In the early 1980s, freshly minted architect Bill Quatman got spooked by cracks in the U.S. economy.
The country had entered a recession following a sharp reduction in the oil supply from Iran and a spike in oil prices. Interest rates skyrocketed, and “developers just stopped building,” Quatman recalled.
Before he graduated in 1981 with a bachelor of architecture degree from the University of Kansas, Quatman had taken a law class, and he enjoyed it. He asked a counselor at the university law school for advice about what to do.
The counselor’s advice: The legal profession was becoming more specialized, and there could be demand for an attorney with knowledge of architecture.
That conversation started Quatman on the path to a nearly 40-year career as an attorney who negotiated design and construction contracts and represented architects and engineers in legal disputes. That type of attorney has since become more common, a trend that Quatman not only observed but nurtured.
On March 12, he retired after 12 years as general counsel and senior vice president of Burns & McDonnell, a global engineering, architecture, construction and consulting firm based in Kansas City.
Succeeding him as general counsel is Vice President Paul Odum of Burns & McDonnell’s legal department, who has spent 15 years with the company and is “a great successor,” Quatman said.
Quatman, 63, described his time with Burns & McDonnell as “wonderful.” He left a legacy of significantly bolstering the design-build industry — meaning firms that handle both the planning and construction of projects — through his expertise in both architecture and law.
“It’s not just the contracts; it’s advancing people’s comfort level and knowledge in the design-build arena that greatly accelerated its acceptance within our industry,” said Paul Fischer, president and general manager of Burns & McDonnell’s Kansas City office.
After that long-ago conversation with the law school counselor, Quatman also sent a letter to an attorney who wrote a monthly column in a magazine focused on design and construction. During the three months of correspondence that followed, the attorney-author explained “a growing need for lawyers who understand design and construction,” Quatman said.
While working as an architect, Quatman attended law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. After graduating in 1984, he spent five years at Hartigan & Yanda, a boutique law firm where he “got great experience [handling] construction cases and representing architects and engineers,” he said.
But Quatman said he realized he needed to move to a larger law firm in order to attract major architecture firms as clients, so he joined what was then Shughart Thomson & Kilroy in Kansas City. He spent almost 20 years working on construction cases across the United States, became a partner and “did everything I wanted to do as a trial lawyer,” he said.
In 2008, he got a call from Burns & McDonnell. The firm’s general counsel was retiring. Would he be interested in the gig?
His response: He’d think about it.
“In hindsight, it was pretty foolish because I should have just said, ‘Yes,’ and run right over there because it’s a great company,” he said.
During his 12-year tenure, Burns & McDonnell grew from 2,500 employees to more than 8,000 and increased its revenue from $1 billion to $5 billion, Quatman said. In 2017, Missouri Lawyers Media honored him with its first Lifetime Achievement Award at its inaugural In-House Counsel Awards.
“I have never missed the architectural profession. I think the law profession can be as creative as architecture,” he said. “You find unique approaches to disputes and claims.”
One reason for the success of the company and the design-build industry at large during Quatman’s career was his development of contracts, his colleagues said. He had significant involvement in the industry group Design-Build Institute of America, and he produced contracts that became templates for firms across the country, said Fischer, who has worked at Burns & McDonnell for 33 years.
Quatman also was adept at delivering presentations inside and outside the firm. At monthly meetings, he advised Burns & McDonnell executives about ongoing litigation, challenges with particular projects and pending law changes.
“Bill was able to tell his story very well with the use of his speech but also with the visuals that he would throw up on the board,” said Denny Scott, Burns & McDonnell’s chief financial officer. “I went up there and threw numbers on the wall in black and white, and Bill followed me with color and graphs and pictures and made my stuff look bad.”
After amassing experience as a trial lawyer, Quatman also understood the cost of litigation and tried to resolve disputes outside of the courtroom. The firm often was able to do so by discussing future work with clients and offering credits towards those projects, he said.
“Once lawyers get involved, quite frankly, you lose control of everything. Claims get into litigation, and it’s hard to unring the bell once that starts. I think the better general counsels understand that and try to keep their companies out of litigation,” he said.
Quatman not only worked to advance his employer’s interest but also to help other people in his position. While an attorney with architectural expertise was a relatively new phenomenon in the ’80s, Quatman did have at least one professional predecessor: Thomas Jefferson, who also was an architect and attorney. So when Quatman decided in 2012 to form an organization for people who held both degrees, he called it The Jefferson Society.
The group now has more than 100 members across the country. Quatman said it provides a forum for “people who share a love for design and architecture but also enjoy the legal profession.”
In spite of his success in staving off litigation, Quatman is well aware that there are instances where things can go terribly wrong and lawsuits are unavoidable. He was still considering the course of his career in 1981 when two walkways collapsed at the Hyatt Regency Kansas City hotel, killing 114 people and injuring 216.
At the 20-year anniversary of the collapse, Quatman, with the assistance of the hotel architect, produced a presentation for engineers and architects to understand what happened. He has since delivered it at national conventions and annually for interns at Burns & McDonnell.
“The thing that failed at the hotel is a very small detail on a large building, and the point I want to drive home with them is, don’t overlook the small details because it’s the small things that can go wrong,” he said.
He also led efforts to construct a memorial for victims of the collapse, which was dedicated in 2015.
“Bill Quatman is one of the finer people I think I have ever known,” said Brent Wright, a Kansas City attorney whose mother and stepfather died in the collapse. “He is so smart and kind and generous with his time and resources.”
Following his retirement from Burns & McDonnell, Quatman plans to travel, take classes and, in May, launch a small arbitration and mediation firm, Quatman ADR.
“The goal is not to be busy every day but to work a couple days a week,” he said. “I have had a great career. I have enjoyed working as an architect. I have enjoyed working as a lawyer. I have enjoyed working as an in-house attorney, and I hope I get to enjoy working as a mediator and arbitrator.”