Young ICSID Profiles - Part Three

Young ICSID is pleased to share the third installment of its profiles of young professionals in the field of international investment law and dispute settlement. Each issue examines practical issues related to building a career and skill set from the perspective of young professionals from around the world. 

We had the pleasure of interviewing Deva Villanúa, an arbitrator at Armesto & Asociados; Baiju Vasani, managing partner at Ivanyan & Partners LLP; and Ginta Ahrel, a partner at Westerberg & Partners. 

What sparked your interest in public international law?

Deva: I knew from the start of my career that I wanted to work in the field of arbitration. At first, my work focused on commercial arbitration (as it does to this day). At some point, the transition to investment arbitration came naturally – but I wouldn’t say that passion was an element of that transition. It may be surprising, but public international law has never been my cup of tea – I find it too abstract for an analytical and structured mind.

Baiju: I wish I could say that I was lucky enough to have wanted to be an international lawyer all my life. As a teenager, I wanted to be a dentist! I rather fell into public international law on a summer associate program at a law firm. But the moment I was introduced to it, I knew it was for me. The mix of jurisprudence, history, political science, and global development policy is too powerful a concoction not to be mesmerized for the rest of one’s career.  

Ginta: I grew up in the Soviet Union and witnessed its dissolution from within. Just overnight I became a citizen of another country – the reinstated Republic of Latvia. At the time, several public international law concepts, such as statehood and state succession, became household words. The notion of (re)birth and death of states still fascinates me. 

Knowing what you do now, is there anything you would have done differently either with respect to your education or early career?

Deva: I probably wouldn’t change anything. I am a happy person, extremely grateful for everything that I have been blessed with – in my next life, I will most likely be a cockroach, because in this life I have used up all the amount of luck I was entitled to! This said, if I forced myself to change something, I would probably not attend a German school. I think I owe a lot to my German education, but the language itself is sadly not very useful in investment arbitration – if I could keep the education but exchange German for French, that would probably be a smart move. Alas, if I hadn’t gone to the German school, I would never have met my husband; so, in short, I wouldn’t change anything 😊

Baiju: Despite coming into public international law late in the sense that I never studied it at university and spent my first two years of practice in employment litigation, I would not go back and change that. The skills I acquired in my “past life” make me a more rounded international arbitration lawyer today, and clients appreciate the fact that I have a broader business perspective. 

Ginta: No. I guess doing things differently entails that I would not have met the people that enabled my career. My first attempts to become lawyer were derailed by the economic realities of the late 1990s in Latvia. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to become a lawyer in Sweden which has a mature legal system, based on trust, and designed to safeguard the rule of law and legal security for individuals.

Tell us about someone you look up to in the field of law. What is it that you admire about them?

Deva: There is one clear person to blame for me becoming a cockroach in my next life: Juan Fernández-Armesto. He was my first (and last) boss, is now my partner at the law firm and will always be my mentor. What I admire most about him is how insightful he is – his ability to see the real story behind the submissions and to apply common (and business) sense in providing a solution.

Baiju: There is not one person, but I admire any lawyer that takes on any case that is unpopular even if that then makes them a target. Even “morally bad” actors have due process rights, and lawyers defend rights not morality. Cases involving say criminal defense, free speech, or discrimination, or in public international law that are geopolitically sensitive, all involve the balancing of legal rights. That is what the rule of law is about: cases are decided in the courtroom on law, not in the court of public opinion on subjective morality. And the lawyers that advocate the rights of the unpopular side play a critical role in ensuring that the rule of law is respected. I admire that greatly. 

Ginta: Mr. Bo G.H. Nilsson is a highly sought-after arbitrator and one of the first Swedish lawyers to specialise in the investment arbitration field. I have worked with him for many years now and I admire his ability to instantly discern the gist of the most complex dispute and describe it in simple terms. He is affable, courteous, and relaxed both as counsel and as arbitrator. Mr. Nilsson is a true master of brevity and brevity is the soul of wit. I have so much left to learn. 

Name one or two skills relevant to international arbitration that you feel are particularly difficult for young practitioners to develop. Any tips on how to go about honing these skills?

Deva: Lawyers (at least most lawyers) feel they cannot count. Young lawyers interested in international law may not expect this, but I would strongly recommend that they obtain at least a basic understanding of financial maths and accounting. In the future, this knowledge may make the difference between an ordinary and a brilliant arbitrator.

Baiju: The first is writing. From emails, to letters, to submissions, there is no getting away from the fact that concise, persuasive writing is the key to success in international arbitration. Unlike litigation where most of the case is developed in the courtroom, international arbitration cases tend to be fully developed before the hearing. There is nothing better as an arbitrator than reading a thoughtful, concise submission that does not waste words, uses language that is just right to situation, and tells me exactly what I need to know to decide the case in that party’s favor. The only way to hone this skill is practice, mirroring someone who has the skill, and feedback at every turn.

The second is client management. Every claimant believes his case is a 'slam dunk' worth billions, and every respondent is adamant that no tribunal could ever find liability or damages. The answer of course is usually somewhere in between, and it takes skill to be able to lead your client to accept your advice on how to present the case. It is easy to be led by your client’s passion so as not to challenge them and then overreach in your arguments before the tribunal, but that is an abdication of your duty as a lawyer to push back in the best interests of the client. This skill is also one that can be acquired through watching a senior lawyer advise the client on a difficult topic, but equally it is only a form of 'people skill' that can be honed in day-to-day interaction. 

Ginta: Oral advocacy skills and courage to focus on the issues crucial for the case are essential for a counsel. My best lifehack to hone these skills is to attend mock arbitration events, like Frankfurt Investment Arbitration Moot Court and Foreign Direct Investment International Arbitration Moot, as participant or arbitrator. The experience is surprisingly close to the ‘real thing’.

How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on international arbitration? If so, how?

Deva: The pandemic has shown us that we can, perfectly well, go paperless and that physical meetings are overrated. 

Videoconferencing has proven to be a good alternative. It is very likely that procedural meetings will often, if not most often, be held by videoconference going into the future. Whether this also holds true for witness examination will largely depend on what the parties wish. Small hearings will most probably be held online, but I get the feeling that in big disputes parties will continue to prefer a physical hearing. It will always be the case that when there are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, parties will be willing to throw in a couple of thousand more for the tribunal to attend a physical hearing.

Baiju: The easy answer here is more virtual hearings in the future, but as an advocate I am not a fan of virtual hearings despite them being flavor of the year. Sure, they make life easy for the arbitrators, but removing the eye contact, body language, and physical energy that is a key part of advocacy in a courtroom makes virtual hearings a fallback rather than a first choice in my view. The same is true for witnesses, experts, and the like. Everyone recognizes the convenience and green benefits of a virtual hearing. But I am sure there are hidden costs too. Only with time and further study will we see if there is a difference in an advocate’s ability to persuade in a difficult case or witness credibility or quality of outcome when we get to compare virtual and physical hearings side by side over the coming years. 

Ginta: Yes, I believe that the proceedings will become more cost-efficient with less travel. By now, we have learned that witnesses and experts can be heard remotely, and, as counsel and arbitrators are embracing the technology for on-line conferencing, hearings will gradually become completely remote also in the post-COVID world.

What is your motto in life?

Deva: “Conseguiré lo que me proponga” (I will achieve whatever I put my mind to).

I wrote this phrase on a whiteboard in my study room as a freshman, when I was at my lowest in college.

The phrase came from my deepest despisal for the Law and an equally deep stubbornness (in time I have come to terms with the Law – now we tolerate each other 😊)

Baiju: Live life as if your 8-year-old and 80-year-old selves were watching.  

Ginta: Professionalism, Respect, Perseverance, and do not forget to have fun!