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Thought Leader

WWL Ranking: Thought Leader

WWL says

Christian Leathley is “an outstanding lawyer” who gains recognition for being “very active in the field, to the benefit of the global arbitration community”.

Questions & Answers

Christian Leathley specialises in international commercial and investment arbitration. He has represented clients across all the major institutional rules, and represents both investors and states in investor-state cases. He is head of Herbert Smith Freehill’s Latin America group, and head of the US international arbitration group. Fluent in Spanish, Christian conducts hearings in Spanish and English. He is qualified to practise New York and English law, and has experience in business, and human rights and public international law.

What inspired you to pursue a career in international arbitration? 

From the start of my career in the late 1990s, I wanted to be a litigator. Litigation was, I felt, the ideal discipline combining the “science” of legal analysis and the “art” of persuasion. However, motion practice was, to me, a distraction from enjoying court litigation. In international arbitration I discovered the perfect balance of reduced motion practice, merits-oriented work and the interesting aspects of cross-border/cross-cultural/international law.

What do you find most challenging about handling arbitration proceedings in Latin America and how do you ensure you are well equipped to meet them? 

The wide range of views on how international arbitration should be conducted in the region is the constant learning curve. The region has embraced international arbitration, yet cross-border disputes are not common for every client. Therefore, some clients have an extremely sophisticated appreciation of international arbitration, while others come to the practice fresh with a range of preconceptions. Therein lies the challenge of ensuring client, counsel and the tribunal are all aligned on what the issues in dispute are – and what the process should be to resolve them.

How have you seen the role of third-party funding in arbitration evolve over the past few years? 

Third-party funders are intimately involved in the inception, development, progression and enforcement of international arbitrations. That requires a careful management of processes, client expectations, procedures and strategy. We work with third-party funders both in support of our clients and also to help them assess their chances of success.

Since you began your career, what has been the biggest change you have seen in relation to the way arbitration proceedings are conducted? 

The biggest challenge today is the same challenge from 20 years ago. Everyone in the course of an arbitration says, “This is the way of conducting matters,” and yet everyone has a different or nuanced approach. This was once a conversation between a smaller pool of firms, arbitrators and other participants. Today, the conversation is global, and trans-regional. The challenge of disseminating what is (or should be) standard remains real – and central – to ensuring that the presentation of evidence and arguments is predictable, consistent and focused on resolving disputes in the best manner possible.

What do you enjoy most about your roles as head of the firm’s Latin America group and US head of international arbitration?

The peculiarity of an Englishman obsessed with Latin America is not unique – as I have a number of compatriots who have also fallen for the professional charms of the region. My leadership role, however, gives me the privileged opportunity to meet many people from across Latin America, and without exception all those I meet are enthusiastic to share their love for their respective countries and their culture. That experience is never boring. We have also grown a superb team with talented lawyers, and it is a joy to see their progression and success.

What steps can younger arbitration practitioners take to improve their chances of getting appointments? Is there an important role to play here for experienced lawyers? 

I would not encourage younger arbitration practitioners to rush to become arbitrators – it is a step in one’s career that comes naturally. However, there is a growing demand for younger practitioners who can preside over smaller-value disputes as sole arbitrators. Getting to know the institutions is invaluable in this regard. The value of sitting as arbitrator is that it allows you to see what is essential for a tribunal when faced with resolving a dispute. That translates into what evidence is persuasive, the manner in which arguments are presented, even down to what is required for an effective cross-examination. 

What advice would you give to younger practitioners looking to pursue a career in international arbitration? 

Do not discount how valuable it is to be a litigator first. Whether you need to obtain an injunction, or enforce an award, navigating court litigation is a fundamental component of being a good arbitration lawyer. Therefore, while the new generation are admirably hungry to devour international commercial and investment arbitrations, patience is a virtue – and consolidating solid litigation skills is important. I would rather hire a solid litigator who knows the skills of dispute resolution over an accomplished scholar in international arbitration who has not prepared a brief or argued a case before. 

In your opinion, where does the future of international arbitration lie? 

International arbitration will continue to grow – but will face the challenge of settling at the right mid-point so as not to overload itself with soft law. As custodians of the practice of international arbitration, we face the challenge of ensuring new participants can see how things should function through the introduction of soft law, but without over-burdening the discipline with the motion practice of litigation.

Global Leader

WWL Ranking: Recommended
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