Foreign Experience and Entry into International Commercial Arbitration

One of the most common experiences of anyone who works in international commercial arbitration is, of course, to be asked by law students or young lawyers how one gets into the field.  It is, after all, a very highly sought-after field, with many more people wanting to practice in it than there are places available.  Given the lack of reliable information on this point, the question of how one gets into international commercial arbitration is one of the consistent focuses of this research.

One initial postulate was that some level of international experience might be a significant benefit.  After all, this is “international” commercial arbitration, so it is reasonable to presume that individuals with international experience will be particularly attractive to arbitration practices looking to add a new junior lawyer.

Thus far, however, the evidence is that international experience, while obviously not a bad thing, is not a high priority.  Instead, the consistent emphasis placed by senior partners when discussing the qualities they look for in a new international arbitration hire have been the same qualities that any law firm looks for: excellent grades, intellectual ability, indications of legal ability.  In short, if you want a position in international commercial arbitration, the best thing you can do is go to an excellent law school, do really well, and then when given the opportunity at an internship or summer placement, show that you will make an excellent lawyer.  International experience might look like good as an addition to the resume, but it won’t open doors that have been closed because you don’t have the other credentials just mentioned.

There are, though, some qualifiers to this.  Firstly, of course, the research is only beginning, and subsequent interviewees in other jurisdictions may have different views.  Egypt, for example, is notably different in this respect, as it was a consistent feature of the backgrounds of younger international commercial arbitration lawyers in Egypt that they had all spent time abroad, many while getting an LLM, some a PhD.  In Egypt, that is, time spent abroad, combined with familiarity with a foreign legal system (from study at a foreign law school) was seen as an important attribute, as a way of indicating that you have the type of international outlook that will match well a position in international commercial arbitration.

Secondly, there are obviously specific law firms for whom particular types of foreign experience will indeed be important.  A law firm that does a large amount of work in Latin America will be particularly attracted to someone who is not only fluent in Spanish (or to a lesser degree Portuguese) but also has personal experience in the area.  Similarly, a firm that has a lot of work in Russia and the surrounding States will be attracted by someone with command of Russian and experience in the region.  So individual needs will obviously also play a role in specific decisions.

Finally, a consistent emphasis of interviewees outside the United Kingdom has been the desirability of command of the English language.  Not just in the form of verbal fluency, but at least as importantly, if not more importantly, the ability to draft high quality legal English.  Ultimately, while many international commercial arbitrations obviously happen in languages other than English, English has become the “lingua franca” of the field, and the ability to function effectively as a lawyer in English seems to have become an essential one for anyone looking to enter the field.

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