John V H Pierce is a partner and head of the international arbitration group in WilmerHale’s New York office. He represents clients in international arbitration proceedings in venues around the world, under civil and common law regimes, and sits as an arbitrator in international disputes. Described by Chambers as “a crucial figure in the firm’s global arbitration practice”, John is recognised by clients as “a very polished and accomplished advocate” with an “outstanding legal mind” and “a great ability to understand and execute complex business objectives”.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME A LAWYER?
I was inspired to become a lawyer by my father who, by his example, showed me that a career in law could combine elements of public service, engaging work on complex problems, exposure to a wide variety of industries and sectors, and opportunities to make a real difference in the lives of individuals and companies. Having seen the law put into action in those ways, my decision to become a lawyer was a relatively easy one.
HOW DID YOU COME TO SPECIALISE IN INTERNATIONAL ARBITRATION?
Having had the opportunity to live in Geneva as a child, and having worked and studied in France for several years during and after university, I was determined to have an international career. Because I was always more interested in a disputes practice than a transactional practice, when I left my clerkship on the US Court of Appeals, I looked for a firm that would allow me to pursue a career in international arbitration. I chose Wilmer in large part because I had heard about Gary Born’s practice and wanted to start my career in international arbitration at the very top of the field.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST CHALLENGE CURRENTLY FACING ARBITRATION LAWYERS IN THE US?
One of the important challenges confronting international arbitration lawyers in the US is the misconception in some parts of the world that an international arbitration seated in the US under an internationally accepted set of institutional rules (such as the ICC, LCIA or ICDR Rules) is nevertheless likely to approximate aspects of a US litigation – at least with respect to disclosure. The challenge is that this misconception may cause international parties to resist seating their international arbitrations in the US for fear of encountering US-style procedures in any proceeding that may arise. US-based arbitration lawyers have more work to do to make it clear to the global business community that this perception is misplaced. There is a deep bench of arbitration practitioners – particularly in New York, Miami and Washington, DC – who would ensure as procedurally neutral a process as would one see in any other major international arbitration centre, including with respect to disclosure.
AS HEAD OF THE FIRM’S INTERNATIONAL ARBITRATION PRACTICE IN NEW YORK, HOW DO YOU ENSURE IT STANDS OUT AMONG COMPETITORS IN THE MARKET?
The international arbitration market in New York continues to develop and become more competitive. Among the ways my firm has continued to stand out on the US side of our practice is by focusing on truly global arbitration matters and not merely on matters with a strong US nexus. Although we naturally attract a substantial number of arbitrations seated in the US or governed by US laws, an unusually large part of our US-based arbitration portfolio includes arbitrations seated around the globe and involving non-US laws. This global approach gives us the flexibility to handle whatever international disputes our clients become involved in and is consistent with our group’s philosophy of maintaining a single, unified arbitration practice, spread out over several global offices, rather than the Balkanised model one sometimes sees in competing practices.
WHAT ARE YOUR PRIORITIES FOR YOUR PRACTICE’S DEVELOPMENT OVER THE NEXT FIVE YEARS?
Over the next five years, we will continue to focus on growing our US-based practice, with an emphasis on leveraging our expertise in other market-leading practices at the firm, such as our IP litigation practice. IP-related arbitrations are on the rise globally and we are well positioned to ride that surge by merging our expertise in international arbitration with our expertise and experience litigating highly complex and high-profile IP-related disputes. We will also continue to exploit similar synergies with other leading practices at the firm.
HOW HAS THE ARBITRATION PROCESS DEVELOPED SINCE YOU FIRST BEGAN YOUR CAREER?
One important development I have noticed since I first began my career in international arbitration almost 20 years ago is the increasing tendency of international arbitration practitioners to rely on a standard set of practices and procedures in each case, rather than embrace the inherent flexibility of arbitration and determine the most appropriate procedures for a particular matter. It is natural, on some level, for practitioners to revert to a standard set of rules and procedures, but it is important to resist the trend toward homogenisation and work toward ensuring that each arbitration is conducted on a bespoke basis and in accordance with the procedures that make the most sense for that particular case.
WHAT STEPS CAN YOUNGER ARBITRATION PRACTITIONERS TAKE TO IMPROVE THEIR CHANCES OF GETTING APPOINTMENTS? IS THERE AN IMPORTANT ROLE TO PLAY HERE FOR MORE EXPERIENCED LAWYERS IN THE FIELD?
Getting those first appointments is always difficult because of an inherent catch-22: you need experience to get arbitral appointments, but you need arbitral appointments to gain experience. My first appointments came from arbitral institutions, which I think is quite common. Most institutions are open to giving a younger arbitration practitioner without experience as an arbitrator a chance to sit in on a relatively low-value case. It is important for young practitioners to get involved in the major arbitral institutions and to ensure that they interact with the people in those institutions responsible for making arbitral appointments. In addition, it is important for young arbitration practitioners to know other practitioners of about the same vintage practising at other firms. Very often, it is those colleagues and contacts who will reach out down the road when parties are looking to make appointments.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO YOUNGER ARBITRATION PRACTITIONERS LOOKING TO PURSUE A CAREER IN INTERNATIONAL ARBITRATION?
In the early years of your career, I would focus on surrounding yourself with the finest lawyers you can find who practise in this field, and building your written and oral advocacy skills however you can. Gaining as much experience as possible – at hearings, as a secretary to a tribunal, or in the office writing submissions – is vitally important, as it is that experience that will build your skills, make you shine within your firm, and allow you to develop a reputation for excellence with other practitioners in the field.