Job Watch: International arbitration

The move of Salans’ former UK head of international arbitration George Burn from Dentons to Vinson & Elkins this month seems to be part of a larger pattern – US firms bulking up their arbitration practices. 

What does this tell us about the UK job market? 

Well, reactions from recruiters are mixed. For Freddie Lawson at Glass Consultancy, “arbitration has been a profitable space for a number of years, but it seems it is white hot right now”. 

Daniel Smith at Noble Legal is slightly more subdued. 

“The level is higher than in recent years but there has been no notable flurry of activity,” he argues.

Maybe the mystery stems from the length of time vacancies tend to stay on the market. 

Lawrence Evans at JLegal says firms will wait for the right candidate to come along so some active roles have been around for quite some time, “perhaps giving the market an appearance of being busier than it is”.

Either way, one thing’s for sure – US firms are buzzing.

“US firms make up around 70 per cent of active roles,” says Evans. 

Smith agrees, saying, “the interest in arbitration lawyers has tended to come from the high-ranking US firms”.

They may have some UK firms hot on their heels, however. The 45-partner London-headquartered litigation firm Stewarts Law hired Philippa Charles as head of international arbitration from US giant Mayer Brown in 2013. Lawson expects to see more mid-tier firms growing the practice.

“Mid-tier firms are becoming  acquisitive,” he notes. “There’s likely to be a lot of movement in the partner market in the coming years, and with it some movement in the rankings.”

Firms outside the UK Top 10 generally require lawyers who have a mixed commercial litigation/international arbitration skill set, adds Alex Ring at DMJ Legal, “largely because they often do not have a standalone international arbitration practice”.

Lawyers with arbitration expertise are in demand, regardless of their PQE. Young associates are sought-after, as are those more senior, including lateral partners “due to the cerebral challenges of cross-border arbitration,” adds Smith.

If associates want to get ahead “they need to be flexible enough to ply their trade in different jurisdictions”, Lawson says, noting that Russia and the CIS are still busy, but “the sexiest area seems to be Africa”.

The highest-earning disputes at the moment continue to be telecoms, energy and mining. Bilateral investment treaty law, viewed as “complex and big ticket” according to Smith, remains popular, although he warns that demand has “subsided a little”.

Job Hunters should also bear in mind that there is “a prevalence of candidates armed with LLMs in international arbitration but who have little practical experience”, according to Smith.

“Our advice is that it is the latter that will help candidates secure the right roles, not the former,” he concludes.