David Beck made a big career move last year—just how big, he soon learned. In January 2020, Beck became division president for risk management at Clark Construction Group, a major national builder based in Bethesda, Md., with more than 4,000 employees across the U.S. In business since 1906, Clark has grown from a small, local excavator into one of the country’s best-known providers of construction services.
Beck took up his position at Clark shortly before COVID-19 changed life for everyone. We recently reached out to him to learn how his role has evolved since then.
I know your role now is not actually as general counsel but as head of risk management. What is it like to manage insurance claims in a pandemic environment?
Beck: It’s really all I’ve known as a risk manager. The pandemic and the lockdown started after I had been at Clark for only two months. We immediately focused on what we could do to minimize severity and reduce the number of claims. We implemented measures to keep our employees safe while we continued to progress our projects. These measures included staggered shifts, increased spacing of workers, daily health checks, more regular team meetings (via video or other socially distanced methods), and the addition of sanitary stations throughout each project. We also increased supervision. For each job we hired what we call COVID monitors to walk the site and make sure that all workers are socially distanced and observing state and local regulations. With these measures in place and an overall increased focus on safety, we saw a decrease in worker-related claims.
We also continue to focus on non-COVID-related safety measures. For example, we have been focused on hand safety and provided training and improved equipment to protect our workers from injuries to their hands. Water damage mitigation also continues to be a focus for us, which we continue to improve using technology and improved procedures.
The pandemic resulted in new workers compensation and employment regulations. To ensure understanding and compliance with these regulations has required a lot more communication and coordination among the human resources group, legal group, risk management group, and other internal stake holders. We have also strived to increase our communication with our employees and to be transparent as to their rights and benefits.
At this stage, are there still areas where you lack clarity on what the law is going to be or what the regulatory environments are going to be?
Beck: We have a good sense of what the requirements are under the various regulations in the states. That said, the common law aspect of COVID, particularly how insurance might respond to claims arising from COVID, is still new and somewhat in flux. Nonetheless, I think we have a good sense of where the courts will come down on many of the issues.
What does the future at Clark look like after COVID?
Beck: We’re optimistic about the future. Although development slowed in 2020 in many sectors, we saw it pick up by the end of the year. Our pipeline now is as strong as it’s ever been. Part of that is because of jobs that were scheduled to start in 2020 and were pushed by owners to this year. And so we’re in a place where we actually have more in the pipeline than we typically would.
Clark is extremely diversified. That’s been a big advantage to us. Obviously, not a lot of developers are building apartments right now, but that has never been a significant source of our revenue. Fewer developers are building office space, although surprisingly we’ve had a couple of big office space jobs recently come in. But other areas like public infrastructure work have really picked up—roads, bridges, public water improvements, airports. We have a lot of that work coming in the door. We also continue to construct government buildings, schools, and hospitals. One area of growth for Clark is in the warehouse and distribution space, where we have a few ongoing projects and more in the pipeline.
Tell me what you need from outside counsel at this stage of the COVID crisis?
Beck: The legal and regulatory environment changes quickly. What we need from outside counsel is assistance identifying changes in regulations and understanding how those changes impact our business.
We also need help in thinking of creative ways to advance some of our disputes during a time when many courts are closed, and dates have been suspended.
We obviously rely on outside counsel for their expertise and advice in new and unique situations (such as how to operate during a pandemic). [Pillsbury partner] Michael Jaffe has been Clark’s lawyer since the 1970s and has frequently provided needed advice and expertise to deal with unexpected circumstances. Some people at Clark refer to Michael as “the general,” and they’ve seen him almost as an in-house lawyer in a lot of ways because he is relied on so heavily. The joke within Clark is that whenever anyone has an idea, it came from Michael Jaffe. I still pick up the phone probably at least once a week and call Michael, both because he’s a friend, but also to bounce ideas off of him. That kind of relationship with outside counsel is invaluable.
Tell me about your experience of being in-house.
Beck: In a lot of ways, for me, this is really a second career. Heading up the risk group, only a fraction of my time is spent doing legal work. The role is really much more of a business function. And so it’s very different than being at a law firm. I enjoy the business role and the collaboration with insurers, brokers, and project teams in trying to come to terms on products, prices, and coverage, as well as working together to administer the various insurance programs.
The longer I’m here, the more I’m seen as a risk manager and not a lawyer. When I first came over, everyone knew me as outside counsel and frequently came to me with legal questions. As I get more into my role, I seem to be spending less time serving in a lawyer function. But as I think back on the experience and education that being at Pillsbury provided me, I feel like I still carry those skills you need as a lawyer—thinking critically, asking tough questions, and documenting everything.
Despite the differences between my current role and my role at Pillsbury, the law firm environment was a great training ground for how to manage people and a business. I’m well aware that my management style at Clark has been heavily influenced by those that mentored me at Pillsbury.
At times, I miss the work I did at the firm. But mostly, I miss the people. Pillsbury is a group of fantastic lawyers and people that I’ll always hold in high regard.
(This profile originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Pillsbury’s AlumniUpdate magazine. Alums of the firm can sign up to view the magazine in its entirety here.)