Benjamin Hughes is an independent arbitrator at the Arbitration Chambers in Singapore and Fountain Court Chambers in London, and adjunct professor at National University of Singapore Law School. He has been appointed as arbitrator in over 100 international arbitrations with a total amount in dispute in excess of $4 billion. Previously, Ben practised international arbitration at major firms in the US, Korea and Singapore and was associate professor at Seoul National University Law School.
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO A CAREER IN ARBITRATION?
Initially it was the international aspect of the practice. Although I am US-qualified, my first legal education was in the civil law tradition, at Seoul National University College of Law. I was attracted to arbitration because it brings the civil and common law approaches together in a way that provides a satisfactory dispute resolution mechanism for parties and counsel with various legal, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. I still enjoy this international aspect very much. Every case involves parties, counsel and arbitrators from different cultures and legal traditions around the world. You never stop learning something new.
WHAT QUALITIES MAKE FOR A GOOD ARBITRATOR?
Leaving aside the absolutely essential personal characteristics such as integrity, character and competence, I would emphasise more proactive attributes such as diligence and preparation. Arbitrators must take the time to thoroughly understand the case from the outset, not just in the days before the hearing. An arbitrator simply cannot make appropriate procedural decisions during the course of the arbitration without a thorough understanding of the positions of the parties and the posture of the case at the time those decisions must be made. And given the increasing size and complexity of the cases being submitted to arbitration, it is simply not possible to “read up” in the days before the hearing and do the case any justice. I believe most of the arbitrators being appointed in large and complex cases today are competent individuals. But some commit the time and effort to be prepared, and some do not. This makes all the difference.
WHAT CHALLENGES DID YOU FACE WHEN SETTING UP YOUR OWN PRACTICE?
I don’t think I had realised how much I had come to depend on the law firm infrastructure. Suddenly I had no secretary, no associates, no office – I had to do everything myself! Fortunately I had very few cases then, so I managed.
The financial aspect was also a shock to the system. Of course, I had assumed that I would generate little or no income for the first year or so. However, this was overly optimistic: I actually had negative cash flow during that first year, as I had to rent and outfit an office, pay for my own travel and attendance at conferences, etc. In addition, as an independent arbitrator there is no guarantee that you will ever generate a steady income. It’s not for the faint of heart!
YOU RECENTLY RELOCATED FROM SEOUL TO SINGAPORE. WHAT PROMPTED THIS CHANGE?
I was in Seoul for many wonderful years, during which I was fortunate to be able to help launch the international arbitration practice at one of Korea’s largest law firms, start my career as an independent arbitrator, and join the faculty of Seoul National University Law School. We love Seoul and still think of it as our hometown, but after a decade my wife and I decided it was time for a change for our family. Like Seoul, Singapore is a dynamic city with much to offer. It is ideal for both our family (because of the excellent schools, safe and clean environment, and unsurpassed infrastructure) and my work as arbitrator (because it is truly a global hub for international arbitration).
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES FACING THE PRACTICE OF INTERNATIONAL ARBITRATION TODAY?
In some ways arbitration has become a victim of its own success. As more and more parties from around the world and across a wide variety of sectors agree to submit their disputes to arbitration, we must all work to ensure a level playing field that provides both actual and perceived fairness to all parties, regardless of their cultural background or level of experience. This means educating less experienced parties and counsel about international arbitration, preventing abuse of the arbitral process by unscrupulous actors, and increasing the diversity of the pool of arbitrators in terms of race, culture and gender. This last item is very important. In order to maintain and protect the legitimacy of the international arbitration system going forward, token diversity for the sake of window dressing simply will not suffice. We must undertake the hard work of achieving true diversity, such that parties from all walks of life can be confident that arbitration will provide a fair and unprejudiced forum for the resolution of their disputes.
WHAT IS THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU HAVE EVER RECEIVED?
It’s a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.
Benjamin Hughes is a favourite among peers, who describe him as "the most sought-after American arbitrator based in Asia" and "a great practitioner".
Benjamin Hughes is an independent arbitrator with The Arbitration Chambers in Singapore and Fountain Court Chambers in London. He is also adjunct professor of law at the National University of Singapore, where he teaches courses on international commercial arbitration.
Ben has been appointed as arbitrator in over 100 arbitrations, including ad-hoc arbitrations and arbitrations under the rules of the following arbitral institutions (in alphabetical order):
ACICA (Australian Centre for International Commercial Arbitration)
AIAC (Asian International Arbitration Centre (formerly KLRCA)
BAC (Beijing Arbitration Commission)
CAA (Chinese Arbitration Association (Taipei)
CIETAC (China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission)
DIS (German Arbitration Institute)
HKIAC (Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre)
ICC (International Chamber of Commerce)
ICDR (International Centre for Dispute Resolution
JCAA (Japan Commercial Arbitration Association)
KCAB (Korean Commercial Arbitration Board)
LMAA (London Maritime Arbitration Association)
SCC (Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce)
SCMA (Singapore Chamber of Maritime Arbitration)
SIAC (Singapore International Arbitration Centre)
UNCITRAL (UN Commission on International Trade Law (ad-hoc and administered)
VIAC (Vietnam International Arbitration Centre).
Ben has also acted as emergency arbitrator and as sole arbitrator in expedited and fast-track proceedings and is a panel arbitrator of numerous arbitral institutions in the Asia-Pacific region.
Ben’s experience as arbitrator spans a broad range of commercial disputes, including joint venture and shareholder disputes, intellectual property and licensing, media and telecommunications, construction and infrastructure projects, energy and resources, shipping and shipbuilding, automobile and heavy machinery manufacturing, agency and distributorship agreements, military acquisition and procurement contracts, sale of goods and general commercial disputes.
Ben has been appointed as arbitrator in cases seated in Bangalore, Beijing, Delhi, Geneva, Guam, Hamburg, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, London, Manila, Maui, New York, Seoul, Singapore, Stockholm, Sydney, Taipei and Tokyo. He has heard cases governed by the laws of Australia, Austria, BVI, Cayman Islands, China, England and Wales, Fiji, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mongolia, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia (including Sharia), Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States (including New York, California and US territories) and Vietnam, as well as lex mercatoria and the CISG. He has also handled complex conflict of law and jurisdictional issues, joinder applications, summary dismissal applications and disputes involving multiple contracts and applicable laws.
Chambers and Partners recognises Ben as a “Most in Demand Arbitrator” in the Asia-Pacific Region, stating: “Independent Seoul-based practitioner Benjamin Hughes is consistently identified by sources as the pre-eminent international arbitrator on the South Korean scene, and is active across the region on a broad commercial range of issues. He is very highly regarded by interviewees, one of whom notes: ‘We have encountered him on several cases in the past few years and have found him to be excellent,’ while another notes specifically that he is ‘a very good chairman who is really good at running expert witness conferencing sessions.’”
Ben has taught extensively in the field of international dispute resolution, including as associate professor of law at Seoul National University Law School (2015–2019) and as visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law and the National University of Singapore School of Law. He serves on the editorial boards of the Asian International Arbitration Journal, the Korea Arbitration Review and the Journal of Korean Law and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, the Hong Kong Institute of Arbitrators and the Singapore Institute of Arbitrators.
Prior to commencing his practice as an independent arbitrator, Ben was the founding co-chair of the international dispute resolution practice group at Shin & Kim, one of Korea’s oldest and largest full-service law firms. He previously practised international arbitration at Shearman & Sterling in the US and Singapore and at Kim & Chang in Seoul.
Ben was educated in both the civil law and the common law traditions, having studied first at Seoul National University College of Law (all coursework in Korean), and then at NYU School of Law. While at NYU, he spent one semester at the University of Palermo Law School in Buenos Aires, Argentina (all coursework in Spanish). He also studied Chinese (Mandarin) and East Asian history at Harvard University.