has been an injury or emergency on a job site, causing the client I’m working with to be upset or distraught. My job is to stand next to them and help guide them through the legal process. This can include next steps internally, what they can anticipate and how to plan for what comes next. I also get calls about disagreements when it comes to a construction project. Our clients ask what we can do to help resolve the issue. I do my best to help to find a solution, counsel them through the situation, and equip our clients with the tools necessary to handle their circumstances on their own.

Did you envision yourself becoming a lawyer growing up?

I always knew I wanted an advanced degree, but I had to sort out which direction I wanted to go. I enjoyed the business world and management and had a business emphasis in my undergraduate. I was also a strong writer, and my college advisor said you really should look at law school. So, I did, and here I am now.

Tell me more about Hilger Hammond and how your role connects to the construction industry.

Hilger Hammond, is a boutique law firm established 15 years ago when the chairs of various construction law departments in West Michigan got together, started by Steve Hilger, then joined by Ben Hammond and eventually me. This way we could bring all our construction law expertise together since we all came from big law firms wanting to start something special. From there we took off, starting with three or four lawyers and eventually having 12 lawyers with room to grow. Steve Hilger has been my mentor since we started, and it’s been awesome to work with him directly.

Can you go into more detail about the role you play in the construction aspect of law?

Hilger Hammond does a lot of work in multiple areas such as real estate and business, both in transactional work and litigation largely based on our client’s needs. But construction and the fundamentals of construction law are our area of expertise. From that piece of work, a lot of construction professionals are involved in real estate development, buying, and selling businesses and succession planning, all of which requires, the skills of a business lawyer. To expand, I started at a large litigation firm fresh out of law school. I was mostly involved in litigation disputes on construction projects from high end residential homes with potentially significant alleged construction defects or serious construction site accidents.

If I get a call, it is usually a broad array of topics. These can range from a terrible on-site accident that OSHA is investigating or a delayed project that needs help negotiating a contract/time extension or change. We have been a firm since West Michigan has been a developing, growing, and vibrant community, making it a wonderful place for the construction world to bring their talents to.

What has been your favorite or most rewarding part in your career so far?

Even though I am not a contractor and do not build anything, it’s rewarding to see a building that's constructed and know that you were a part of bringing the parties together on their contract or getting them through the project. I love being able to see a fabulous new asset in the community for everyone to enjoy. That has always interested me, and I take pride in being a small part of that. Overall, I am proud of the construction industry and being able to see what is brought to our local communities. I would say to young people that this is challenging work; there are plenty of thorny issues you must work through.

Would you recommend working in the industry or even construction law?

Definitely. Working in the world of construction will be everlasting. There will be assets that need replacing, buildings that need construction or old assets that need repairing. Construction law is a little more challenging and isn’t always necessarily family friendly. in working with litigation, you can sometimes have a trial or an arbitration dispute resolution where you are working 14 to 18 hours a day. Its cyclical, it is not always the long hours. But I would caution doing your research and understanding the role before choosing whatever you do!

Do you notice any difference in how men and women are treated in the industry?

It’s a great industry for everyone, and not the exclusion of women. The only difference I have seen is that some women feel like they must work a little harder to establish their creditability, even if that is not needed. But in turn I’ve seen a lot of women bring their “A game” so that they’re gaining trust and feeling confident, making them stronger and more independent. I personally have never had a circumstance where the men or women that I deal with were disrespectful, but respect is something you earn. It's also important to acknowledge when you don't know something. Some people don’t want to ask a question because they don't want to look insecure, but I've also seen a woman step up and say, “I don't understand what you just told me.” It's almost like an acknowledgement of being humble and credible.

If you could go back in time to high school. What is one thing you would tell yourself when it comes to your career?

Honestly, take vacations- It’s important. Unfortunately, that’s not the advice I have taken, that is the advice that I give. Try to take some time off to do other things and just carve that time out so that you can bring your fresh self to your family and your profession.

What’s a skill for success in construction that you might not think of?

Business skills are valuable, especially running a business, making it and a job site profitable and understanding how to do billings. The more you understand about the business side of construction, the more successful you will be. Also: be extremely dedicated to the technical side of the work you do. I work with some female expert witnesses and they're just fabulous in, let's say, underground conditions and soil mechanics for example. Those individuals know the intricacies of their field. When I think about your question, being dedicated to being the best at whatever your role is can make you successful in your career.

Any final thoughts, or advice you would like to give?

Try to do what you like. Not what someone tells you, you should do. Do something you’re good at and have an interest in. If you like what you’re doing you’re always going to perform better. Lastly, for young people, connecting with other young people is important. Having a network of other young people who might be experiencing the same thing, and especially for women in construction, is crucial to growing your career. There are several active groups in West Michigan that support women in construction and connecting with those groups support your peer-to-peer network.

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