The LL.M. in International Arbitration Law

A peek at the life of an arbitration lawyer, and how a specialized LL.M. can help prepare them.

Over the past 50 years, arbitration has increasingly become a key way of resolving international commercial disputes. International arbitration holds out the promise of being more effective and efficient than international litigation. 

Its primary virtues are that it provides for procedural flexibility and that its awards are enforceable and final. It also affords the parties privacy, allows them to have their disputes adjudicated by experts, and ensures that they can avoid court jurisdictions that may be unreliable.

“One of the nice things about working in international arbitration is that you deal with a wide diversity of legal, commercial, ethical, and practical issues,” says Gary Born, chair of the International Arbitration Practice Group at global law firm WilmerHale.

“At the same time – because arbitration is focused on being tailored to resolve a particular dispute instead of applying uniform ‘cookie cutter’ rules or solutions – there is a lot of room for creativity in the work," says Born. "You need to design the procedures to suit the particular case and to ensure that they benefit your client and not the other party.”

If you are interested in a career in international arbitration, you may be wondering whether it is important to have practical legal experience and expertise in an area of substantive law before pursuing skills as an arbitrator. Could an LL.M. degree, for example, be a stepping stone into this field?

Loukas Mistelis, law professor at Queen Mary, University of London, points out that people use the LL.M. degree for different purposes. LL.M. student profiles vary, ranging from those who have completed basic legal training to those with considerable experience working in a related field of law.

As in other fields of law, a specialist LL.M. in arbitration can provide a useful consolidation and refinement of the relevant principles, or a way to fast-track a change in career specialization.

Gary Born says that many recruiters pay attention to whether job candidates have an LL.M., particularly if they come from a non-English-speaking background. Some even require it for international practice.

A specialist LL.M. in international arbitration can also be helpful to fill in knowledge gaps.

“If someone has a strong law school record, but not much focus on the sorts of courses that are relevant in international arbitration – like conflicts, private international law, international arbitration, international litigation and public international law – taking an LL.M. enables them to get the substantive knowledge that they need in order to practice, and it also polishes their resume,” says Gary Born.

“Specialist knowledge is one factor that recruiters will take into account when they are deciding between taking one candidate or another,” he says.

“If you have the financial ability, and are not just dying to get out and practice law, an LL.M. often does make you a better, more thoughtful, more able lawyer,” says Born.

Choosing a program

When it comes time to choose a program in this field, there are a number of things to look out for.

“The most important quality assurance indicator is whether the program has a permanent academic faculty,” according to Loukas Mistelis.

While it is important to be guided by teachers that have practical experience, a program staffed only by practicing lawyers may suffer because of the work obligations of the faculty.

Another thing to think about is whether you want an intensive program. According to Mistelis, intensive courses are well-suited to practitioners, but students who are new to the field may be best-served by a non-intensive course that provides for regular class meetings and time to prepare and absorb the information.

“It is also important to look at the type of complementary courses that are offered in the program, as international arbitration now comprises a number of sub-disciplines, each with its own specialties and specialists” says Thomas Schultz, executive director of the Geneva Master in International Dispute Settlement program.

The law school you are considering may offer courses in commercial arbitration, investment arbitration, construction arbitration, sports arbitration, and in neighboring fields such as mediation, negotiation techniques, and dispute settlement in a variety of other international courts and tribunals.

In addition, the school may offer a range of other substantive subjects such as energy and resources, investment, finance, commercial, insurance, and construction, and these will be crucial to rounding out your legal education. Consider whether the school tries to address arbitration issues within these other subjects.

Growing demand

Clients have always been keen to have their disputes resolved as cheaply as possible, but the global financial crisis has made cost minimization a top priority in law firms. Gary Born explains that the need for even greater efficiency arguably constrains the demand for new international arbitration lawyers.

“However, pushing in the other direction,” says Born, “is the robust increase in the number of international arbitration cases that are held each year.” He points out, “if you ask around in major practices, people are worrying more about how to staff all of these cases than about how they are going to keep people busy.”

Thomas Schultz also sees a strong demand for arbitration lawyers, despite the recent financial downturn.

“The job market for arbitration lawyers hasn’t decreased in the last three or four years,” said Schultz, “while most other sectors of the legal profession have seen a radical decline in employment opportunities.”

And demand is not limited to lawyers from established arbitration centers like London, Geneva, Paris, Tokyo, Singapore, and New York.

“As international arbitration grows in popularity,” says Schultz, “a number of new players are entering into the market, creating opportunities for lawyers from the Middle East to India, from China to Latin America.”

Image: Flazingo Photos / Flickr (cropped) - Creative Commons

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