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Jim Chaney ’11 Brings Construction Management Skills to Legal Career

Construction contractor and second year law student Jim Chaney is no stranger to hard labor—be it on a construction site or in a law school classroom. In fact, he seems to thrive on it. Chaney ’11 grew up in a small town on the Pacific coast of Oregon.  He became a business success in the construction industry there; but now, at age 58, he’s a student at UC Law, bringing with him all of the life experience he has gained.  The passion he developed for public service during his years in construction has carried over into his law career.

Chaney began his work in the labor and construction industries shortly after he dropped out of college to get married.  He began as an apprentice carpenter and, over time, rose through the ranks, supervising entire construction projects. At the urging of friends, he founded a non-residential construction business, McKenzie Commercial Contractors, which eventuyally grew to be one of the leading contractors in Oregon. Chaney’s role at the company led him to participate in several professional organizations, including licensing boards for contractors and architects, the Construction Specifications Institute (of which he was president), and the American Arbitration Association.  In his role with the latter, he spent 10 years arbitrating disputes between parties. 

“Interestingly, many of the qualities and skills I developed in construction have carried over into my career in law school,” commented Chaney.  “Like law school, construction is very performance-oriented.  Chaney noted that construction was in some ways even more beneficial to his future goals than law school, because he was able to cultivate his ability to work in a team in ways that law school does not typically provide.  In both his life and his work, Chaney places  a high value on relationships with others, and on the individual’s or the business’s symbiotic relationship with the entire community.

Back to the Future: College Calls

In 2005 while he was still working full time at McKenzie, Chaney went back to college and completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Oregon.  Though he majored in political science, he enjoyed studying a variety of subjects, including architecture and Asian studies. During his last year at the university, he was both a student and a project manager of his construction company’s largest project there at the university: reconstruction of the Hayward Field track facility in preparation for the Olympic track and field trials.

After he graduated, he decided to go to graduate school. Although Chaney originally considered getting a graduate degree in counseling, he decided on law school. Why? He felt that through the skills and knowledge he’d learn at law school he would be in a better position to help professionals communicate more effectively with one another.  So after 24 years with the company, he sold his share in McKenzie Commercial and moved to Cincinnati.  “I wanted a change and to get out of Oregon,” Chaney said.  “I knew that law school would take up most of my life, and I wanted to make sure I could devote my time to my studies. This meant not only putting some distance between me and my family, but also being some place where I wouldn’t get in the way of the new leadership that was running the company.”

Chaney chose the University of Cincinnati College of Law both because of the city of Cincinnati and the qualities of the school itself, particularly the small class sizes. “I had been to the city before,” he said, “and really enjoyed it.  I thought it would be a good place to live.”  He very much likes the city, although he explained that it has been an “interesting experience” moving to a place where he did not know anyone and where everyone he interacts with on a daily basis is 20 to 30 years younger than he is.  He said that it “took some time,” but he has been able to make several friends both inside and outside of school.  “It’s very interesting and rewarding to build meaningful relationships with people of all different ages.” He adds that living in Over-the-Rhine is “a big change from a life spent in a college town in Oregon.”

Construction Knowledge Provides Insight Into Legal Challenges

Last summer, Chaney returned to Oregon to work with the Community Development Law Center, which is a part of Legal Aid of Oregon.  The Law Center’s focus is on low-income housing, and its client base consists primarily of non-profits that own, develop, or manage buildings.  His summer project involved working on a contract from Oregon’s Fair Housing Council to investigate why new buildings used for low-income housing often do not comply with the Fair Housing Act requirements for accessibility.  He learned that the problem Oregon is experiencing is a national one.  The Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act are inconsistent in some places, Chaney explained. “Unaware of this, housing is generally designed and built to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act on the assumption that this will meet all laws’ standards. As a result, groups such as the Fair Housing Council end up suing the owners to enforce provisions of the law. As a result of the work Chaney did last summer, the Community Development Law Center is preparing a series of seminars to educate designers, builders, and agencies in order to reduce unproductive litigation. Chaney plans on returning to Oregon to assist with these seminars.

Since entering law school, Chaney has become interested in the process of mediation. He has taken both mediation and negotiations classes and, along with three other UC Law students, mediates disputes in the Hamilton county Smalls Claims Court. “Going to court isn’t always the best option for people,” he explained. “With mediation, the parties work together to reach a solution, so they are often happier with the outcome and therefore more likely to comply with the terms of the agreement.”

On the Hunt for Summer Employment

He is still looking for employment for this summer, Chaney explained.  “I want what everyone wants,” he laughed. “I want to make money and I want a job after graduation.”  Beyond that, he is hoping that his particular combination of experience will appeal to firms and businesses, and lead to a more active role as a mediator in the future. He has seen, firsthand, the problems that can arise between people who “speak different languages,” in business, like builders and lawyers, and have difficulty understanding or explaining things to one another. “You can mitigate so much damage if you learn to communicate effectively with one another,” he said.  “I can help with that, because I have experience on both sides of that conversation.”