International arbitration

In a nutshell

International arbitration

International arbitration addresses any case or potential dispute between parties – usually located in two different countries – and is the most common form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR). “At the most basic level, international arbitration attorneys are international litigators in a transnational justice system,” says independent arbitrator Donald Donovan. “It's a system that's validated by both national and international law, but not run directly by any given state.” Arbitrations often arise from clauses included by companies in their commercial contracts with one another. This means that, if a dispute arises between them, they are obliged to arbitrate their dispute rather than pursue traditional litigation. 

Arbitration provides a binding solution to the dispute by way of an arbitral 'award'. The award can be enforced internationally through the provisions of the 1958 New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Arbitral Awards, which more than 140 states have ratified. “Private parties often prefer international arbitration because it provides a neutral and relatively confidential forum, specialist arbitrators and greater ease of enforcement of the award in multiple jurisdictions. The New York Convention is unique in that there is no equivalent international treaty in force around the globe to ensure the international currency and enforcement of domestic court judgments,” explains David Lindsey, partner and co-founder of arbitration boutique Chaffetz Lindsey in New York. 

The types of cases heard in international arbitration are typically cross-border commercial disputes that occur in situations like joint ventures or corporate transactions (including M&A). “The types of disputes run the gamut, but they are all really linked to investment and transactions outside the home jurisdiction of the claimant,” Nigel Blackaby of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer says. Disputes commonly originate in the oil and gas, telecom, privatized public utilities and construction industries. 

One specific type of international arbitration is ‘investment arbitration’, where a claim is brought by a foreign investor directly against the host state of its investment. This arises from the likes of multinational ventures, such as energy projects, and can be instigated in two ways: investors and host states either consent in contracts to use international arbitration to resolve disputes, or investors make claims under bilateral (or multilateral) investment treaties (BITs). BigLaw firms – as well as specialist boutique firms in some instances – represent both claimants and defendants in such cases, though they must be careful about conflicts. 

The disputes are often considered under a foreign applicable law and resolved under the arbitration rules of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), the International Centre for Dispute Resolution of the American Arbitration Association (ICDR), the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA), The World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), or the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL). The nature of the dispute largely determines the relevance of each set of rules. Investor-state disputes, for example, are usually arbitrated under UNCITRAL or ICSID, while the LCIA and ICC rules are suitable for virtually all types of arbitration – though the latter is more appropriate for commercial disputes. 

What lawyers do

  • Receive instructions from the client, who thinks, for example, that their contract has been breached or that their rights under an applicable investment treaty have been infringed. 

  • Review the contract or treaty, solicit and review relevant documentation and speak to potential witnesses. 

  • Provide the client with a memo on the merits of the case. This may involve working with local counsel in the relevant jurisdiction. 

  • If a client wants to proceed, draft the necessary initiation papers – usually a ‘Request for Arbitration’ in accordance with the applicable arbitration rules, such as ICDR, ICC or ICSID – and submit to the relevant arbitral institution. 

  • The case is then registered and the request is communicated to the respondent, usually by the arbitral institution. The respondent answers, possibly with an objection to the jurisdiction and with a response to the case’s merits. They name an arbitrator. 

  • In order to establish the tribunal, each party proposes an impartial and independent ‘party-nominated’ arbitrator. The party-nominated arbitrators then usually seek to agree on a ‘president’ or ‘chair’ of the tribunal, failing which, the president/chair will be nominated by the institution. Once constituted, the tribunal will invite parties to the first procedural hearing at the (usually neutral) seat of hearing (often jurisdictions with favorable arbitration laws and culture such as New York, London, Paris, Geneva and Singapore), where the calendar and procedural order for the next steps will be established. 

  • In commercial arbitration, there is a period for exchanging documentary evidence, during which each side will produce the documents upon which it intends to rely. This does not typically include ‘US-style’ discovery, but a far more limited disclosure process. 

  • The next steps usually include a very detailed presentation of the facts and evidence by the claimant (including written witness/expert statements and all relevant documentation). This is called a ‘Memorial’– it may also be included in a pre-hearing brief shortly before the hearing on the merits. 

  • Defense attorneys submit a ‘Defense Memorial’ or response brief with a similar presentation. 

  • There will often be a further round of ‘Reply’ and ‘Rejoinder’ memorials or briefs. 

  • Final hearing takes place, where witnesses are questioned and cross-examined before the tribunal, and oral argument is made. The written witness statements filed with the Memorials often take the place of direct testimony at the hearing. 

  • Submit final, post-hearing briefs. In complex cases, these can be lengthy. 

  • Tribunal determines award, which must be ‘reasoned' (ie, the tribunal’s reasoning for the award must be set out), in writing, and signed by the members of the tribunal. With a three-person tribunal, a majority determines the award.

Realities of the job

  • “The international context is fascinating because, regardless of whether it's a commercial or investor-state arbitration, you're always experiencing different cultures, countries, languages and personalities. It really is such a wonderful dynamic and mix,”says Carolyn Lamm of White & Case. 

  • “You can assist yourself greatly by having a real command of more than one language,” Donald Donovan explains. "English is of course important, but having a command of other languages as well really helps.” Spanish, Chinese and Russian are languages in demand. Portuguese is also increasingly valuable for international arbitrators, in conjunction with the growth of the Brazilian market. 

  • “International arbitration isn't entirely different from courtroom advocacy,”according to Lamm. Compared to US litigation, however, international arbitration typically relies more on written, instead of oral, advocacy and on contemporaneous documents, rather than on witness testimony from parties. In final hearings, for example, written witness statements often take the place of oral direct testimony. 

  • “In many ways the skills that make you successful in international arbitration are no different from the skills that make you successful in litigation, Joe Profaizer of Paul Hastings tells us. Fried Frankarbitration practice founder Elliot Polebaum concurs, elaborating: “It's a good idea to have a grounding in disputes more generally. Working in the litigation department of a law firm is a good place to start, before getting specialized. There are opportunities to become enmeshed in the factual development of a case, learning and handling the disclosure process, including the deposition process in US litigations, and managing the documentation.” 

  • The job involves a lot of travel to identify relevant documents and interview witnesses. Depending on the circumstances, associates may also travel. 

  • It's important for international arbitration lawyers to build up their knowledge of economic and financial issues, as these form an important component of the work. 

  • “Currently there is no overarching set of rules to account for all the various national backgrounds that lawyers in an international proceeding come from, so if you have lawyers from different legal systems they may not be conducting themselves in the same way,”Carolyn Lamm tells us. Despite this, the differences between European, US and Asian practices, and between civil law and common law, are not as great as they once were. Some say a more universal practice is developing; the International Bar Association’s now widely used evidence rules are an example of this. 

  • In commercial arbitration, demands for documents from the other side are allowed, but not as much as in the discovery phases of US litigation. Depositions are rarely allowed, unless US parties are involved and the arbitration clause itself calls for them. (See the aforementioned IBA evidence rules for a good summary.) 

  • International arbitration has provided an effective platform for female practitioners to excel, which is demonstrated by organizations such as ArbitralWomen. 

  • David Lindsey feels “participants in the international arbitration Bar share a mutual respect and camaraderie that I have not witnessed in other areas of legal practice.”

  • International arbitration is generally a difficult profession to enter, and so it's typical for juniors to develop their skills as trial lawyers first. “The bottom line is you must learn advocacy – how to present on your feet with care, thoroughness and confidence. You also need to know whether you love to do that, because some people just don't excel in that kind of situation,” Lamm informs us. 

Current issues

June 2024

  • Whilst international arbitration is never truly out of fashion, 2024 promises to a be a big year for the practice area. Not only will it be of heightened relevance for lawyers and their firms, but no business of any type can escape the potential consequences of the market which is currently characterised by economic variability, supply chain disturbances, and the continuation of geopolitical tensions in various parts of the world.

  • One major area of international arbitration that has hit the headlines in recent times with no immediate end in sight are disputes relating to state boundaries and their natural resources. One such example includes the territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela over the oil-rich Essequibo region after a Venezuelan referendum in December 2023 declared that the region should be subsumed into the country. Another notable example includes the issue of maritime delimitation currently taking place in the Indian ocean between Kenya and Somalia over the positioning of their sea border.

  • With Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the resultant sanctions enforced by Western states and countersanctions by Russia have led to many businesses taking short term commercial solutions. The ongoing situation has led to many pushing related disputes to arbitration. Claimants in related investor-state and commercial arbitrations may face challenges in receiving awards due to difficulty of enforcement within Russia, so Russian assets frozen abroad – currently $330 billion’s worth – will likely continue to be the target of enforcement actions going forward.

  • Volatility across the energy market will likely lead to more cross-border arbitration in this area throughout 2024, especially surrounding LNG pricing disputes as a result of surging investment in addition to changes in regulatory oversight. One area of stricter regulation lies within the realm of the predicted environmental effects of such investments. For instance, a US investor firm last year initiated a NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement) lawsuit against Canada after the Province of Quebec opted to discontinue the construction of a multi-billion-dollar LNG pipeline project due to its adverse climate impact.

  • The increasing prevalence of environmental issues and ESG policies will continue to grow in the arena of international arbitration. Within the EU, Energy Charter Treaty arbitrations regarding renewables will push the arbitral tribunal to consider the flexibility with which ECT member states can regulate environmental matters within the framework of their international obligations. That said, a number of EU countries have announced their intentions to exit the ECT. Countries like Spain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland have already made their exits. The European Commission has long sought to modernise the ECT and has therefore requested that departing member states do not scupper such plans by voting against any institutional reform.

  • While the ECT flounders amidst severe EU withdrawal, it is far from the only area within EU politics causing issues over international arbitration. Intra-EU bilateral investment treaties have remained controversial for years due to so-called ‘sunset clauses’ nestled within bilateral agreements which prolong treaty protection for all parties beyond the length of the initial contract. As a result, such clauses have now been banned, and it’s likely this move will affect investor-State arbitration throughout 2024 and beyond.

  • The talk of AI and other digital technologies certainly appears to be the legal world’s flavour of the month, and as a result, such innovative technology will have profound effects on international arbitration too. Arbitration concerning digital assets, cryptocurrencies, bitcoin, and non-fungible tokens is likely to grow as we progress through 2024, characterised by an inherent focus on looking to diminish any usage risks in addition to combating the technology’s ethical complications.

  • Increased investment in tech globally, in particular where investors and states are still treading new ground, will drive a lot of high-profile matters going forward. Crypto disputes, for example, are rising, trending toward claims by users against platforms due to losses from trading, and the misrepresentation of risks to investors from platforms. Both frameworks for regulation and enforcement will be a priority moving forward.

  • LCIA Director General Professor Dr. Jacomin van Haersolte-van Hof's prediction that virtual hearings and electronic awards will become "the standard” has so far held up, with the most participants being receptive to a movement towards “paperless practices” and virtual hearings. Post lockdown participants feel virtual hearings allow for more flexibility with pinning down hearing dates, as well as increased efficiency through increased use of technology.

  • London, Paris, Geneva, Hong Kong, and Singapore are now seen as the most preferred seats for arbitration, with the most preferred institutions being the ICC, SIAC, HKIAC, LCIA, and CIETAC.