Michael Young QC is "a standout name" in the arbitration space whose practice focuses on representing clients in energy, construction and infrastructure disputes.
Michael Young QC is a partner specialising in international arbitration. He is one of the leading practitioners globally and serves as a vice president of the ICC Court of Arbitration. He has represented clients in countless arbitrations throughout the world. Although experienced across all industry and market sectors, he has a specific focus on energy, manufacturing and infrastructure disputes. Those disputes have arisen worldwide, though he has a particular focus on Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
What inspired you to pursue a career in law?
A sudden realisation at school that I was better at English than maths! The love of a good argument also saw me drift naturally to the law (and especially disputes work). Beyond that, I am one of those lucky (and perhaps rare) lawyers who enjoys both the law and its practice. As a living thing, the law evolves constantly – and an important part of our work is to help it along in that development. Few other careers give you an opportunity to continue to learn new things every week.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of a career in such an international discipline? Are there any countries or regions you particularly enjoy arbitrating in?
Having an opportunity to work with leading practitioners (as both counsel and arbitrator) from a wide range of backgrounds is essential to your development as an effective comparative lawyer. Having said that, international work introduces you to a great paradox: lawyers do things differently around the world, depending on their legal education; but ultimately, on matters of substance, there are few truly unique features in any legal system. Lawyers are only human, after all. As for an enjoyable fora in which to arbitrate, Nigeria is hard to beat.
Your practice spans a range of sectors from energy to infrastructure – to what extent is sector-specific knowledge of the part of the arbitrator important in commercial disputes?
It can be very important, depending on the nature of the dispute. Many energy disputes with state entities, for example, concern production-sharing agreements. Without understanding either their history or their economic rationale, it is easy to misunderstand the way in which they work. A lack of sector-specific knowledge also makes the cross-examination of witnesses (and notably expert witnesses) much less effective! Having said that, the core expertise of any international arbitration practitioner should be international arbitration. Sector-specific knowledge supplements that foundation stone; it does not replace it. One of the most rewarding aspects of our work is suddenly becoming, over the lifetime of a case, a mini-expert in a particular field.
How has the rise of AI and technology in legal practice impacted arbitration proceedings?
In my experience, the greatest impact has been in marshalling and reviewing the documents that ultimately find their way into evidence. Much of the core drudge work from the past has disappeared, and the ability to locate relevant evidence quickly and accurately has had a very positive effect on the drafting of party submissions and in the preparations for any hearing. Having said that, there is always a strong human element in our work. At its most basic, we are seeking to persuade up to three people that our arguments are better than those of our opponents. A machine cannot tell you how to do that, let alone do it for you. A machine cannot cross-examine a witness. A machine cannot adapt its approach to react to any slight change in the facial expressions of the tribunal. I would hope that a machine would never be able to do any of those things (or, if it does, that I will have long retired by then!).
How have you seen the role of third-party funding in arbitration evolve over the past few years?
My own practice remains anchored in commercial litigation, and within that acting for large international clients. In 25 years, I have only seen one case in which an opponent was funded by a third party, and never one of my own clients. From that, I would say that third-party funding remains a minority issue in large commercial claims.
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?
Within the ICC, there has been a conscious effort to ensure that appointments reflect the diversity and mix of the legal profession itself. Those within the national committees, or within the Court itself, have played an important role in furthering that objective. It is difficult to be on someone’s radar, however, unless they have heard of you. That places an onus on younger practitioners to publish and attend events, and to contribute actively to any conferences that they do attend. There are many arbitrations out there which are neither high-value nor especially complex, and which could be run effectively by younger practitioners. It is incumbent on parties to think of those individuals as candidates when they are selecting their tribunal.
What is the best piece of career advice you have received?
Charles Plant, the former head of Herbert Smith’s disputes practice, gave fantastic career advice. Indeed, he had a strong influence over the careers of many other leading practitioners (such as Ted Greeno, Paula Hodges QC and Matthew Weiniger QC, to name just three). It is hard to pick from among his observations, but two stand out. First, he underscored that the client should always be made to feel that they are the only person for whom you are working. Secondly, he believed that a team is only as good as its weakest link. It is important to nurture and develop the team around you, and give everyone the opportunity to develop their skills to the highest level.