Career Advice Recruitment tips

International arbitration is an ever-expanding sector, with opportunities for lawyers abounding, says Sarah Grimmer, secretary general of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre

One of the largest arbitration bodies in Asia, the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, administers dispute resolutions services to businesses and governments. HKIAC secretary-general Sarah Grimmer says the organisation provides an ideal proving ground for young lawyers.


What trends have you seen shaping the international arbitration sector over the last few years?

In addition to the steady stream of international trade, construction and maritime disputes, we have seen an increase in large corporate disputes, e.g. shareholder disputes and disagreements among joint venture partners. Cases are also increasingly complex, involving multiple parties from different countries, multiple contracts and very large sums in disputes.

We also see more disputes between Chinese and non-Chinese parties as a result of increasing cross-border commercial activity. Hong Kong’s role as a neutral and sophisticated dispute resolution venue is reflected in the annual growing caseload. Also, the disputes that we administer in Hong Kong are of the kind that will arise (and have arisen) in large deals under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.


What effects are these trends having on careers in the sector in Hong Kong?

There is an abundance of work in Hong Kong for lawyers specialising in international arbitration and litigation. Hong Kong hosts several top tier international law firms and many local firms with busy caseloads. Lawyers who are proficient in both English and Chinese are in particular demand. The increase in disputes also benefits associated professions like accountants, financial advisors, engineers, surveyors and so on.


What are the current recruitment challenges for organisations like HKIAC when looking for talent?

As one of the world’s leading arbitral institutions, HKIAC must recruit a balance of international and local talent, proficient in multiple languages, English and Chinese being the most important for our caseload. We compete with law firms for such talent but, as a non-profit organisation, we cannot be as competitive in terms of salaries. We attract talent by offering lawyers an experience they can get only at an institution, i.e. exposure to hundreds of disputes every year.


Has HKIAC made any changes to its recruitment strategy recently?

We have not made changes per se but have increased the team to match the growing demand for our services. We have hired more arbitration specialists, increased the number of lawyers bilingual in Chinese and English, expanded our business development team and our administrative support base.


What separates a great professional in your field from just a good one?

A “great” professional in this field is someone who analyses like a scientist, writes like an acclaimed author, speaks like a president, and conducts themselves gracefully in relation to all kinds of people, including adversaries, on a consistent basis.


Can you outline the path your career took to get to your current role? Is this a typical progression?

My progression was more atypical. I moved from New Zealand to France in my mid-twenties, which was key for my career in international arbitration. I worked at two important but very different arbitration institutions. The first was the International Chamber of Commerce Court of Arbitration in Paris which specialises in international disputes between businesses. The second was the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague which administers arbitrations involving states or state entities. The South China Sea arbitration was conducted under the auspices of the PCA. After ten years there, I took on the role of secretary general at HKIAC, which was a natural and exciting step.


How easy is it for professionals from other sectors to move into arbitration? What do they need to consider?

The move from litigation or transactional legal work to arbitration can be achieved especially if the person is an excellent lawyer and manifests an interest in dispute settlement. Strong legal skills are always transferable but a switch to another sector is perhaps easier done earlier in one’s career than later.


What is the hardest part of your job?

Two things: one challenge is not having unlimited resources and personnel to accomplish all of our ambitious plans, but that is life. Another challenge I face is countering misperceptions about Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a world-class, neutral, arbitral jurisdiction. Sometimes people who are not familiar with Hong Kong’s status do not fully appreciate what it has to offer.


And the most rewarding?

Seeing my colleagues succeed in their work and be recognised for it (especially the younger staff for whom their role at HKIAC is their first professional experience); exceeding the expectations of parties and tribunals in our cases (that is our constant goal); and the successes that we as an institution achieve (we recently won a bid to host a major conference in Hong Kong in 2022, equivalent in the arbitration world to winning the bid to host the Olympics).


Is a good work-life balance possible in your line of work? Do you have any tips on how to achieve this?

Sometimes. It is best to enjoy your work, be grateful for what you have, and make the most of the pockets of free time when they present themselves.