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Women in arbitration: Judith Gill QC: part 2/2: women in arbitration and the future

To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March 2017, Practical Law Arbitration has been carrying out a series of interviews with prominent women in arbitration.

In this, the fourth in the series, we interview Judith Gill QC, a partner in Allen and Overy’s arbitration team. Judith acts as both advocate and arbitrator and is currently the President of the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA), the first female to be appointed to the position. She was only the second female solicitor advocate to be appointed QC and the first with an international arbitration practice.

In Part 1, Judith discusses her personal background and why she prefers arbitration over litigation, and comments on arbitration practice and procedure. In Part 2, she considers women in arbitration and the future.

Women in arbitration

You have achieved a high profile position in the world of arbitration, being the first female president of the LCIA and a partner in an international firm, but to what extent do you think that there is still a “glass ceiling” for women in the profession today? 

I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as a glass ceiling, but I do think that there are huge challenges for women in the profession in terms of seeking to balance a full-on professional life with family responsibilities. Those challenges can be met in a number of ways, but most obviously we either revisit the historic “all or nothing” view of what is involved in reaching the top of the profession, or we as a society adopt a more balanced view of allocation of family responsibilities. I think both are happening to some extent. Law firms have realised that the huge loss of talent resulting from inflexibility in working practices makes little sense, and increasingly the paradigm of the woman automatically being expected to give up work when children come along is being revisited. But it’s a very slow process of change and there is still some way to go before that practical inhibition on women achieving their potential in the profession will disappear.

What three practical tips would you give to a junior female arbitration practitioner today?

The same as I would give a junior male arbitration practitioner:

  • Master the detail (but don’t lose sight of the overall objective).
  • Take the opportunities offered to you (and work to carve out your own).
  • Remember technology is your slave, not the other way around.

The future

What effect, if any, do you think Brexit will have on arbitration in London?

As with seemingly all things Brexit related, one encounters a broad range of strongly held views, but the short answer is in fact that nobody really knows for sure what will happen. For my part, I think the biggest threat is the (hopefully short term) uncertainty and the fear of the unknown that results from it. The features of London arbitration that make it attractive to parties from all over the world are not lessened by Brexit and nor am I convinced that English law will suddenly become less popular globally because it is, or may be, developed without the on-going assistance of the Court of Justice of the EU (ECJ). I do not therefore believe that there will be any significant or ongoing effect of Brexit on London’s standing as a premier place for arbitration.

We have seen a rise in prominence of Hong Kong and Singapore as arbitration centres over recent years. What do you think that is attributable to, and can it continue?

I think both have made a conscious effort to become more international and to harness the demand for arbitration in this part of the world by offering parties in the region a realistic alternative to more established centres like London and Paris. Both have modern arbitration laws and judiciaries that are knowledgeable and supportive of arbitration. In the case of Singapore, although it is a relative newcomer as a truly international arbitration venue, it has undoubtedly been assisted by well-timed and substantial investment, including in Maxwell Chambers, which is currently being further expanded. At least in the short to medium term, I would expect both to continue to flourish.

What do you see as the key areas of change or development in arbitration?

One of the biggest changes is the increasing number of those seeking to be involved in arbitration. The arbitration community has developed from a relatively niche group of largely ex-litigators to becoming a mainstay of many a dispute resolution group within law firms. I see that as a positive development because it broadens the field and diminishes the rather “clubby” reputation of arbitration.

I also think that arbitration has played a key role in changing the face of the legal profession in many countries. Lawyers from civil law jurisdictions find themselves cross-examining in arbitrations – a skill they perhaps would not have developed to the same degree in a domestic setting. And for a solicitor like me, arbitration provided the springboard to becoming an advocate. Whilst rights of audience in the courts were and are available, arbitration is where many solicitor advocates get real hands-on experience before tribunals of different backgrounds and legal cultures.

Do you consider investment treaty arbitration, as we know it, is under threat?

Yes, I do think it is under threat. Suggestions of its demise are premature, but I think there are genuine concerns that the very high stakes in many such cases mean that the availability of private dispute resolution and the mechanisms in place to ensure consistency of approach and quality of decision-making need to be scrutinised carefully.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to promote themselves as an arbitrator?

That rather depends on their background and experience. At the most basic level, I would advise making sure you understand fully the requirements of the job both at the substantive and procedural levels. There are many good courses available for those from other practice areas to acquire the relevant knowledge about how to conduct an arbitration.

In terms of getting appointments, the institutions play an important role for most people in securing their first few appointments, which can then lead to opportunities to build a reputation as an arbitrator and develop contacts with others involved in the field. Most young arbitration lawyers start this way and build up experience on smaller cases first. Another option is getting to know those outside the institutions who choose or assist in the selection of arbitrators, and making a good impression on them that you are right for the job.

Allen & Overy Judith Gill QC

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