Baiju is a disputes lawyer in London and Moscow with nearly two decades of practice in both investor-state and commercial arbitration. He has served as first-chair advocate or arbitrator in dozens of high-value international arbitrations under all major arbitral rules, and is particularly noted for his experience in politically sensitive disputes. A graduate of London, Oxford and Northwestern Universities, he is licensed to practise in England and DC, and teaches international investment law at SOAS, London.
What inspired your recent move to Russian firm Ivanyan & Partners?
Only something truly unique was ever going to take me away from the practice and close-knit team I built at Jones Day, where I spent more than seven happy and successful years as partner, and would gladly have spent many more. But when I was approached by Ivanyan & Partners to create and spearhead a distinctive international arbitration practice based between Europe and Russia representing its key clients, the prospect was too remarkable to turn down. It is not often that one is offered the opportunity to defend the Russian Federation in its investor-state arbitrations while simultaneously creating and managing the first-ever overseas office of a dynamic and growing law firm. Plus, the dramatic reduction in conflicts would allow me significantly more freedom to accept arbitrator appointments, which I previously had to turn down on a regular basis. Finally, I have always been a bit of a Russophile; I can now indulge in the literature, history, architecture and culture of Russia in the small amount of downtime I have between my counsel and arbitrator work and my much-valued family life.
What are you seeking to achieve as global head of international arbitration at Ivanyan & Partners?
As short as 10 or so years ago, anyone wanting to practise serious and regular international arbitration work would have had little choice but to head to a major law firm in London, Paris, Geneva or the USA. Indeed, nearly 20 years ago, when I started in this field, I did just that. But that dynamic is slowly changing, where firms outside of those cities that used to act only as “local co-counsel” are now themselves lead counsel in high-value disputes. And that’s my ultimate aim: to have Ivanyan & Partners be a go-to international legal counsel for major arbitration disputes around the world – even those that have no Russian connection – using a team of dedicated high-quality international arbitration specialists that choose to practise with us instead of the usual law firms in the usual cities. And so it should be; while modern international arbitration’s origins are inexorably linked with the great European and North American names of past and present, international arbitration’s future is decidedly more global and diverse. One only has to look at the make-up of the moot court competitions in recent years, and ranks of junior associates practising in this field, to know that change is coming.
What did you find most challenging about establishing a career in international arbitration?
Funnily enough, the hardest challenge early on was probably the fact that I have no true fluency in a language other than my native English. I can get by in several languages – but not in a way that is going to dissect through piles of dense documentary evidence or plead complex legal issues to a distinguished tribunal. Many junior lawyers get their break in this field on the back of a language capability. Without those language skills, I had to adapt. I become the very best legal writer and oral advocate in English that I could be. I also immersed myself in the growing corpus of international investment law jurisprudence and commercial arbitration procedure, teaching courses at Georgetown and now at the University of London. And I learned fast what clients wanted and needed from their legal counsel when facing a large international arbitration dispute. Fortunately, that strategy has – so far at least! – paid off.
How does your work as arbitrator and counsel enhance your approach when acting in the other?
For sure my work as arbitrator has made me a far better counsel. I always “wear my arbitrator’s hat” when acting as counsel in order to focus my written and oral submissions on a critical and efficient path that will convince the tribunal to rule in favour of my client. No tribunal can scrutinise in detail the tens of thousands of pages of pleadings, witness statements, expert reports and exhibits that characterise so many arbitrations today; so the counsel that can translate that mountain of material in a way that gives the tribunal what matters most to its decision in the most persuasive and effective manner will succeed.
Similarly, as arbitrator, I understand both the commercial realities for private investors (both large and small, multinational and family-run) and the political imperatives of states and state-owned entities, because I have represented them all over the last two decades. And I have some sympathy for counsel (especially the more junior members of the team) in terms of workload and logistics in any matter; international arbitrations can be mammoth tasks and arbitral procedure needs to reflect and accommodate that fact. No party wants to deal with an arbitrator sitting in an ivory tower.
How do you handle the challenges of working with the Russian Federation on geopolitically sensitive disputes?
One cannot practise in this field for long, whether as counsel or arbitrator, without becoming keenly aware that there are always two sides – and sometimes more than two sides – to every story, and often this depends on who is doing the narrating. This is particularly true of geopolitics. Blind trust in news and social media, particularly those with angles spun by governments, oligarch media owners or ideological organisations, is the easiest way to adopt and then echo an opinion that ultimately ends up being detached from the truth. As lawyers, we should try and avoid viewing the world in black and white by losing our capability to see nuance and test the real evidence for ourselves. International law and legal rights do not work that way. For example, in relation to the portfolio of Crimea-related cases for our client, the Russian Federation, it is clear that robust and independent advocacy is required to bring out dispassionately the important central legal and factual points for each tribunal’s determination that can rise above the toxicity that has unfortunately characterised the press coverage on the geopolitical aspects of this issue. Put simply in terms of the bilateral investment treaty’s words, for instance, whether these Ukrainian entities are “investors” with “investments” on the “territory” of the Russian Federation to imbue a tribunal with jurisdiction should not turn, in any way whatsoever, on an arbitrator’s personal view on the legality of Crimea’s referendum and Russia’s consequent reunification with the peninsula. Nor can any bilateral treaty tribunal make any finding in relation to the legality of that situation. It is simply beyond their function.
What changes would you like to see in the field of international arbitration over the next 10 years?
More and more diversity in all its facets, leading to a place where diversity is so normalised and inherent in the process that we would never have to discuss it again. Where an all-female tribunal would be something quite normal. Where three African arbitrators could sit and hear a case that had no connection to Africa. Where international arbitration would lead the way in diversity such that it became a poster child for other legal and social science fields.
Following the decrease in corporate finance work being done by international law firms in Russia, how do you see the legal market there developing over the next five years?
The bite of sanctions, rouble volatility, and geopolitical tensions have seen difficult times for many international law firms in Russia, particularly those with practices tied heavily to global corporate financing markets. While some international law firms have exited the Russian arena, others have survived but in reduced form or relying on a smaller team of strong Russian partners with existing ties to loyal Russian clients. That in turn has led to a growth of new Russian law firms – boutiques springing out of international and larger domestic firms – and also a strengthening of established domestic firms that are becoming bigger and growing their global brand in specific areas. The challenge for domestic firms will be attracting lawyers used to working for top global brands who may find it difficult to move to Russian firms that lack the same historic prestige, or convincing sophisticated users of legal services that a Russian firm can provide the same level of experience, responsiveness, and quality as an international one. But it is happening and will continue to do so. For example, at Ivanyan & Partners, the firm decided to build on its international disputes capabilities, asking me to lead and expand that practice globally. Sophisticated clients increasingly “hire lawyers not law firms”, making it more about the quality and experience of the lawyers in the team than the strength of the law firm brand or the glitziness of the website or brochure. I therefore expect to see Russian law firms really come into their own as power players on the international scene over the next five years, with more and more foreign lawyers, like me, and Russian lawyers currently with international law firms, joining their ranks.
What is the best piece of career advice you have received?
As a junior associate in a major US law firm in the early 2000s I had an office on the 42nd floor of a skyscraper, though the office was comparatively small in size and on the side of the building with the least attractive view. One day, a large office became available in the team with stunning views over downtown, built-in furniture of the highest quality, and floor to ceiling windows of the types found in architectural magazines. I just had to have it, and set myself the task of acquiring that office. As I began to formulate my political campaign to convince management to give me the office, I got the best piece of advice in the form of what was alleged to be an old Afghani saying: “The poppy that grows the tallest gets its head cut off first.” In other words, let your work, leadership, ethics, principles and the way you treat your colleagues set you apart, not what you say about yourself and certainly not the size or look of your office. And I have tried to live by that philosophy ever since, believing that it is better for others to determine my quality for themselves by my actions, and speak on my behalf, than trying to prove my worth to others through self-promotion.
Baiju Vasani is global head of international arbitration at Ivanyan & Partners in Moscow. Over the last 19 years, he has served as counsel or arbitrator in disputes involving parties from more than 60 countries on five continents, including international arbitrations involving ICSID, ICC, LCIA, ICDR, SIAC, UNCITRAL Rules, bilateral investment treaties (BITs), the Energy Charter Treaty, NAFTA, DR-CAFTA, and public international law.
Prior to joining Ivanyan & Partners at the end of 2019, Baiju was a partner at two major international law firms in London and Washington DC.
Baiju has particular experience in energy, oil and gas, mining, telecoms, technology, cement, hospitality, and other large-scale project disputes in the CIS, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Latin America. He currently serves as lead counsel on several investor-state arbitrations, as well as on various complex international commercial arbitrations. He also sits as arbitrator in a select number of cases, including at ICSID.
Baiju is a senior fellow in international law at SOAS, University of London, where he teaches a postgraduate course on investment law.
Baiju has earned four law degrees (LLB, LLM, BCL, and JD) from the UK (London and Oxford) and the US (Northwestern), and is licensed to practise law in both England & Wales and the District of Columbia.