Young ICSID Profiles Part Eight - Focus on Europe

Young ICSID is pleased to share the eighth 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.

In this issue, we had the pleasure of interviewing three practitioners with extensive experience in arbitral practice in Europe: Sofia de Sampaio Jalles, a partner at Armesto & Asociados in Madrid; Mária Poláková, a partner at Squire Patton Boggs in Prague; and Laurie Achtouk‑Spivak, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb in Paris. 

What is your current role and what does a typical day look like?

Sofia: I have been a partner at Armesto & Asociados, a boutique of arbitrators based in Madrid, since 2021. I act as arbitrator and tribunal secretary or assistant in commercial and investment arbitration proceedings, under the rules of some of the major institutions, and in ad hoc cases.

A typical day is generally spent dealing with administrative matters related to the day-to-day management of the firm and our team, and working on my own as an arbitrator or tribunal secretary/assistant. The tasks that I perform are varied and depend on the stage of the proceedings: they can go from drafting a decision on a minor procedural incident (e.g., a request for the postponement of a deadline) or on a more substantive issue (e.g., a decision on interim measures), to reading submissions in preparation for a hearing or for a decision, to drafting an award, to simply corresponding with the parties, the other arbitrators or the institutions. When I am lucky, I also get to travel for hearings or conferences.

I also devote part of my time to pro bono activities. I am involved in several arbitration-related projects and associations.

Mária: I am a partner in the Prague office of Squire Patton Boggs. My work focuses on investment arbitration, mainly the representation of states, and I am currently involved in several very different investment cases, from renewable energy sector to real estate projects. And because I am also a mum of two small boys aged 5 and 2, I actually only rarely have typical days these days! Where possible, I like to focus on work in the first part of the day and try to finish before the end of the afternoon. I am also a big believer in exercise and physical activity and I try very hard to incorporate those into my daily routine two to three times a week.  This is a key part of my efforts to improve strength and resilience which are so important in the intense field of dispute resolution and generally in life.

Laurie: I am a partner at Cleary Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton LLP practicing international arbitration and public international law. Every day is quite different for me, and this explains why over 17 years later I still very much enjoy my work.  As a partner I spend most of my time conversing with current or potential clients, engaging in strategic oversight while not losing sight of the nitty gritty, reviewing drafts, managing our team, and most importantly mentoring the next generation of lawyers.  The highlight for arbitration practitioners at all levels remains hearings, where teamwork and advocacy do the magic.

For those contemplating a career in international arbitration, what is one pro and one con that you feel they should be aware of?

Sofia: The pro is working in a uniquely stimulating environment: not only do you get to see very different cases, in varied business sectors and involving diverse factual and legal issues, but you also get to work with extremely bright and hard-working individuals, who tend to be more open-minded than in other fields of law, thanks to their international exposure and the variety of subjects and legal systems they deal with.

One con is the (sometimes too) intense and fast-paced environment of international arbitration. Arbitration proceedings tend to be very time-demanding, whether you work as arbitrator, counsel, expert, or other. From an arbitrator’s perspective, one has a responsibility towards the parties to solve the dispute in a diligent, efficient, and reasonable manner – which obviously requires a lot of dedication, to make sure that you are on top of all the case developments and have a thorough understanding of the dispute.

This implies that sometimes you do not have enough time to pause and delve deeper into the issues you are facing. I am sure that many can relate to the experience of working on a case and thinking “this is such an interesting question, I wish I could learn more or write something about it”, but then you simply have to move on to the next matter and do not take the time to do it. One must be careful not to become too absorbed in the day-to-day work and lose sight of the bigger picture (both when it comes to one’s professional and personal life).

Mária: With a number of years in this field, I increasingly feel that the main advantage of work specifically in investment cases can also in fact be a con for some: because the factual (and legal) background of cases is so variable while the legal rules of investment protection are generally not too precise and specific, it is exciting to always learn something new on the facts and have opportunities to be creative on the law. But this also means that there is limited space for predictability and routine that some lawyers appreciate and seek in their careers. 

Laurie: International arbitration allows you to keep learning about industries, laws, and procedures at a truly global level and of course to regularly practice public international law.  It enables you to meet fantastic colleagues with impressive advocacy skills and outstanding arbitrators, including several female trailblazers who inspire me.  The field though has become particularly competitive at all levels and anyone thinking about a career in international arbitration should ensure they stay determined, both in the short and longer term.   

What advice would you have for someone preparing for their first arbitration case in Madrid, Prague, or Paris?

Sofia: This depends on whether you are acting as counsel, as arbitrator or as secretary/assistant to the tribunal, but I am not sure it changes a lot if you are in Madrid or somewhere else.

As secretary or assistant to the tribunal, your job is to discharge the arbitrators of some of the weight of the day-to-day management of the case, so they can better comply with their mission (which is personal and non-transferable). The first thing that you must do is to get a sense of the case – just like the arbitrator, you must read through all the submissions presented by the parties and make sure that all the evidence is properly archived so the arbitrator can easily find the necessary information. You should also sit with the arbitrators so they can give you specific instructions on what they expect you to do and how you can be of help. And if the seat of the arbitration is in Madrid, I suggest you go through the Spanish arbitration law and flag to the arbitrators any potential idiosyncrasies of that jurisdiction (e.g., the deadline to issue the award).

As arbitrator, the first thing is obviously to study the case record, to go through the contract (if it is a commercial arbitration) or the treaty (if it is an investment case) and to get familiar with the subject of the dispute (e.g., if the arbitration deals with the construction of a dam – which you may never have come across before – it is important to read about how a dam works). If the seat of the arbitration is Madrid, again you should go through the Spanish arbitration law. Finally, there are two useful things that you can start doing from day one, such as making a chronology of the facts alleged by the parties, with the supporting evidence, and summarizing the procedural steps that have taken place until then.

Mária: Be open-minded because international arbitration is nothing like court cases you know in Central and Eastern Europe. Be prepared to learn because you will be working on cases with very different and very complex facts as well as with legal issues from very different legal systems. And be happy because you are about to make an entrée into the best legal field on earth!   

Laurie: When you are done with all the heavy lifting, take the time to enjoy what Paris has to offer: history, culture, and bistro life. It is a wonderful city to walk around or cycle through, and it would be a shame to miss it. Soon we should be able to swim in the Seine, we'll see!!

What would you say has become a “routine practice” in international arbitration proceedings that you consider is time that the arbitration community abandons or where there is room for improvement?

Sofia: In international arbitration proceedings, and particularly in investment arbitration, it has become standard practice to have extremely lengthy and repetitive written submissions (running in the several hundred pages). All too often, there are two rounds of written submissions per party, plus a hearing, plus one or two rounds of written post-hearing briefs. In each of these steps, the parties plead their case and respond to the counterparty, with only slight variations to their argumentation. The result is that arbitrators and parties find themselves having to navigate through thousands of pages of arguments repeated ad nauseam.

There is clearly room for improvement on this point. If we want arbitration to be efficient, submissions need to be concise. The change requires a collective effort by the parties, counsel, and arbitrators. Solutions include limiting the number of pages, limiting the rounds of submissions, putting a bigger emphasis on an oral procedure, or identifying the truly relevant questions sooner in the proceedings. After talking to several in-house counsel, I believe that this is also the desire of many clients – although others certainly insist that they need to write hundreds of pages to properly present their case. As Blaise Pascal said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter”.

Mária: At the risk of putting practicalities ahead of serious issues here, I will point out two developments in relation specifically to arbitration hearings that I have recently experienced: As an associate in charge of hearing logistics, I used to be very frustrated with the amounts of paper used at hearings that would just go to waste at the end (not mentioning the time it took to tidy up the hearing room!) Luckily, I see a good change in the direction with some of my recent hearings being (almost) digital. More broadly, I would hope that the international arbitration community will make good use of developments on the tech front with the chief aim to make arbitration more efficient.

I am also a big fan of trends to make hearings more livable (for example with shorter hearing days), especially in the context of well-being and mental health debates in our field. I have always thought it should be possible to do good work at a hearing without the need to be completely exhausted at the end! 

Laurie: There has been a lot less printing lately, which is great.  But I also now see so many requests for complicated hyperlinked hearing bundle where there tends to be some form of renumbering of the exhibits/legal authorities that is very very time-consuming for our paralegal team and I am afraid quite confusing for everyone.  

Complete the sentence: “A good arbitrator always…”

Sofia: A good arbitrator is always prepared, has strong common sense, and understands the root of the dispute.

Mária: Asks good questions. While it feels at times that too many questions from the tribunal put a lot of pressure on counsel, I believe that it is important to have guidance as to what the tribunal considers to be the main issues in dispute, and that guidance essentially comes through the arbitrators’ questions at the hearing. 

Laurie: A good arbitrator always keeps an open mind.  For this field to continue to thrive, it is essential that parties trust the fairness and legitimacy of the process.   

What is your motto in life?

Sofia: We all should try to leave this world a better place than how we found it. Practicing kindness, empathy and understanding towards others in everyday life goes a long way, particularly when working in dispute resolution.

Mária: I do not have one universal life-embracing motto, rather, I always try to remember the smart aspirational sentences that I have considered relevant and useful at various stages in my life.  These would include “Fear is your greatest enemy” or “Tomorrow is another day” (which I loosely borrow from Audrey Hepburn). I also often remember Gandalf’s wise words from the Lord of the Rings: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Laurie: Give it all you got.  

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the interviewees. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICSID, nor those of the organizations with which the interviewees are associated or employed.