Finding an agreement point in the midst of conflict

by Heleigh Bostwick

sandy_feadIn 2006, lawyer Sandy Fead combined his law background and his experience in real estate and construction and formed Fead Construction Law. His South Burlington firm (which has a satellite office in Waterbury) specializes in helping resolve conflicts among parties involved in construction projects.

Since my Dartmouth days I’ve always wanted to live in Vermont,” says New Jersey native William Alexander “Sandy” Fead. But in 1970, after earning his bachelor of arts in psychology from Dartmouth, Fead returned to New Jersey to study law at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, obtaining his J.D. in 1973.

It would be nearly a decade before Fead, now the principal of Fead Construction Law in South Burlington, made his way back north.

“While I was a third-year law student I started working for a two-lawyer partnership in Chester [N.J.],” he recalls. After graduation, Fead joined the firm as a partner.

“It was a small-town general practice law firm and I did everything that the other two guys didn’t want to do,” he says, laughing.

When the gas crisis hit in 1977, the work dried up. Fead started working in the New Jersey appellate court as a research lawyer. Although he enjoyed doing the research, he left after three years. “I wasn’t actually helping people,” he says. “I wanted to have clients.

“I became a lawyer to help people,” he continues. “It’s why I worked for a small firm to begin with. I liked the intimate relationship with clients and the ‘do good’ feeling. It was the 1970s, after all.”

He found work with a six-lawyer litigation firm in Trenton whose primary client was the teachers’ union, but he didn’t find it really rewarding, either, and only stayed a year. “It was more institutional law than representing individuals,” he says.

He joined a solo practitioner in Pennington, N.J. “It was very interesting work,” he recalled. “One of my first challenges was to turn the MasterCard agreement into plain language. I was representing divorce clients, wills and estates, and a lot of real estate including foreclosures for the bank and bankruptcy — very broad kinds of things.”

He enjoyed the work, but Fead still dreamed of moving to Vermont.

“My former wife said she was tired of hearing me say, ‘Someday I’m moving to Vermont,’ so I ran an ad in The Burlington Free Press: ‘New Jersey lawyer wants to be a Vermont lawyer.’” He says with a laugh.

He received three responses to the ad, but only one had any work for him. Nonetheless he moved to Vermont and on Aug. 1, 1982, went to work for William E. Mikell, a recently retired judge in Burlington.

“He was coming back into general practice and introduced me to the very different style of real estate practice here,” says Fead, who worked with Mikell for another six months, until the work dried up at the conclusion of a major trial.

fead_stacey-MisenkoStacey Misenko, associate attorney, works on a broad range of matters in corporate, construction, and administrative law.

He decided to set out on his own and opened “a little office over the Hathaway shirt store on Church Street.”

It wasn’t long before Fead was snapped up by a small firm in Essex. when he was offered a position by the firm of an opposing counsel. “They offered me a position and I took them up on it,” he says.

The practice broke up after less than a year, however, but one of the firm’s lawyers introduced Fead to James Pizzagalli, who interviewed him for a job as the general counsel for Pizzagalli Construction Co. and its associated real estate entities.

Explaining that he had started out as an engineering major at Dartmouth, he says, “Until then, I had represented all of the different parties in litigation, I knew a lot about real estate, and I did have my beginning background in engineering so I was very comfortable, but it turned out I didn’t know much at all.”

He was hired. It was 1987 and he was there for eight years, before leaving to join Paul Frank + Collins in 1995. “The first two years I was Of Counsel, which means I was formally associated with the firm, but not yet part of the administrative structure,” he says. “Then I was made a partner.”

In 2006, he founded Fead Construction Law. “Construction is an imperfect activity that involves a joint enterprise with all parties having different goals, backgrounds, educations, and assumptions,” says Fead. “I view my role as helping them find their way through all those differences to be able to end up with a project that is beneficial to everyone.”

Don Stewart, president of Stewart Construction in Essex Junction, has worked with Fead since 2007. “Sandy is incredibly knowledgeable in construction law,” he says. “He’s ingenious in developing a plan and approach for working out unresolved issues.”

Headquartered in South Burlington, the company recently moved to the East O’Lake House in Lakewood Commons on Shelburne Road. There’s also a satellite office in Waterbury. “We have clients from all over the state. It’s a central location,” he explains.

Three other lawyers and two support staff round out the six-person firm. David Bond is the firm’s senior lawyer. “He’s a litigation lawyer specializing in converting the details and complexity of paperwork into something understandable by non-professionals,” says Fead.

fead_Darren-MisenkoDarren Misenko, an associate attorney with the firm for four years, has a family background in construction.

Darren Misenko has been with the firm for four years and combines technical knowledge of construction and construction company operations with legal knowledge. “He grew up in a family of contractors and worked for the family company before — and after — he went to Vermont Law School,” says Fead.

Stacey Misenko has been with the firm for over two years, and is married to Darren. “Stacey works on a broad range of matters in corporate, construction, and administrative law while handling a lot of the everyday legal needs of corporate clients,” says Fead.

Karen Breen is the financial manager and has been working at Fead for over five years. Eileen Bradford, the legal assistant and office administrator, has been with the firm for more than three years.

Most of Fead’s clients are what he refers to as “owner-clients” and range from owners of construction projects, commercial buildings, and high-end homes to school districts,” he says. “I also represent 15 or 16 general contractors on an ongoing basis in the fields of building construction and heavy construction of roads and bridges, utilities, dams, water treatment plants, and major excavation projects.”

“Sandy has been a colleague for more than 20 years,” says Tom Chase, CEO at Neagley & Chase Construction Company in South Burlington. “He is a very personable professional to work with, fair-minded, and very well educated in all areas of construction law. He’s always willing to do extra research so that his clients have the best legal basis for decisions.”

Much of Fead’s work involves preparing and reviewing contracts, and negotiating. “During the course of construction projects, ‘stuff’ happens, so I do a lot of negotiating relating to that,” he says, explaining that these might include charges of safety violations, personnel issues, and disputes relating to the construction process itself. He also represents parties on commercial real estate transactions of purchase-and-sale and leasing.

“What is unique about construction disputes is that, unlike a car accident that happens in a matter of minutes, they involve a long relationship that may be months or even years long,” Fead says. “It’s almost never the case that there is only one issue. Often things are gray and it’s a matter of who is responsible and how much is it going to cost.”

He notes that an important role of an attorney is to help parties resolve cases without having legal fees exceed cost of project, and it’s one of the reasons he doesn’t focus on small residential clients.

“The transactional costs — legal fees and lawsuits — make it impractical, so we are big fans of alternate dispute negotiation,” he says. “My principal involvement in residential disputes is as an arbitrator or mediator. It’s a way to reach a decision that is less expensive than court.”

He’s looking forward to increasing his private commercial work as the economy opens up and would be happy to expand the firm. As for his long-term plans, his great hope is that his teammates will continue. “There will come a time when I retire, but certainly not in the next five years,” he adds.

Since 2010, Fead has been included in four categories in Best Lawyers in America, the U.S. News & World Report directory of top attorneys: arbitration, mediation, construction law, and litigation-construction. He was also named the Best Lawyers 2013 and 2014 Burlington Lawyer of the Year for Construction Litigation.

In 1985, He married Christine Baruc, whom he met at an est seminar. They live in South Burlington where Christine runs Golden Sun Healing, teaching meditation. Their son, Andrew, age 25, is studying software engineering at Vermont Technical College in Williston.

Their daughter, Siri Thornton-Baruc, and her husband and son live in West Hollywood, Calif., where she is an actress, Arbonne consultant, and Reiki practitioner.

“One of my hobbies is helping Christine with her business,” says Fead, who also operates a small nonprofit with his best friend, William Warnock, N.D., providing wilderness whitewater canoe trips, and is a certified whitewater rescue technician.

“When I go to cocktail parties and say I’m a lawyer, it’s boring,” he says, chuckling. “So I talk about my hobbies. It’s much more interesting.” •