IBA Conference: Bar talk

Thousands of lawyers descended on Dublin last week for the annual International Bar Association conference. Of course, The Lawyer was there too, to bring you the inside knowledge

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Asking a taxi driver about the mood of a city is always a good bet. Last week in Dublin the drivers were on good form and extremely busy as 5,200 delegates for the International Bar Association (IBA) annual conference descended on the city, with thousands of non-registered hangers-on in tow.

Although one driver revealed he had only been driving a cab since his business – importing trailers for builders – had failed while one waggish lawyer joked that all Dublin cabbies are ex-bankers, the general atmosphere was positive. Locals saw the conference as a plus for an economy that remains beleaguered.

There was, however, a notable difference in mood between the large Irish law firms and the mid-sized ones. The mid-sized outfits talked of fee pressures imposed by the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) and the hunt for work, while the larger ones spoke more confidently of big-ticket litigation and the complex transactions that are still keeping them fairly busy.

Warm welcome

All the firms with offices along the Dublin waterfront close to the convention centre experienced significant amounts of traffic during the week. A&L Goodbody, whose offices are on the same side of the river, made the most of it, with large ‘Welcome to the IBA’ signs outside.

McCann Fitzgerald chair John Cronin said he had not had a spare minute “since 4.30pm on Sunday” when the conference kicked off.

Delegates juggled meetings with existing and potential referral partners, and long conference sessions. Each of these lasted an attention-demanding three hours, but the topics under discussion, as well as the panellists, were of high quality.

Issues up for debate included banking and finance arbitration, law firm management, the state of the M&A market, social media and the internet, and human rights.

On top of the meetings the highlight was the networking. Official IBA committee dinners jostled with private dinners and lunches hosted by law firms, and any number of drinks receptions.

Venues and menus

The grand dining hall at Trinity College seemed a popular venue and was packed to the rafters on Tuesday and Wednesday nights with the guests of Mason Hayes & Curran and A&L Goodbody. Fellow Irish firms William Fry and Arthur Cox picked the stunning Round Room at Dublin’s Mansion House for their receptions, with William Fry bringing in a harpist and Irish dancers for its Monday night reception and Arthur Cox plumping for a sit-down dinner on Wednesday.

Across the city the fabled Guinness storehouse saw a stream of firms queuing up to ‘pour your own’. Other receptions included a breakfast event hosted by German firm Luther in the former main hall of the Bank of Ireland and Cuatrecasas Gonçalves Pereira’s wildly popular ‘Iberian ham and wine’ evening in, suitably, a tapas bar.

Network experience

But when the hangover fades, is the conference really worth it?

The number of return delegates suggests the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. There are plenty of tales of people picking up bits of work that develop into long-term referral relationships, while others tell of encounters that have led to jobs.

Networking at the conference probably does not pay off straight away, but there’s a good chance that in the longer term it will.

Joanne Harris

The sessions

The Irish setting was a fitting backdrop for a common theme in the many and varied sessions – the financial crisis.

The conference kicked off with a keynote speech by Nobel laureate and former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz focusing on this theme. He said Europe was likely to remain in recession for some time and that austerity was not the right solution.

“Austerity has almost never worked,” Stiglitz concluded.

He then suggested that a “more Europe” solution was necessary for the eurozone to survive, including mutualisation of eurozone debt and a common banking system.

His more cheerful message was that, no matter which direction the eurozone goes, there will be a boost for the legal profession.

Zone of contention

The eurozone crisis theme was highlighted by the Legal Practice Division showcase session entitled ‘The euro area crisis – thinking the unthinkable’. In this session panellists including Hengeler Mueller partner Hendrik Haag and Antonis Simigaldas, ex-CEO of Greece’s Olympic Air Group, explored the legal consequences of possible – but until recently ‘unthinkable’ – scenarios such as a controlled member exit or an uncontrolled eurozone collapse.

Haag noted that capital and exchange controls would have to be introduced in the event of a break-up to slow the pace of bank runs. He suggested it would perhaps be easier for Germany to leave the eurozone.

Simigaldas elaborated on Greece’s unique problems, while fellow panellist Daniel McLaughlin, the Bank of Ireland’s chief economist, added that a disintegrating eurozone seemed almost inevitable, but that this would be driven by politics rather than economics.

Bright spots

Topics relating to emerging markets were also discussed over the week. As Stiglitz mentioned in his keynote speech, these countries represent the sole piece of the world picture that provides a basis for some optimism.

“They weathered the 2008 storm much better than many of us thought they would,” he said. “China was a resounding success and India too.”

‘BRICS: trade and investment activities in 2012 and beyond’ was one of many sessions in which the increasingly important role of the BRICS economies and their effect on global legal practice were discussed.

In this session 14 veteran lawyers from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa not only highlighted regulatory updates and investment opportunities but also delved into underlying differences between their legal markets. All agreed that Russia has the most open legal market and India has the most closed, while China is somewhere in between.

Access to justice

Last but not least, championing access to justice for all was at the heart of this year’s conference. Fulfilling this responsibility has become a particular challenge for the legal profession, particularly in light of increasing economic inequality and shrinking government spending on legal aid.

A large number of sessions, therefore, were dedicated to addressing issues such as the lawyer’s role in tackling poverty and dealing with human rights, corporate social responsibility and environmental issues.

Yun Kriegler

The awards

Kimathi Kuenyehia

Young lawyer

In the atmospheric surroundings of Dublin’s Old Jameson Distillery, Kimathi Kuenyehia Sr became the first African to win the IBA’s coveted Young Lawyer of the Year Award, in recognition of William Reece Smith Jr.

Harvard-educated Kuenyehia is managing partner at Ghana’s Kimathi & Partners and gives plenty back to his local community through mentoring schemes and offering free legal advice to start-ups, young entrepreneurs and prisoners on remand.

Human rights

Abdolfattah Soltani

Abdolfattah Soltani, the winner of this year’s Human Rights Award, was not able to accept it in person as he is being detained in prison by the Iranian authorities for his human rights activities.

Soltani is co-founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre and widely known for his pro bono work and taking on cases that many others would not touch. He is serving a 13-year sentence and his daughter Maede collected the award on his behalf.

Pro bono

Tong Lihua

The award for pro bono work and access to justice went to Chinese public interest lawyer Tong Lihua. Lihua has dedicated more than a decade to developing pro bono work in China.

A key part of Lihua’s role has been helping disadvantaged groups in China. Perhaps most notably, out of his own pocket he paid to set up the Beijing Children’s Rights Legal Aid and Research Centre, the first NGO dedicated to providing pro bono legal services to children.

Ruth Green

Best of the blogs

Edited extracts from The Lawyer’s panel of IBA bloggers

Sean Jones QC, 11KBW

I love the lectures. This year the range of topics was breathtaking: torture (bad); is water law a sexy career for young lawyers? (no); how do we tackle human over-population? (culling and compulsory X Factor).

There were barnstorming performances (Justice Frank Clarke) but also some leaden reading from PowerPoint decks that sucked your soul out.

But mainly, there were too many speakers. The reason for this is association politics. A speaking slot is a reward for hard work

on a committee, whether or not the recipient has anything useful to say.

But here’s the joy of the IBA conference: for every speaker talking about, say, the greatest injustice in employment law being the absence of a treaty dealing with the international secondment of senior executives, one gets to hear from a lawyer who has, for example, helped to negotiate away apartheid. There’s always inspiration to be found.

Yun Kriegler, Asia editor, The Lawyer

It’s the networking that draws lawyers to this event from around the world. This year, 450 of the 5,200 delegates are from Asia. Although the Asian delegations account for a small proportion of the total, about 9 per cent, their presence has been felt.

As growth opportunities are generated in Asia, Western lawyers’ relationships with Asian lawyers are vital. Liberalisation is taking place in more Asian legal services markets so it’s never been more important for Asian firms to foster links with their foreign counterparts. The lawyers may practise different laws and speak different languages, but at the IBA conference they have a common priority – to have fun and make friends.

Stephan Swinkels, executive director, L&E Global

IBA president Akira Kawamura at first surprised delegates by welcoming them to Dubai, but afterwards charmed Irish lawyers by greeting them with a Gaelic salute. He interestingly made reference to Ireland’s most famous distant son, John F Kennedy, by asking delegates not to ask what the IBA can do for them, but rather what they can do for the IBA.

Then it was Joseph Stiglitz’s turn to note that austerity is almost never the solution a financial crisis. For Stiglitz, it seems the worse the news he brings, the more honours he receives.

Tim Strong, partner, Taylor Wessing

The IBA has confirmed #ibadublin as the hashtag for the week. At 3.30pm on the first day a search shows barely 30 tweets on it, a number of which are from me. Where is everyone? Are they watching but not engaging?

Interestingly, I’ve asked around 20 delegates about Twitter and not one of them uses it.

Angelo Anglani, partner, NCTM

There’s no let-up in this frenetic week and the mix of exchanges of views, leisure and duty seems to attract more lawyers every year.

Does it work? Yes, as long as you don’t let yourself be overwhelmed.