Energy disputes - White & Case

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Curious about what it's like working with some of the biggest energy producers in the world? Never fear: White & Case is here to tell us what it means to work in energy disputes from both an international arbitration and commercial litigation perspective.

Chambers Associate:  Can you give a brief description of what is covered in the realm of energy disputes?

Isabella Bellera Landa: The scope of international energy disputes is as broad as the industry itself. With respect to oil and gas, disputes can encompass the upstream, midstream, and downstream segments, including, for example, exploration, production, pricing, pipelines, and LNG.  The term energy disputes, moreover, includes all aspects of power generation, transmission, and distribution.

Chris Dodson and Andrew Zeve: We view “energy disputes” to be disputes unique to the energy industry, as opposed to disputes that might arise for any company.  For example: oil and gas royalty litigation, disputes relating to issues arising during operation of oil wells, mineral title disputes, disputes relating to O&G asset purchase agreements, and environmental disputes. There are also energy-specific intellectual property disputes where the patents or trade secrets at issue relate to energy industry IP.

CA:  How did you end up focusing your practice on energy disputes?

IBL: My focus on international energy disputes has been the result of my background and White & Case’s global footprint and preeminent arbitration practice.  As a native of Venezuela, I have gravitated towards disputes involving Latin America, a region that is home to some of the largest oil exporters of the world and which has one of the world’s highest shares of renewable energy.  Moreover, White & Case has given me the unique opportunity to develop an expertise in the resolution of disputes involving foreign States and state-owned entities, which are often direct or indirect operators of energy projects.

CD and AZ: When you spend your entire career in Houston, Texas, it is natural that many of your clients are in the energy industry.  That is certainly the case for us, where our client relationships and those of our corporate partners are heavily weighted towards energy companies.

CA:  What sorts of clients do you come across in the area?

IBL: Our client base is also as broad as the industry itself.  For example, I have acted for several large power producers whose investments have been threatened after States modified the regulatory regimes or contracts defining their remuneration.  We also have historically acted for State-owned oil and gas companies, one of which recently retained us to resist enforcement of certain awards and judgments.  In my view, having the opportunity to act on “both sides of the coin” can make us better and more credible advocates.

CD and AZ: Traditionally we have worked for exploration and production companies of all sizes, oilfield service companies, midstream and infrastructure companies, downstream refiners and terminals, and energy-focused private equity funds.   Our clients have onshore or offshore operations and their geographic focuses are domestic and international.  More recently, we’ve worked with companies focused on renewable energy projects as well.

CA:  What are the main responsibilities of a partner working on an energy dispute?

IBL: Partners working on international energy disputes must bring substantial expertise in the resolution of complex disputes and have deep familiarity with the economic and political particularities of the industry.  They also must be excellent written and oral advocates, define the legal strategy, and lead teams with the right combination of skills to efficiently manage the dispute.  Above all, partners must be sensitive to the commercial goals of clients and ensure that any choices in the dispute management or strategies are in alignment with said goals.

CD and AZ: The day-to-day responsibilities are no different than a partner working on any other type of dispute.  As in a dispute in any industry, it is helpful to have an understanding of the energy industry.  We tend to be hands-on partners, so we are directly involved in all of our cases, setting direction, appearing in court as necessary, talking directly to clients, and supervising our fantastic associate teams.


"We tend to be hands-on partners, so we are directly involved in all of our cases, setting direction, appearing in court as necessary, talking directly to clients, and supervising our fantastic associate teams."


CA:  What are the main responsibilities of counsel working on an energy dispute?

IBL: Like partners, counsel must bring substantial expertise to the resolution of disputes.  As senior lawyers, they can lead the drafting of substantial portions of the written briefing or assist in oral advocacy.  This includes, for example, conducting parts of opening statements at hearings or cross-examining witnesses and experts.

CA:  What about the main responsibilities of a senior/junior associate?

IBL:  When I was a junior associate, I learned that “facts win cases” and that associates’ main responsibility is to assist in the development of the factual record and narrative of a case.  As such, associates spend substantial time carefully reviewing the documents underlying a dispute, selecting evidence that will advance our clients’ position, and driving the written briefing.  Associates also must spend significant time conducting research to support legal theories, anticipating potential counterarguments, and assisting partners and counsel with oral advocacy efforts (and eventually getting opportunities to do so as well).

CD and AZ: All of our associates draft motions and briefs, manage discovery, conduct legal research, take depositions, handle hearings, and help set strategy, all with appropriate supervision from partners.  Our more experienced associates will work directly with clients and supervise certain tasks and teams.

CA:  Are there any particular skills or qualities that help a lawyer excel in the space? What knowledge do you have to draw on from commercial litigation and international arbitration?

IBL: International arbitration lawyers must be sensitive and appreciate differences between legal systems, cultures, political systems, and languages.  Those nuances are at the heart of what we do and may often be the root-cause of disputes. 

CD and AZ: Having a good knowledge of the energy industry is important to help excel in the space. Knowledge of the industry, including common practices, regulatory environment, and market pressures, enables an energy litigator to anticipate potential legal issues, counterarguments, potential risk, and regulatory implications that might affect a given dispute.  While is not required, we give special consideration to candidates that have worked in the industry or have a relevant technical degree such as engineering, geology, or the like.

CA:  What are the highlights of the practice?

IBL:  I may be biased but my view is that international arbitration is one of the most intellectually stimulating and personally rewarding areas of the law.  I find that international arbitration lawyers tend to love their practice, and this is probably a result of the interesting (and ever-evolving) nature of the substance, combined with opportunities to travel the world and constantly learn from other cultures.

CD and AZ: Our cases are often unique to the industry, with a lot on the line, and our clients are an important part of the global economy.


"Our cases are often unique to the industry, with a lot on the line, and our clients are an important part of the global economy."


CA:  Where can a new associate starting out in the area expect to find themselves in five years’ time?

IBL:  In five years’ time, an associate specializing in international arbitration should have developed significant writing skills, start getting opportunities for oral advocacy, and be confident to voice his or her opinions on legal strategy issues.  At that point, the associate should serve as a role model and mentor for junior associates.  If an attorney is not interested in private practice on a long-term basis, a five-year experience in international arbitration could also serve a platform for a career in foreign affairs, in-house at a large multinational, among others.

CA:  Are there any main industry players you interact with day-to-day?

IBL:  Yes, I am grateful that White & Case has given me a platform to have a meaningful and growing role in client and business development.  As an example, on the day I answered these questions, I had the opportunity to help the Chairman of an oil & gas company prepare for critical meetings aimed at amicably resolving a dispute.  I also teamed up with transactional partners on a pitch to a start-up that could become a critical player in the ESG space in a few years.

CD and AZ: It really runs the gamut from global supermajors to domestic independents to private equity funds.

CA:  Are there any current political/economic issues which are having an impact on the work?

IBL: For multiple reasons, States commonly own and/or regulate energy resources, subjecting cross-border investments to regulatory changes and political risk.  It is also not uncommon for States to invite foreign investment in periods of low commodity prices or where there is a need to develop a specific industry, and occasionally seek to claw-back the profits of investors when circumstances change.  Political/economic issues and the management of risks are thus at the heart of our work in energy disputes.

CD and AZ: Over the past 5 years or so there has been an increase in renewables projects, and some traditional investment dollars have moved away from oil and gas and into renewables.  As deal work trends more to renewables, disputes will follow.

CA:  How is the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy affecting the practice?

IBL: The global transition has given and will continue to give rise to disputes concerning the balance between States’ measures to regulate or advance such transition and existing obligations towards foreign investors.  The expansion of renewable energy and the evolving economics of the sector has given rise to both investment and commercial disputes and diversified/expanded the nature of the users of international arbitration.

CA:  How international is the work? How do lawyers go about navigating different jurisdictions? Are there any jurisdictions that are a hotbed for energy disputes?

IBL: All aspects of my practice are international. This includes the origin of clients and the location of their projects, as well as the forum for the resolution of disputes.  In fact, in several of my matters, international law itself is the applicable substantive law.  We navigate different jurisdictions with the assistance of experts or by teaming up with our global network of offices and build substantial knowledge of such jurisdiction’s laws over time.  Thus, curiosity and a team-work spirit are essential to succeed.  In my view, the economics and political factors that give rise to energy disputes are prevalent all over the world and no jurisdiction is immune to them.

CD and AZ: Because the US has such a large energy industry, there are many local disputes and most of our work is still here.  But working at an international firm like White & Case, with over 40 offices and a marquee global energy practice, has allowed us to work on international disputes as well.   When working in another jurisdiction, we partner with our colleagues in the relevant location.

CA:  What’s the most interesting deal you’ve worked on?

IBL:  One of my favorite experiences thus far has been conducting the cross-examination of a technical expert in a case where we were representing a renewable energy producer.  It allowed me to learn more about the sector, be creative, and made me realize how much I enjoyed oral advocacy.  That very same case ended with another hearing at the Peace Palace in The Hague, which is a career highlight for any international lawyer.


"That very same case ended with another hearing at the Peace Palace in The Hague, which is a career highlight for any international lawyer."


CA:  What opportunities are unique to working on energy disputes at White & Case?

IBL:  Many opportunities come to mind, including having access to our global network of offices and practitioners that can add unique value to clients facing complex and/or first impression disputes in the energy industry.  I also must highlight the support provided by partners and senior lawyers that have served as mentors and role models over the years—many of whom are, like me, female and/or foreign-born.  It is truly a pleasure to work in a place that values diversity and puts it at the service of clients.

CD and AZ: The White & Case Global Energy Practice opens up doors to all sorts of disputes around the globe.  In addition to our domestic work, we have cases for clients in Brazil, Italy, Mexico, and Nigeria.  The White & Case platform drives all sorts of work to our Houston-based practice.

CA:  And finally, what advice do you have for students interested in breaking into the area?

IBL:  For breaking into the field, it is important to join a firm that has a strong international arbitration practice.  While many firms may note that they do arbitration on their websites, such work may either not be international or may be limited.  Chambers, as well as arbitration-specialized publications are helpful resources to create a target list of options.  To stand out, it is also helpful to invest time in law school learning about the field by taking specialized courses, speaking to practitioners, or attending conferences.  Students also should focus on developing their writing skills (which they will use a lot) and proactively expressing their preference and seeking out opportunities in arbitration as summer associates or interns.

CD and AZ: Students can begin to get a strong foundation in the industry by taking energy and environmental law classes, keeping updated on significant energy or environmental cases, and reading energy law journals and articles.  Students can also focus their internship and clerkship searches on firms or companies that have strong energy litigation groups.


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Last updated: May 2024