Stavros Brekoulakis stands out as “a first-rate arbitrator and academic”. He is an expert in construction and commercial disputes including matters arising from major infrastructure projects around the world.
Stavros Brekoulakis is a professor at Queen Mary University of London; and an arbitrator at 3 Verulam Buildings, Gray’s Inn. He is regularly listed in WWL: Arbitration and WWL Thought Leaders: Arbitration. He has been nominated for the GAR Award for Best Prepared and Most Responsive Arbitrator and is described as “very thorough and professional” and “being held in the highest regard”. Stavros has been appointed as chairman, sole and co-arbitrator in more than 40 arbitrations, both commercial and investment, under all major arbitration rules.
What qualities make for a successful arbitrator?
A successful arbitrator needs to have a diverse set of skills. But I want to focus on four qualities in particular.
First, a solid understanding of the commercial implications of a dispute. Addressing legal questions outside their commercial background can lead to artificial outcomes, which will be of no use to businesspersons.
Second, a hard-working ethos. Above all, arbitrators are (or should be) service providers, being available to address the parties’ requests and applications at any time throughout the proceedings.
Third, being flexible and practical in the management of the proceedings. We all know the arbitration cliché that no two arbitrations are alike, but we still tend to use PO and timetable templates. Arbitrators need to adapt the proceedings to the specific features of the dispute before them, rather than try to shoehorn.
Fourth, and most importantly, common sense in the management of the proceedings, the deliberations, and the final decision. I consider common sense a precious overriding quality for anyone who wants to be a successful arbitrator.
You are highly regarded for your expertise in handling matters concerning the construction industry. What impact do you think covid-19 will have on the construction industry and construction arbitrations?
There are clear signs that the construction industry will be significantly affected from the covid-19 pandemic. We are already seeing evidence that construction work is declining at the steepest rate since 2009. Many construction sites have been closed down, and where construction works continue, they are experiencing significant slowdown in supply chains for materials, and labour shortages due to illness, self-isolation and travel restrictions. Even when construction work resumes, contractors will have to abide by new health protocols which will involve severe restrictions on the number of workers that can be on site. These restrictions will significantly affect the level of productivity and the ability of contractors to mobilise manpower, and will eventually cause disruption and delays. I would thus expect an increase in construction disputes in the near to medium future.
What role do you see third-party funding playing in arbitration moving forward?
As we experienced in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, third-party funding will experience significant increase in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic. On the demand side, corporations will either run short of available funds or be reluctant to spend their own funds. On the supply side, the very low interest rates (which were reintroduced by central banks to address the financial effects of covid-19) means that available capital will need to look for other investment opportunities. With more disputes arising out of the circumstances, legal finance will have an even broader range of attractive opportunities to invest upon. The biggest challenge, of course, for claimants will be that, because of the increased demand, the costs of legal finance will also increase. This, in turn, will increase the pressure on law firms, arbitration institutions and arbitrators to reduce the costs of arbitrations. Reducing the costs of arbitration is of course desirable, but the legal market is already under intense financial pressure.
If you could introduce one reform in international arbitration, what would it be and why?
I would make expedited proceedings an opt-out option for all arbitrations below US$10 million. The introduction of expedited proceedings in the latest ICC Rules was an excellent initiative, but the current threshold of US$2 million is too low in my view. In the current environment, expeditious and low-cost resolution of commercial disputes is an imperative.
As an arbitrator, I have managed complex disputes under an expedited timetable, and I have seen in practice how an expedited, but realistic, schedule can focus the minds of counsel and tribunals to successfully cooperate towards an efficient procedure. To remain attractive international arbitration must be both innovative and, occasionally, bold.
What advice would you give to younger practitioners hoping to one day be in your position?
There is a great number of extremely talented young practitioners working in international arbitration. I often speak with them at my university, my chambers, and my arbitration practice, and I am conscious of the challenges they face in a very competitive field. What I usually tell them, by way of advice, is two things: first, while more and more young practitioners are looking to work in international arbitration, there are many more opportunities than there were 30 years ago. There are many more arbitration groups and practices in international law firms, and there are also many excellent career opportunities outside law firms, including in arbitration institutions and third-party funders. Second, international arbitration practice is a fair field and affords great opportunities for professional development. If you work hard, you will eventually be rewarded.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
“You do not need to be the best. You just need to be in the top group.” This piece of advice captures brilliantly a healthy attitude of balanced ambition, and was given to me by Julian Lew, who has rightly been in the top group for decades now.