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, CEO of Drew & Napier, has worked in trial and appellate advocacy for the past 25 years. He is experienced in 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 and Wales. He was appointed Senior Counsel by the Chief Justice of Singapore, one of a handful to be appointed before the age of 40.
Describe your career to date.
From the start of my career, I have always spent a significant amount of my time in court arguing cases. So I see myself as an advocate, first and foremost. Over the years, I have tried cases and argued appeals relating to a wide range of industries and dealing with different areas of the law. This broad diversity of work is one defining quality of my practice.
On what types of matters have clients come to you most frequently in recent months?
Cross-border litigation is keeping me very busy at the moment. This often involves proceedings in multiple jurisdictions, and complex issues around conflicts of laws where the stakes are high.
In your view, how competitive is the legal market in Singapore at present?
The legal market in Singapore is very competitive. Significant Singapore firms doing work in the region go head to head with international firms who are increasingly making their presence felt even in the Singapore courts. The advent of the Singapore International Commercial Court is one place where such competition plays out.
What qualities make for a successful litigator?
Integrity; unquenchable thirst for knowledge of the law; and, beyond that, a strong dose of hard work and a good appetite for a challenge. One should prepare thoroughly, speak clearly, listen carefully and be tenacious.
Your practice also sees you work in international arbitration. How does your preparation for litigation differ from that for international arbitration?
Counsel are given much more time for cross-examination in court cases than in international arbitration. This allows for more careful exploration of the evidence and the credibility of witnesses. As a result, preparation for cross-examination is much more time-consuming for litigation than for arbitration, but the effort is always worthwhile as, given enough time to develop a proper cross-examination, the truth always comes out in court.
What are the major trends affecting the Singaporean litigation space at the moment?
As Singapore continues to be a centre for international dispute resolution, we see the practice of litigation in Singapore acquiring characteristics from various legal traditions. This mix of legal methods and traditions has led the Singapore courts to remake court procedures, borrowing from the best practices worldwide. Another trend is the heavy use of technology in litigation practice. Technology is increasingly being deployed in case preparation as well as in case presentation. Clients and the courts expect that Singaporean lawyers are able to leverage technology to be more effective.
What challenges did you face when you first returned from New York to practise in Singapore?
There were few challenges there. I had practised in Singapore for two years before going to Harvard for my LLM. I then ended up in New York, working as a litigator at a leading New York firm. When I decided to return to Singapore in the midst of the Asian financial crisis, it was not a difficult fit. After all, I already had some experience litigating in the Singapore courts before I left. What I found was that my experience in New York had broadened my perspectives, and also allowed me to interface well with North American clients who had disputes in Asia.
What makes Drew & Napier stand out from other firms in the market?
We own the problem. Without losing our professional objectivity, we work on our clients’ problems as if we were seeking to solve our own problems. This drives us to leave no stone unturned – be that in legal research or sifting through the evidence. We always seek to get the best possible result for the client, whether that means taking the case to trial and winning it, or realising early that the best outcome for the client is a settlement and managing the case towards a mediated outcome. That level of intensity is what Drew & Napier has delivered generation after generation.