Getting into and getting ahead in International Arbitration

Joint Young ICCA/Blacks of the American Society of International Law (BASIL)

By Carlos Guzman (Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle S.C.) and Juan Pablo Hugues (Harvard Law School)

On September 26, 2016, the Tillar House in Washington DC, home to the American Society of International Law (ASIL), opened its doors to a unique group of students, young practitioners, and experienced lawyers for a roundtable co-hosted by Young ICCA and BASIL.  The crowd that attended the event was unique in that it included attendees from a great variety of cultural, geographical, social and ethnic backgrounds.  This could not have been more suitable given the topic that had brought us to the roundtable: how to open the practice of arbitration to young lawyers, and especially to members of the African American community and other under-represented minorities. 

The panelists and moderators reflected the diversity that Young ICCA and BASIL are actively working to achieve in the next generation of the arbitration community.  The first panel on “Mentorship in the Practice of International Arbitration” was composed of the Hon. Gabrielle Kirk McDonald (Co-chair of BASIL and former Honorary President of ASIL), Nancy Thevenin (Thevenin Arbitration & ADR LLC), Mélida Hodgson (Foley Hoag LLP), and Timothy Foden (Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP), and was moderated by María Alejandra Arboleda (Hogan Lovells LLP).  The second panel, just as diverse as the first, discussed other practical aspects of getting into and ahead in the practice of international arbitration, and included Arif H. Ali (Dechert LLP), Nathalie Reid (Debevoise & Plimpton LLP), Nawi Ukabiala (Debevoise & Plimpton LLP), Marike R. Paulsson (University of Miami), and Claudia Frutos-Peterson (Curtis Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP), with Tafadzwa Pasipanodya (Foley Hoag LLP) moderating the panel.

Members of both panels reminded the audience that the market for legal services is highly competitive, and especially so in the practice of international arbitration, where we are still far from achieving even a reasonable degree of diversity, and where black lawyers are noticeably, and almost completely, absent.  The panelists were emphatic that cultural, ethnic, and other differences should in fact be an advantage, enabling firms and institutions to reflect the diversity of clients and society.  But the fact remains that particular groups are still woefully underrepresented, which means the profession has to do more.  As to what young lawyers can do, some panelists were of the view that belonging to a minority or under-represented group could become an asset, by constantly striving for excellence and seizing every opportunity.  It sounds brutal, but you just have to work harder than others and be the best.  Other panelists said that the key was to be passionate about this area of the law, to show that passion, and to be persistent in order to obtain opportunities.  Meanwhile, all panelists agreed that more had to be done to sponsor, mentor, motivate and promote young black lawyers, and lawyers from other minority backgrounds, in the field.  Concrete proposals were made, along the lines of a dedicated mentoring program for young black lawyers in the field of international law, or scholarship opportunities.

The panels offered advice on how to achieve excellence in a manner that allows young practitioners to build a curriculum vitae that is attractive to employers in international arbitration, and to strengthen their profile in the field.  Mentoring was one aspect.  Finding a mentor allows young practitioners to create bonds or strengthen them with experienced practitioners, to learn from their mentors, and get advice from them.  The panelists advised young practitioners to seek out potential mentors with a background that would make them identify themselves with the mentee and want to help him/her in their career.  The success of the relationship, however, rests predominantly on the mentee: mentorship is what the mentee makes of it.  The panelists talked about where to find potential mentors, and how to make an initial approach.  They also suggested ways in which a mentee might make the most of their relationship with their mentor, including suggesting topics for the publication of a joint article or volunteering to assist their mentor in organizing an international arbitration event.  They advised, however, to be mindful of their mentor’s sometimes challenging calendar, and thus suggested that having more than one advisor might be a better idea.  The point was made that a mentor is not a fairy godmother.  What you are looking for is a “board of advisors” - a variety of people who you may have met in different circumstances, and who can provide you with advice from different perspectives.  Get as much advice and insight as possible.

The panelists’ own stories showed that there is no one path to getting into and excelling in the practice of arbitration.  They did share some common features, however.  For example, the panelists encouraged attendees to seek internships, perhaps unpaid, in arbitral institutions and law firms.  They recommended becoming a member of the different young arbitration associations, but emphasized that mere membership was not enough – you have to volunteer to do something, organize something, be in charge of an initiative.  Other flagship activities are to work on your law school journal, and be a member of a moot court team during law school.  The panelists were mindful of the challenges that come with these activities, both in terms of time and finances, but insisted that these are the features on a CV which would make an applicant stand out.  The panelists highlighted that the use of technology is key in finding and opening opportunities for and to the new generation of arbitration practitioners.  The internet is your friend.  Find out everything you can online about internship opportunities, publication opportunities, networking events, mentoring programs, and potential mentors. A unique aspect of the panels was having a highly-respected set of leaders within the field of international arbitration both empathize with the reality that some young practitioners face challenges related to their background and offer tangible advice and resources to help these young practitioners succeed.

The conclusion of the panels was that, while much of the responsibility for finding mentors and standing out as excellent, passionate and well-prepared falls to the young practitioner, the world of international arbitration also needs to be much more proactive in finding and promoting young minority practitioners.  While the diversity in the room was inspiring, both panelists and guests shared the view that a more concerted effort to change the composition of the arbitration community was needed, and the utilization of the tools discussed in both panels could serve to achieve that goal.  All event attendees left inspired to be more proactive, and responsive, and to take actual steps to make a difference in this area. Many of the panelists went as far as to pledge to work together and with institutions like Young ICCA and ASIL to ensure that blacks and other under-represented groups within international arbitration can enter the field and excel in it.

This incredibly rewarding and interesting event was followed by a cocktail reception where the speakers and attendees were able to continue exchanging their views and meeting new potential mentors and mentees.

The video of the event is available on ASIL’s YouTube page