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Solicitors' practice areas

International arbitration

Louise Woods

Vinson & Elkins RLLP

University: University College London
Degree: English 

International arbitration offers fantastic opportunities for lawyers, including the chance to advocate for clients. Put simply, international arbitration is an alternative method of dispute resolution that involves the parties trying to resolve their dispute away from the court of law. International arbitration lawyers often work on include high value, international commercial disputes, while working across a range of industry sectors such as energy, technology and real estate.

With frequent opportunities to travel and clients all over the world, the life of an international arbitration lawyer, although not always easy, is never dull. Believe it or not, Louise Woods – head of international disputes - Europe at Vinson & Elkins – hasn’t always been involved in this area of law. In fact, she began her career as a finance lawyer until the recession took hold in 2009, when she made the move into litigation and “absolutely loved it”! Following this transition, Louise explains that her work then expanded to include international arbitration, which is now the “main stay” of her practice.

Louise had always been drawn to the role of a solicitor versus being a barrister. “Being a solicitor involves, at least from my perspective, more teamwork and the ability to interact directly with the end client. I enjoy working with people and was attracted to working within a firm of solicitors. I also like mixing with the clients and being on the commercial side of things,” says Louise.

“In international arbitration, we act for clients – typically companies or high-net worth individuals – in their disputes with other companies or individuals"

Where the fun begins

“In international arbitration, we act for clients – typically companies or high-net-worth individuals – in their disputes with other companies or individuals,” Louise explains. In most cases, this involves reviewing the background facts and contracts or, if Louise is working on an investment treaty arbitration, reviewing the relevant investment treaty, before determining what rights and liabilities the client may have and then helping them to either enforce those rights or recognise their liabilities, or negotiate a resolution with the counterpart.

Sometimes the issue can’t be resolved through negotiation. “Sometimes we end up in an arbitration hearing or, if it’s litigation, we’ll end up before the court, which is where the fun really begins,” Louise says.

It’s clear that Louise enjoys what she does. “There are so many elements that make international arbitration and litigation work interesting, including how different one dispute can be from the next.” In arbitration, Louise’s clients also get to have a say in who’s on the tribunal, this differs to cases that are heard in the court and where a judge is assigned to the case. “In arbitration, the parties will often have the right to nominate an arbitrator each. So, you can help your client choose someone who has relevant industry or sector experience that they can bring to bear in deciding the outcome of the dispute,” Louise explains.

On top of this responsibility, solicitors in this line of work also have the chance to advocate on behalf of clients at the hearings – a part of litigation proceedings that’s typically left to barristers. “Arbitration is a great practice to get into if you’re considering becoming a solicitor but are also interested in advocacy, which is typically reserved for barristers”.

Louise recognises that arbitration and litigation enable those involved to “really get their teeth” into a case and to really get to know your clients and their business. “Very often you’ll be instructed on a case that can run for upwards of a year, maybe even two or three, and during that time you develop an in-depth knowledge of your client’s business and the witnesses involved in the case.” Elsewhere, for example in finance and other transactional departments, a deal can be quite “short lived”, and while Louise understands that some people will find the variety that short-term matters offer appealing, she personally enjoys the longevity of the arbitration and litigation cases that she gets to work on.

All hands on deck

As well as the opportunity to see different parts of the world and interact with people from different regions, Louise is also kept on her toes thanks to the constant opportunities to learn. “While I’m the expert in dispute resolution, I’m not necessarily the expert in every client’s particular industry or sector, and arbitration affords the opportunity to learn about those and develop a practice or industry expertise.”

On the other side of this come the long hours. “It’s not always the case, but I think most arbitration practitioners will tell you that there are crunch times where it’s all hands on deck and a lot of work is required – sometimes this can mean sacrificing your personal time, which can be a bit difficult. However, if, like me, you enjoy teamwork and are fortunate enough to work within a collaborative team, it’s all part of the fun,” says Louise.

Diversity and inclusion, and AI

Diversity and inclusion (D&I), both in the legal industry in general and in arbitration in particular is a subject that’s very important to Louise. “There needs to be more focus on improving D&I statistics, as this remains a huge issue for the legal profession and for law in the City, in particular,” she says. “We’re seeing an increasing number of women rising up through the profession but I think we really need to focus on practical steps to increase racial diversity and socioeconomic diversity as well.”

As well as D&I, AI has become an important topic of conversation for law firms around the world. Although, “in arbitration and litigation practices, most lawyers are accustomed to using document management tools and search functions that involve the use of AI, there’s certainly been an increased use of AI in other areas of law recently,” explains Louise. “There’s a big question that the profession is going to need to grapple with around how much of a solicitor’s role can be automated and outsourced to an AI function, and how much needs to remain with the individual lawyer. It’s one to watch – we’re going to see a lot of evolution and change in the coming years.”

“We’re seeing an increasing number of women rising up through the profession but I think we really need to focus on practical steps to increase racial diversity and socioeconomic diversity as well”

The importance of backing yourself

Having your finger on the pulse with these (and other) big issues is a key part of becoming a lawyer. Louise picks out a few additional skills and strengths that can set aspiring lawyers up for a successful career in international arbitration and litigation, including the need to be adaptable and flexible. “You’re constantly dealing with different types of dispute, client and method of dispute resolution, which requires you to be quick on your feet and quick to adapt.”

Communication skills also make Louise’s list of must-have attributes. “You’re expected to take what’s often quite complex and technical information and communicate it, either to your clients so they can better understand their position and your advice, or perhaps to the tribunal that’ll be making a decision on the dispute.”

Finally, Louise identifies the need for lawyers in this area of law to have good “stamina” and be “resilient”. “As well as the long hours, there’s a lot of international travel involved and when there’s not travel, you’re often working across time zones, which can add an extra layer of complication.” 

To overcome and succeed when work does get tough, Louise urges aspiring solicitors to reach out to those around them who offer a support network. “I think communicating around difficulties and challenges that we may face is important,” says Louise. “More often than not, a fresh perspective on a particular challenge or problem will guide you towards a solution.”

Her closing advice stems from the ever-present imposter syndrome that so many lawyers experience throughout their careers. The law, as we all know, is a competitive profession to break into. “Believe in yourself,” Louise says. “Don’t be afraid to put your hand up and back yourself. Most of the time you probably have the answer – you know what to do and you just need to give yourself a little pat on the back.”