Cavinder is CEO of Drew & Napier and has over 25 years of experience in international arbitration, acting as counsel in commercial and investor-state cases, and as arbitrator in ICSID, PCA, ICC, SIAC and LCIA arbitrations. He is also vice president of the SIAC Court of Arbitration, a governing board member of ICCA and vice president of the Asia-Pacific Regional Arbitration Group, and he is on the World Bank sanctions board. He studied law at Oxford University and Harvard Law School. He is called to the Bar in Singapore, New York and England.
DESCRIBE YOUR CAREER TO DATE.
I spent my early years gaining experience internationally: studying at Oxford and Harvard, getting called to the Bar in England and New York, and practising for a time in a New York law firm. I returned to Singapore in 1997, arriving in the midst of the Asian financial crisis of 1997–1998. It was a difficult time for many, but also a time when there was so much to do and learn as a disputes lawyer in Asia. I’ve practised out of Singapore ever since and have been fortunate to experience the growth of international arbitration in Asia, participating as both counsel and arbitrator. Most of my counsel work has been in the commercial arbitration space, though there is an increasing involvement as counsel in some investor-state cases. As an arbitrator, most of my appointments have been in the investment arbitration space – though I do take the occasional appointment for a commercial case.
YOU HAVE A MIXED PRACTICE, WORKING AS BOTH COUNSEL AND ARBITRATOR. ON WHAT SORTS OF MATTERS ARE YOU MOST FREQUENTLY INVOLVED WITH AT PRESENT?
Most of my time is still spent as counsel. The increased economic activity in Asia has seen the volume of commercial arbitration explode and it has been exciting to argue incredibly interesting cases as lead counsel. I have also had a few investor-state cases where I have acted as counsel, though my involvement in investment arbitration is mainly as arbitrator. I have a number of ongoing ICSID and PCA cases where I chair the tribunals, having been placed on the ICSID panel some years ago as one of Singapore’s nominees.
ASIA HAS BECOME A HOTBED FOR INTERNATIONAL ARBITRATION. HOW IS THIS AFFECTING YOUR PRACTICE?
It has generated opportunities for arbitration practitioners who know and understand Asia
to help clients and parties resolve their disputes. Every region has its own culture and a deep understanding of that allows me to do my job better; I cross-examine better and I understand the commercial setting of cases better, which ultimately leads to clearer advocacy. Clients appreciate this and have chosen to trust more of their cases to leading arbitration practitioners in the region. This has made my life interesting and exciting.
HOW COMPETITIVE IS THE LEGAL MARKET AT PRESENT IN YOUR JURISDICTION?
The legal market in Singapore continues to be very competitive. Significant Singapore firms that do work in the region go head to head with international firms on a regular basis. Singapore senior counsel are in fairly high demand in the region and we often find ourselves instructed when the other side has instructed silk from London, senior counsel from Australia or senior advocates from India. The competition has sharpened us all.
WHAT DIFFERENT QUALITIES DO CLIENTS LOOK FOR WHEN SELECTING EITHER A COUNSEL OR ARBITRATOR?
I think when clients look for counsel, they are looking for someone who, besides being a very good lawyer, is also at home in a hearing room. They want someone who is at ease speaking to eminent tribunal members and cross-examining difficult witnesses. It is the quality of advocacy that is key. When clients look for an arbitrator, they look for someone who is fair, and who can demonstrate his fairness at a hearing. They also want someone who is constructive because he is more likely to be taken seriously by his fellow arbitrators.
YOU ARE INVOLVED IN A NUMBER OF ARBITRAL INSTITUTIONS AND INTERNATIONAL ORGANISATIONS. HOW DOES THIS EXPERIENCE BENEFIT YOUR PRACTICE?
This has been hugely educational. To have been involved in the rapid growth of the SIAC over the last 10 years as deputy chairman and vice president of the SIAC Court has taught me so much. I’ve been involved in a few rules revision exercises as well as been in a position to participate in consultations for new national legislation. While I remain active in Singapore, I’m now also heavily engaged in organisations that influence the broader international arbitration world, such as ICCA and APRAG. All this has given me a unique vantage point to watch, and influence, developments in international arbitration.
YOU PREVIOUSLY PRACTISED IN IN THE US BEFORE MOVING BACK TO SINGAPORE. HOW DO THE LEGAL ENVIRONMENTS DIFFER BETWEEN THE TWO JURISDICTIONS?
There are many differences but I would say the skills needed to succeed in both are the same.
WHAT IS THE MOST INTERESTING ARBITRATION YOU HAVE BEEN A PART OF TO DATE?
There have been many interesting cases but the code of the arbitration practitioner is to keep our cases confidential. What I can say, though, is that I often think nothing will surprise me again after how a particular case unfolded – but then something totally amazing happens in the next case. Life as an arbitration practitioner is nothing if not exciting.
Cavinder Bull SC receives widespread commendations for his work as a trial and appellate advocate, and is one of the top names in the Singaporean market, with broad sector and industry expertise.
Cavinder Bull is CEO of Drew & Napier LLC. Actively engaged in trial and appellate advocacy for the past 25 years, Cavinder is experienced in handling 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.
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.
What do you enjoy most about your role as CEO of Drew & Napier?
Drew & Napier is entering a phase of growth and development as a firm, and it is incredibly exciting to be leading the firm at this time and to help shape its future.
How effective are government efforts to establish Singapore as a hub of dispute resolution proving?
In recent years, Singapore has boosted its position as an up-and-coming global dispute resolution hub. The High Court of Singapore has heard cross-border cases for many years and now, with the Singapore International Commercial Court gaining traction, even more such cases are being heard in Singapore.
What impact is Singapore’s growth as a centre for alternative dispute resolution having on litigation in the country?
The growth of international arbitration and mediation in Singapore has generated much related court work. In particular, litigation in support of arbitration proceedings has increased. This ranges from applications for interim measures prior to the constitution of the arbitral tribunal to applications to set aside arbitral awards. In fact, the Singapore courts are continuing to develop arbitration and mediation-related jurisprudence at a significant pace.
What are the main challenges lawyers face when handling cross-border litigation between parties from different countries with separate laws?
The biggest challenge is a conflict of cultures. This 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. Appreciating the different cultures in play is critical in being effective in dealing with cross-border cases. Moreover, being able to explain that to judges who are also grappling with those differences can be challenging. However, that makes such work so incredibly interesting.
What impact has technology had on your litigation practice in recent years, and how will it shape the firm in the future?
Technology is increasingly being deployed in case preparation, as well as in case presentation. Clients and the courts expect Singaporean lawyers to be able to leverage technology to be more effective. We will see how technological solutions help to reduce time and costs for discovery processes, and how these solutions can radically change the speed at which allegations made in court can be checked against even the largest pool of documentary evidence. For the advocate, the use of augmented reality tools is particularly exciting, though we have some way to go before we see this widely used in all the courts we practise in.
You have enjoyed a very distinguished career so far. What would you like to achieve that you have not yet accomplished?
I have a few dreams and aspirations but I’m content to see what God has in store for me.
What is the best piece of career advice you have received?
Just do your best, one day at a time.