The Institutional Perspective: Invaluable Lessons from Inside an Arbitral Institution
With the rise of international arbitration in the global economy, young practitioners have been drawn to the practice area in droves, competing in moot court competitions during law school like the annual Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot and the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition, to name just two.
This increased interest in a specialised field has been met with the reality of limited availability of positions in dedicated arbitration practices. Typically run on relatively lean teams and spoilt for choice, international arbitration practices tend to look for associates with an established interest and some experience in arbitration, leaving the newly qualified with a difficult proposition of breaking in.
Cutting Your Teeth at an Arbitral Institution or Arbitrator’s Chambers
Around the world, new law graduates fight for coveted judicial clerkships. In Singapore, the United States, and England, clerkships can be among the most prestigious and most competitive positions that recent graduates can find, attracting the best and brightest graduates and young practitioners. International tribunals such as the International Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court also take on clerks that receive unique hands-on experiences at these specialised fora.
While there are no formal standing courts or tribunals in the world of international arbitration, per se young practitioners would be well-served to explore some of the incredible opportunities available to them in the form of international arbitral institutions and independent arbitrator chambers.
Lucky enough to consider myself an alumnus of one of each — a former associate in the chambers of Michael Hwang SC, one of the most well-regarded international arbitrators in Asia, and a former member of the Secretariat of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) — I can attest to the invaluable experiences offered to young practitioners looking to cut their teeth in international arbitration and how those experiences can help shape you into an effective practitioner and eventually make you indispensable to a law firm.
Often overlooked for the allure of a prestigious law firm, these two avenues offer one of the best training grounds available for a lawyer looking to break into the field. While young associates in a law firm typically see a handful of matters in a year, a tribunal secretary assisting an arbitrator can see upwards of a dozen cases in a year, and counsel at an arbitral institution can be handling a caseload of 80-100 files at any given time. Being involved in a multitude of cases — often being argued by world class counsel appearing before eminent tribunals — provides young lawyers with the chance to peer behind the curtain and examine the advocacy and decision-making process in some of the most complex and high-value cases in the world.
During my tenure in the SIAC Secretariat, I was responsible for the administration of over 250 arbitrations. Counsel at SIAC are involved at every stage of the proceedings — from the commencement of arbitrations to the determination of preliminary applications and scrutiny of draft awards submitted by the tribunals. In addition to becoming doyen in regards to the interpretation and implementation of the institution’s rules, you are effectively granted an all-access pass to spectate and assist on some of the most complex and high-value disputes in the world, involving challenging legal and factual disputes being wrangled over by some of the best legal minds in the industry. That is not easy to come by.
The Value-add and Invaluable Insights for Practice
Since returning to practice after working at SIAC for several years, the insights gleaned from my involvement in these cases have been incredibly influential in how I practice. In addition to the experience I have gained assisting arbitrators I now appear before and reviewing the strategies of counsel I now face, firms recognise the soft skills you build up at an institution — the unquantifiable.
Young practitioners often enter practice ready to push out technical memoranda to partners or prepare client advice setting out black letter law. While there is obviously a great need for technically competent lawyers, the more difficult skill to obtain is how to use your mastery of the substantive law and procedural rules to advance the best possible case on behalf of your clients.
What I mean by that is that, instead of seeing a dispute as a linear process involving a mechanical progression from commencement through the exchange of submissions and evidence, culminating in a final decision by a tribunal, experience brings with it a plethora of tactics. Having seen hundreds of cases at SIAC and been privy to the advocacy of top-tier counsel and decision-making process of distinguished tribunals, I now see the process as being driven by principles, not rules; issues, not process.
Like many things in life, working at a world-class institution like SIAC only gives back as much as you put into it. Using your time at an institution gives you invaluable insights into the appointment of arbitrators, including what makes a good or a great tribunal. It gives you the chance to test the effectiveness of different techniques and tactics applied by counsel in various scenarios. You see what works, but more importantly, you see what does not work.
Taking all of those lessons, built up over time and across diverse arbitrations, former counsel from an institution can leverage their in-depth understanding of the procedures, principles, issues, and tactics to advance the best case for your client, positioning yourself for the best outcome.