Arbitration Law: Niuscha Bassiri, Associate at Hanotiau & van den Berg (HVDB)

Brussels Legal sat down with Niuscha Bassiri, Associate at HVDB (Hanotiau & van den Berg) to discuss her fast-paced career as an arbitration lawyer in Brussels and beyond.

BL: What range of issues does an arbitration lawyer typically cover in private practice?

NB: The issues vary depending on whether the lawyer plays the role of counsel or arbitrator. 

What is inherent to international arbitration in general is the wealth of sectors practitioners are exposed to during the course of their careers in the field. Arbitration lawyers also get a good overview of comparative law, considering the variety of jurisdictions, applicable law, and place of arbitration.

For counsel, client management can sometimes be challenging as clients are more often than not located in a third country. Regular telephone and video conferences are required in order to keep in touch. Ideally, someone on the team should speak the same language as the client or even be from the same country in order to overcome any cultural discrepancies.

File management is also a challenge and requires a good electronic and hard copy filing system. Arbitration is often document heavy, with numerous documents being exhibited in voluminous submissions. The use of indices is therefore crucial. In the electronic context, this means hyperlinking the indices to the exhibits, which can be quite time consuming!

Given that arbitration is party-driven, it is important to find a balance between providing the parties, and thereby the arbitration proceedings, with a defined structure, while at the same time allowing enough freedom for the parties to shape the proceedings. Also, arbitrators should be able to identify the cultural and psychological nuances between the parties, counsel and their co-arbitrators. A lot of disputes are “lost in translation”, i.e. the cultural differences are not taken into account when decisions are made which can lead to procedural hick-ups.

Finally, an aspect of arbitration that I particularly enjoy is working with local co-counsel, which enriches my knowledge of the laws of other countries.

BL: What is it that drew you to a career in arbitration?

NB: The fact that there is no routine.

Coming from a mixed background myself, I was always interested in different cultures. This interest extended into my law studies, during which I focused on private international law, public international law, European law, and took advantage of the EU’s Erasmus program by studying in Barcelona for a year.

It still strikes me as amazing that as a German lawyer I have had the chance to apply so many different laws from different countries in the various arbitration cases I have been involved to date. To work in arbitration is both truly global while at the same time remains more local than one is ready to admit.

In addition, international arbitration is a specific procedure enabling dispute resolution on all kinds of contracts involving all kinds of industries, allowing for a tailor-made procedure, depending on the subject matter of the dispute, the parties, counsel, place of arbitration and applicable law. This both nurtures and challenges one’s ability to think outside the box and find specific solutions to particular problems.

BL: How creative do you perceive your work to be?

NB: I believe my work to be very creative. Both as a counsel and an arbitrator, you have to anticipate a lot of different scenarios – be it strategically as counsel, or procedurally as counsel or arbitrator. A good arbitration proceeding will depend on how good the arbitrator is and how well he/she guides the parties and their counsel. An arbitrator is often confronted with procedural applications by counsel – genuinely made or in order to delay or derail the proceedings for strategic reasons – which can jeopardize the often tight schedule of proceedings. In order to ensure a smooth arbitral proceeding, therefore, the arbitrator needs to be truly creative and have the necessary procedural foresight.

BL: What are the positive and negative aspects of your job?

NB: As mentioned earlier, the positive aspect of my job is that there is no routine. I find this very inspiring and it keeps me continuously motivated. Learning about other cultures through legal dealings is another positive aspect I would emphasize. It is not just a question of learning about the law of another country, but also interacting with lawyers and non-lawyers alike from different countries on a variety of issues.

Also, international arbitration gives me a very good reason to travel around the world, mostly for arbitration hearings, sometimes for arbitration conferences. The last conference I attended was the ICCA Rio Congress, which gave me the opportunity to visit the breathtaking city of Rio de Janeiro. Hearings in Geneva, London, Lausanne, Paris, Rome, Stockholm, and Zurich are also quite common.

BL: How do you see the development of the legal market surrounding international arbitral disputes?

NB: International arbitration has the image of being a constantly busy practice area. Similar to litigation, there are always disputes, and as such international arbitration is rarely affected by the ups and downs of the global economy.  International arbitration has become more popular over the years, as the business community has come to the realisation that it is a real alternative to local litigation disputes in a globalised world, where by now even mid-size firms are involved in international transactions.

I would say the popularity of international arbitration among law students is also growing rapidly. Universities, institutions and organisations are increasingly focusing on educating the younger generation on international arbitration.  A newly launched independent group called “Young ICCA” has, for example, stated as its mission to provide young professionals with access to the arbitration community and know-how by giving them a forum to meet, as well as providing for a mentee-buddy-mentor system, where the younger generation gets in touch directly with practitioners in the field. Such initiatives are most welcome as there is a real need for connections to be made in our practice area. Not every law student or junior associate can afford to attend the glamorous international arbitration conferences. The latter are of course still the best places to meet peers and exchange views and experiences in a more concentrated fashion.

In general, one observes that there is an up and coming generation of arbitration practitioners who have embarked on careers in international arbitration. In comparison to the older generation of practitioners, who mostly started in other related fields of law, this is rather unique. There is therefore a great opportunity for my generation of arbitration practitioners to be appointed as arbitrators in their younger years.

BL: Thank you and good luck.

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