Are lawyers and surveyors valuable partners for a development or construction project, or only a necessary evil? We (lawyers and surveyors) often ask ourselves the same question. So, I decided to ask a wider audience.

In preparation for a presentation at the Land Surveyors’ Association of Washington (LSAW)annual conference last month, I sent a survey to a variety of surveyors, lawyers, and builder/developers in Oregon and Washington. Essentially, I asked whether surveyors and lawyers like working together, or are mostly annoyed by things the other profession does. I asked builder/developers if they are satisfied with surveyors’ work and whether they routinely assemble lawyer/surveyor teams for their projects. The answers were surprising.

Surveyors and lawyers unanimously agreed they want to work together earlier and more often. Builder/developers, in contrast, unanimously reported they do not regularly assign surveyor-lawyer teams to their projects. Did we discover a missed opportunity?

Surveyors and lawyers have different perspectives, distinctive habits, and contrasting approaches to problem-solving. Sometimes those differences can be disruptive or uncomfortable. Sometimes they cause extra work or confusion.

I anticipated this friction would show up in the survey results. Surprisingly, it did not. Instead, the survey revealed nearly unanimous appreciation for one another’s skills and involvement.

Surveyors like lawyers’ strategic and analytical skills. They help surveyors craft more comprehensive and accurate project outlines. Lawyers help surveyors deal with contentious neighbors and help develop alternative approaches and solutions to problems. Lawyers see and appreciate second- and third-order consequences that might not otherwise have been identified, allowing surveyors’ products to be complete and defensible. “Our expertise overlaps in places and it can be helpful to both disciplines to work together,” one surveyor said.

Lawyers generally expressed the same feelings. Typically, lawyers do not learn how to read or write legal descriptions in law school. Instead, in practice, lawyers most often rely on surveyors or paralegals for this talent. Lawyers respect and value surveyors’ knowledge of“ facts on the ground” and details of the property’s history and relationship to its surroundings. Lawyers also report appreciating surveyors’ practical knowledge and experience.

This theme of mutual respect and trust ran throughout the survey results. Interestingly, recently published an article describing “14 Characteristics of High-PerformingTeams.” The first five match our survey results to a “T:”

  • inclusive thinking
  • diversity
  • respect and trust
  • personal excellence, and
  • communication.

It is no surprise, therefore, that surveyors and lawyers consider themselves a powerful team. Diversity of thought, or more precisely, the intersectionality of various disciplines, is key to business excellence and creative discovery. “Intersectionality increases analytical sophistication and offers theoretical explanations” that heterogeneous groups might not recognize.

Surveyors and lawyers report particularly appreciating their shared analytical sophistication when working together on boundary line adjustments, easements, land divisions, and ALTA surveys with notable or significant findings.

On the simpler side, for projects generally, 40 percent of surveyors requested earlier, more frequent, and more direct communication with a lawyer. “Often the two of us are speaking through a liaison, which is difficult.” Lawyers had a similar response. Sixty percent of them said earlier and more frequent communication is the most important thing to improve the surveyor/lawyer working relationship and work product for the client (i.e. a builder/developer).Lawyers expressed frustration with being brought into a project after certain decisions have already been made. If entitlements have already been denied or a dispute has already arisen, the facts are set. There is little a lawyer can do to proactively change the potential outcome. The lawyer is left with only reactive approaches, many of which could have been avoided if addressed earlier in the process.

While increased coordination may sound like increased project costs, the consensus among surveyors and lawyers at the LSAW conference was that the opposite would likely be true. They anticipate better communication would achieve significant efficiencies, avoid re-work, and ultimately save the project money.

At least one builder/developer identified this as a desired outcome and area for potential surveyor improvement. It is probably safe to say all builders/developers would like to see fewer redlines and changes after city or county review.

The 70+ LSAW conference attendees agreed accuracy is important. They expressed, though, that it can sometimes be difficult to get consistent answers from a municipality. Sometimes, it feels like the answer will change, depending upon which staff member happens to process paperwork that day. Lawyers reported a similar experience. Some frank municipalities have acknowledged this trend, explaining they are currently struggling to deal with increasing land use, environmental, and permitting requirements without the benefit of commensurate budget or staff increases.

Facing these industry-wide pressures, perhaps surveyor-lawyer teams can help introduce more stability and control into the process. “Efficient teams are the hallmark of an industry-leading business,” states in its commentary on high-performing teams. “Having a cohesive, high-performing team can set your business apart within your industry and ensure the success of your organization in the long run.”

Perhaps your next project will provide an opportunity to put this notion to the test.

This column is intended to provide readers with general information and not legal advice. Consult professional counsel for help regarding specific situations.

Column first appeared in the Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce on April 12, 2024.

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