Cavinder Bull SC is “one of the best choices of counsel in Singapore” and a “very persuasive, thorough advocate”. Peers note that he is “really breaking into the market”.
Cavinder Bull SC is the CEO of Drew & Napier. He has over 25 years’ experience in international arbitration, acting as counsel in commercial and investor-state cases, and as arbitrator in ICSID, PCA, NAFTA, ICC, SIAC and LCIA arbitrations. He is vice president of the SIAC Court of Arbitration and the Asia-Pacific Regional Arbitration Group; a governing board member of ICCA; and a member of the World Bank sanctions board. Cavinder studied law at Oxford and Harvard Universities. He is called to the Bar in Singapore, New York, and England and Wales.
What inspired you to pursue a legal career?
The main motivation was my desire to be an advocate and to participate in significant cases, so I could have a part to play in determining the important issues of the day.
How have the Singaporean government’s efforts to promote the country as a disputes hub in the region affected the market and type of work you have been seeing recently?
Singapore’s efforts over the past 10 years or so to position the country as a dispute resolution hub have been hugely successful in attracting cross-border cases for resolution here. The number of international commercial arbitrations, as well as investor-state arbitrations, is increasing steadily. This has given those of us practising in Singapore many opportunities to be involved in incredibly interesting cases.
Your practice spans a range of sectors from banking to telecoms. To what extent is sector-specific knowledge on the part of the arbitrator important when handling commercial disputes?
Sector-specific knowledge is very important. With it, we understand parties better and can appreciate the factual background to a dispute more thoroughly. Throughout the years I have been fortunate to have worked on a diverse range of cases, which has given me insight into a number of industries operating in Asia.
What do you enjoy most about your role as vice-president of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC)?
It has been very satisfying to have been involved in the rapid growth of SIAC over the past 10 years, as deputy chairman and vice president of the SIAC Court. It has also deepened my knowledge of every aspect of institutional arbitration, and allowed me to be involved in a few rules-revision exercises, and participate in consultations for new national legislation.
You have a strong background practising internationally in the UK, the US and Singapore – how does this enhance your approach to international arbitration proceedings?
My work is international in nature and one has to have an international perspective in order to do it well. My time in the US and in the UK helps me with that. Even today, as I work on South American and African cases, I learn more and more how commercial environments are different all over the world. The experiences have been very helpful.
What qualities make for an effective advocate in contentious proceedings?
Integrity; unquenchable thirst for knowledge of the law and beyond; a strong dose of hard work; and a good appetite for a challenge. One should prepare thoroughly, speak clearly, listen carefully and be tenacious.
As CEO of Drew & Napier, how have you looked to develop the firm’s investor-state arbitration practice?
We have been doing investor-state work now for seven or eight years. Our experience was first gained acting for Asian governments who knew Drew & Napier and trust us. Building from there, we subsequently got work from investors, both Singaporean and non-Singaporean. We now have a number of partners who have experience in this area and quite a number of lawyers who have hands-on experience with investor-state cases. I myself have been appointed a number of times as an arbitrator in ICSID, PCA and NAFTA cases, and at times my associates are appointed as tribunal secretaries to assist me. So we are growing our expertise in this area quite rapidly.
What is the best piece of career advice you have received?
Just do your best one day at a time.
Cavinder Bull SC has “excellent knowledge of the law” according to sources, who commend his “rapid response and clarity of advice” when handling complex commercial disputes.
Cavinder Bull SC is the CEO of Drew & Napier LLC. Actively engaged in trial and appellate advocacy for the past 25 years, Cavinder handles a wide range of complex litigation matters including corporate disputes, fraud, insolvency, private equity disputes, antitrust and international arbitration. He graduated from Oxford University with first class honours in law and has an LLM from Harvard Law School. He is called to the Bar in Singapore, New York and England. He was appointed senior counsel by the Chief Justice of Singapore, one of a handful to be appointed before the age of 40.
How has your practice developed over the past year?
The past year saw a sharp increase in high-value disputes work with a number of industries under stress leading to litigation. In particular, there has been a significant increase in cross-border joint venture disputes coming out of developing countries in the region. This has led to litigation in the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) as well as in the Singapore High Court. In addition, there has been an increase in insolvency-related litigation, especially as the Singapore courts have positioned themselves as a forum for insolvent corporate restructurings. This increase in work has, of course, been in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic which resulted in many disputes being heard virtually. As a result, the past year has seen technology embraced and deployed to great effect.
How do your arbitration and litigation practices complement each other?
Complex litigation often involves multiple proceedings in different fora. So, it is not unusual to have one aspect of a dispute fought out in court and another in arbitration. In addition, arbitrations often benefit from interim orders made by the seat court and, of course, there is the issue of any challenges that might subsequently be made to an arbitral award in court. Clients much prefer having the same counsel handling all aspects of the dispute so that the case is handled seamlessly. As a result, it has been very useful to have active practices in both arbitration and litigation so as to deliver a holistic effort for our clients.
How have the Singaporean courts adapted to the changes brought by the covid-19 restrictions?
In April 2020, when the Singapore government announced “circuit breaker measures”, which saw enhanced social distancing and isolation measures for a month, the Singapore courts promptly adjusted to have the majority of hearings held virtually. This ensured that the Singapore courts continued to hear and decide cases. The administration of justice continued, and tech-savvy counsel were able to quickly shift into another gear and continue fighting their clients’ cases, albeit in a slightly different environment. After the “circuit breaker” period was over, the courts continued to use a mix of socially distanced in-person hearings and fully virtual hearings, which have been incredibly effective in ensuring that cases continue to be heard and that justice is not delayed.
To what extent can virtual hearings be relied on to decide high-stakes multibillion-dollar cases between parties?
Virtual hearings can work very well. They work better if counsel and judges are comfortable with technology but even those who were not tech-savvy have quickly learned to use virtual platforms to present or hear cases well. My experience has been that even high-stakes cases are being handled very efficiently and effectively on virtual platforms. It all just requires a change in mindset.
How does Singapore differ from other countries as an alternative dispute resolution centre?
Singapore’s efforts over the last 10 years or so to position the country as a dispute resolution hub have been hugely successful. The strategy has been to offer a range of dispute resolution options including court litigation, international arbitration and mediation. This strategy has been supported by significant innovations like the development of the SICC to handle international or cross-border cases even if they are unrelated to Singapore. Other innovations include the rapid development of a sophisticated jurisprudence on international arbitration and the Singapore Convention on Mediation.
Do you have any advice for fellow practitioners when dealing with a conflict of cultures in cross-border litigation proceedings?
Appreciating the different cultures at play is critical in being effective when dealing with cross-border cases. These differences may be reflected in different legal systems being in play for different aspects of a case. It is also reflected in the process of understanding the evidence, as an appreciation of how people in different countries behave is important. Moreover, being able to explain that to judges who are also grappling with those differences can be challenging. My advice to fellow practitioners is to be open-minded when dealing with people and situations from outside your home jurisdiction. There is nothing more negative in that situation than for counsel to be culturally arrogant.
As CEO of Drew & Napier, what steps you have taken to navigate the firm through a global pandemic?
Two things have been key. The first is a deep sense of esprit de corp. Everyone needs to pull together in a crisis like this and the group’s needs have to be placed above individual needs. That perhaps sounds odd coming from a person whose career is built on defending parties’ rights, but a response to the pandemic is not a litigation. The second key concern has been embracing technology. The ability to do so gives organisations time and space to solve problems and to keep going.
What has been your greatest achievement to date?
Others can decide that; I would rather keep looking forward.