Hakim Boularbah is a partner at Loyens & Loeff (Brussels office). He focuses on corporate litigation (class actions, shareholders’ disputes, post-acquisition claims, etc); international arbitration (including proceedings related to arbitration enforcement, setting aside, interim measures, etc) and asset recovery. His expertise has been internationally recognised. Hakim specialises in complex and international dispute resolution. His practice covers civil and corporate litigation and arbitration, especially where it presents an urgent or a cross-border dimension. Hakim is one of the most renowned specialists of collective redress.
What attracted you to a career as a litigator?
Probably the diversity of the litigation experience. Each and every case brings about its own issues, which in turn represent new challenges to be addressed by the litigator. Communication, critical thinking and a problem-solving approach are all invaluable abilities that the litigator develops by working on diverse cases. Helping clients resolve their disputes also strengthens your relationships with them, which makes the job rewarding – even more so when there is a successful outcome. The diversity of the tasks handled on an everyday basis by a litigator is definitely what makes his or her work interesting.
How has your career differed from what you expected when starting out?
When I started working as a lawyer, I had a more idealistic view of a court system where the judiciary could fully concentrate on the cases in front of them. I soon realised that practical obstacles (and especially the judicial backlog in Belgium) do not always allow the judges to take the necessary time to do so. I have also been frequently surprised by the way in which the legislator can have a serious impact on ongoing cases, via legislative changes that are often motivated by political reasons. Another striking fact is that the legislation in Belgium is evolving ever faster, in tandem with society, so that the motto “lifelong learning” ends up being almost literally “daily learning” in order to stay informed.
How have class action proceedings developed since you first began your career?
Under Belgian procedural law, before 2014 there was no procedural mechanism in place that allowed a large group of injured parties to obtain compensation in an efficient manner. A number of special laws already allowed the safeguarding of collective interests, but did not allow parties to obtain compensation. Cases of collective damage had to be handled (creatively) according to the traditional procedural rules by joining individual claims together. In September 2014, the action for collective redress was introduced into Belgian law to allow compensation for the collective damage suffered by consumers as a result of a breach, by a company, of its contractual obligations or an exhaustive list of laws in the field of consumer protection. In June 2017, the scope of the class action regime was extended to include infringements of EU competition law; since June 2018, the action can also be brought by SMEs. Since the introduction of the mechanism, eight class actions have already been initiated.
Have there been any changes to the enforcement of foreign judgments in recent years?
The main change in the enforcement of foreign judgments in Belgium concerns the enforcement against foreign states. Indeed, ever since the Yukos debacle came to Belgium, enforcement against state assets has led to protracted proceedings relating to the new legislation on immunity of such state assets. Creditors of foreign states or state entities are required to obtain prior authorisation in order to enforce foreign decisions – whereas previously, for example, a foreign arbitral award enabled a state creditor to attach state assets without having to go to court first. It has definitely changed the landscape of recognition and enforcement of foreign arbitral awards in Belgium.
What do clients look for in an effective litigator?
Clients need a hands-on, solution-oriented approach. To this end, a litigator must know the climate in which he or she operates: the client’s business, the societal background, the specificities of courts and opponents, and the ever more rapidly evolving legal framework. An effective litigator should also have the courage to motivate the client to seek an amicable settlement, if this is in their best interests, which in turn relates to the general need for cost-efficiency. A good litigator carefully selects the strong arguments to bring a credible case, and proactively manages the litigation in a way that allows the client to focus on their core business and future objectives.
How has your work as an arbitrator affected your approach to litigation matters?
The dynamic of an arbitration is very different from the one prevailing in a courtroom. Arbitration focuses on efficiency whereas the efficient nature of state proceedings might sometimes be tangled with numerous and detailed rules. The challenge for dual-qualified lawyers is to be able to use the knowledge and experience they have gained through arbitration practice to positively influence the state proceedings. Doing so enables dual-qualified lawyers to better meet clients’ expectations, in an environment where disputes are ever more sophisticated.
How do you see your practice developing over the next five years?
The practice’s international reach in the field of corporate litigation and international arbitration will grow substantially, with the ability to work on complex and multinational matters together with the firm’s wider dispute resolution team. We aim to continue serving a diverse client list. Over the next few years, we will become the go-to dispute resolution team in Belgium.
What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a career in the field?
Get out of your comfort zone. Be on top of your cases and new developments in various jurisdictions – not only your own. Consider integrity, patience, perseverance and expertise as your most valuable assets. Starting out, your success is mostly dependent on the people you work with and the cases you work on. Even at an early stage in your career, you can have a direct impact on both these aspects. Maintain connections with people in your field by way of associations and other professional circles, which will allow you to share knowledge and deepen your understanding of the law – and be exposed to new opportunities.
The "brilliant" Hakim Boularbah is emphatically praised by sources who assert that he is "extremely smart and perfectly masters his cases".
Hakim Boularbah specialises in the field of complex and international dispute resolution. He is recognised as an expert in civil and commercial litigation and arbitration at national, European and international levels (The Legal 500, Chambers and the litigation, arbitration and asset recovery editions of Who’s Who Legal).
Hakim has broad experience as (sole, chair or co-) arbitrator as well as counsel in national and international commercial arbitrations (CEPANI, ICC, OHADA, ad hoc, etc), especially in contract and corporate disputes.
He is frequently appointed as arbitrator by the ICC, the CEPANI or Belgian courts of first instance.
Hakim also specialises in all types of court litigation related to arbitration (constitution of arbitral tribunal, challenge of arbitrators, setting-aside of arbitral awards, interim and summary measures, document production against third parties, etc).
Hakim is one of the most renowned experts in Belgium when it comes to enforcement of arbitral awards, especially against sovereigns. He recently enforced in Belgium the awards in the Micula and Yukos cases.
In 2017 and 2018, Hakim co-authored the Belgian Chapter of GAR Know How Guide on Enforcement, Global Legal Insights – International Arbitration and Chambers – International Arbitration. He is regularly invited to speak at conferences on arbitration organised by CEPANI, IAI or Francarbi.
Hakim is professor of dispute resolution law at the University of Liège (ULg). He is the author of numerous books and publications on judicial law, private international law and arbitration.
He holds a law degree (1996) and a PhD (2007) from the University of Brussels (ULB).
Hakim is a partner at Loyens & Loeff, where he heads up the corporate litigation and international arbitration practice of the Brussels office.