University of Nottingham Commercial Law Centre

How to develop a career in International Arbitration? –  10 November 2022

Blog by: Sivaram Sajith, LLM (International Commercial Law) student

International commercial transactions are the most essential and crucial part of conducting international trade and this requires a satisfactory legal regime to govern it. Dispute resolution mechanisms like arbitration, mediation and negotiation are the present and future of governing such transactions. Arbitration is a form or type of alternate dispute resolution where disputes are resolved outside judicial courts by neutral third parties called arbitrators. This in turn requires sharp and adept lawyers on the job.

The seminar on ‘How to develop a career in International Arbitration?’ aimed at steering us students and professionals into successfully getting into an arbitration career as arbitrators, tribunal secretaries, associates and the like. The event was chaired by Dr Reza Beheshti and the experienced, eminent and qualified speakers who also happened to be alumni of the University of Nottingham were, Mr Bart Wasiak, Senior Associate, Arnold & Porter and Ms Sunita Advani, Tribunal Secretary to Mr Michael Lee.

Bart Wasiak deals mostly in investment treaty arbitration (Investor-state dispute resolution) while Sunita Advani deals with commercial arbitration. It is easily discernible that these two fields have experienced a high degree of commercial transactions and traffic which highlights the need for industry professionals to explain how they got to where they are.  Mr Wasiak explained that he previously hadn’t studied arbitration as a subject emphasising the point that arbitration is a subject where you could learn on the job but a legal background or studying it as a subject would certainly help.

Why work in international arbitration?

Primarily, it allows the council to learn about an entirely new field be it in the industry sector, construction, energy and so on. The requirement includes understanding the matters of the dispute exhaustively. It requires knowing the client’s perspective and from there to be able to narrate a story supporting our client’s case.

Investment treaty arbitration allows the council to represent the respondent states in said disputes. This would provide a hands-on experience with government officials in various countries. It involves understanding how they work and deal with the issues at hand. Even representing the investor provides intricate knowledge into the workings of the business outfit and how it works. According to Mr Wasiak the field generally involves a lot of travel, meeting with people which necessitates knowledge and exposure crucial to being up to scratch in the field.

Appeal and the work culture

The glamorous side of the work involves a fair amount of publicity associated with the dispute. This renders the councils and parties associated with the dispute a certain level of recognition. The other side of the picture entails long and uncertain working hours and emails 24/7. It might prove stressful to people who prioritise a work life balance.

Sunita Advani works as a tribunal secretary to Mr. Michael Lee. She explained what the position and job of the tribunal secretary entails and how to secure such a position. A very intuiting similarity between both these eminent speakers excluding the common field they work in is that both of them did not pursue arbitration as a subject during their undergraduate or postgraduate studies. They developed interest well into their legal career and proceeded to divert their efforts to working in the field of arbitration. Ms Advani developed an interest in arbitration during a training contract in Singapore where she was drawn to the multi-jurisdictional and international nature of the subject. Ms Advani  proceeded to work as a junior associate in an English law firm and then to work under Michael Lee as his arbitral assistant. She then proceeded to work as a tribunal secretary.

What the work entails

A tribunal secretary’s work includes preparing the factual summaries of awards including the summary of arguments, procedural history and assistance with procedural orders and document rulings under the tribunal’s supervision. It includes dealing with correspondence with tribunal members as well as between parties and members. It also deals with tasks like organising meetings, taking minutes of these meetings. The job is functional and salient in organising and conducting the activities of the tribunal which ideally should work like a well-oiled machine.   

Career as a Tribunal Secretary

There are three ways in which a junior lawyer can take up a job as a tribunal secretary as explained by Ms Advani. A legal practitioner needs to assist an arbitrator while working in a firm. The second is to become a full-time tribunal secretary to an arbitrator. Third is to work as a tribunal secretary while working in a firm in arbitrations where your partner is in the arbitration tribunal.

  • There is no centralised application process for this work and often the availability of such a job is spread by word of mouth. Best way to secure a tribunal secretary job is to make yourself known to the arbitrators. This is usually done by attending seminars, securing speaking spots in conferences or taking to arbitrators.

Mr. Wasiak imparted 10 pointers to follow and put you in a good position with respect to chances of getting a successful career in arbitration:

  1. Arbitration is a very niche and specialised area. To get the attention of potential employers demonstrating interest in the area is essential. This could include taking part in seminars, attending arbitration hearings that are public, attending webinars and also signing up with young arbitration institutions.
  2. Try to be active in the field with respect to publishing articles on the subject of arbitration. There are countless websites, blogs and call for papers that would enhance your curriculum vitae.
  3. Organising events and creating opportunities to meet and talk to arbitrators.
  4. Signing up for a mentorship programme under young arbitration institutions.
  5. Try to get some practical experience in the field by applying for some work experience programmes and maybe do some work in actual firms that deal with matters of arbitration.
  6. To get qualified as a lawyer would go a long way to securing your career as an arbitrator. Getting qualified in common law or civil law countries would help but where you qualify from wouldn’t make an ocean of difference due to the international nature of the subject.
  7. What firms look for are candidates that they can work with. Ideally a team player who can work with a team of lawyers.
  8. Knowing a foreign language would help. This knowledge should be practical enough so that you are able to speak and communicate in legal terms. Generally having good communication skills are a given.
  9. Accentuate your unique selling points. Update profiles on job sites.
  10. Work in an arbitral institution or a firm dealing with arbitration would definitely help with career in arbitration.

Arbitration is a method of dispute resolution growing in number of cases and evolving in its course of action. Seminars that provide essential, informative and crucial information to young lawyers who can contribute to the field is pivotal in every way.

University of Nottingham Commercial Law Centre

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