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Louise Barrington

Louise Barrington über Hongkong und Kanada (engl.)


"Become an expert in a field that excites you."

Louise Barrington, arbitrator, mediator and educator, about the beginning of ArbitralWomen, the situation of women in law in Hong Kong and Canada, and what it takes to pursue a career in international arbitration.

Louise, you are a successful full-time independent arbitrator and mediator, you founded ICC Asia, the Vis East Moot and ArbitralWomen, and you teach at law schools in many cities. You’ve created an interesting and successful career. From your perspective, why has your career thrived so well?


Well, I guess it really depends on your definition of “success”. If success means being a partner in a top law firm, or having 17 million Facebook followers or flying off to my own personal Caribbean island – then that’s not me. If you define success as doing what you love with some measure of financial security, I do have success. If it is being trusted to resolve people’s disputes, then yes, I am successful. It’s partly because people in the arbitration world hear about me, for a number of reasons, but also because I have been around for a long time – and I work very hard!

In another interview you mentioned that when you started working as a lawyer in the field of dispute resolution you noticed that there were very few other women. Did that ever cause any doubts as to the probability of your own success? If so, how did you handle these doubts?

When I started practicing in Toronto, I was with a small firm in which I was the only woman. We were only six or seven lawyers and there had been a woman among them although she had left before I arrived. I didn’t feel like a minority in that situation, although I was well aware that most lawyers and certainly most litigators were male. But it never seemed to be an issue. It wasn’t until later that I discovered arbitration as a graduate student in Paris and that I noticed that there were very few women in that world. In the mid-eighties at University of Paris, scholars were talking about the Pyramid Plateau case, a very high-profile case in an ICC arbitration, and I found it fascinating.

I was teaching European Law and International Private Law in Ottawa when a friend told me about an opportunity to work with the ICC, one of the world's leading arbitral institutions. It was irresistable and I worked with the ICC in Paris and got “hooked”. In Europe, I experienced my first culture shock. It took time to understand and adapt, but being one of very few women wasn’t the issue. I was working at the ICC with very senior men, who were all open about sharing their experience and views, so I was able to observe and learn well before I ever thought of actually being an arbitrator one day. One of my tasks at the ICC Institute was to design and deliver training courses in international business and arbitration. I organised seminars on cutting-edge issues of law and invited experts from around the world. In those days, there were not hundreds of law school programmes and conferences, but those that did take place were very serious affairs! So that was my education in arbitration.

My very first arbitration conference – in Bahrain in 1993 – was quite large and grand for that time, with 240 participants from around the world. That’s where I realized that there were hardly any other women. We got together around the coffee table at a break – about nine of us, I think. Back in Paris, I was curious and decided to do some research. I sent a questionnaire to the women I had met in Bahrain and to a few other women I knew, and asked them to complete it and forward it to other women they knew. In those days, there were not many surveys, so even though it took over an hour to complete the questionnaire, I received more than 80 responses. I wanted to find out who these women were. There were some women who were already well-established: Brigitte Stern, Vera van Houtte, Teresa Giovanini, Antonias Dimolitsa (the only woman member of the ICC Court) and one or two others. There seemed to be no women from the U.S. or Canada, and certainly not from Asia!

Based on the questionnaire, I tried to piece together features of successful women in arbitration. Had I thought about it, “success” would have meant being known and respected by one’s peers and actually being regularly appointed as arbitrators.

Geoffrey Beresford-Hartwell of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (CIArb) heard about my study and asked me to present my research in Boston at a CIArb conference. It was not only my first time speaking on an international platform; it was also a radically new idea. I was hardly comforted when I overheard the famous arbitrator who was to chair my panel whisper, “But what is she going to say? Women in arbitration? Where is the problem?” And afterwards, an Italian arbitrator came up to introduce himself, saying, “So you’re the lady who wants to replace us men?” But to my surprise, the audience in general was very receptive. My findings were published later on under the heading “Arbitral Women: A Study of Women in International Commercial Arbitration” in a book edited by Geoffrey.

Those two conferences were the whispered beginning to a conversation that took fifteen years to develop into ArbitralWomen. For that reason, I call Geoffrey the “father of ArbitralWomen”.

When I started my research, I had assumed that family reponsibilities were holding women back – long working hours, frequent travel etc. But I found that although some of the few women who had “made it” were single, most were married and had children. What I discovered was that success came from a solid post-graduate educational background, language and management skills, visibility through writing and/or presenting serious academic papers, and lots of hard work. I later also learned that a key element is a very cooperative husband. I still advise women who want to succeed in this or any field to choose an understanding partner willing to really share home and family duties.

ArbitralWomen, which you founded together with Mirèze Philippe in 1993, is nowadays the largest women’s organization in the field of arbitration. How did it all start and what did ArbitralWomen look like in the first years of its existence?


Mirèze, who at that time worked with one of the ICC counsel teams, heard about my research and helped to organize and host the first dinner of women in dispute resolution in Paris. She was absolutely passionate about the idea. At that time, there were no female counsel at ICC and hardly any women working at the secretariat of the ICC or other arbitral institutions. That is now totally different. And I’m happy to report that Mirèze, still working with ICC as Special Counsel, is finally receiving recognition for her enormous efforts, not only through ArbitralWomen, but also inside the ICC itself.

Mirèze and I invited some women to that first dinner, expecting 15 or 20 to show up. To our amazement, we ended up with 60 women from Europe and America, all eager to meet and exchange experiences. The dinner was inspiring. There was a huge energy and optimism – all very positive and exciting. But still we did not know what we wanted to do next but we wanted to stay in touch.

Mirèze suggested we create a chatroom in Yahoo, and thanks to her savvy with this new internet concept, that is what we did. It was mostly a place to exchange news and ideas. Eventually though, a consensus emerged that we should create a real structure. I was sceptical at first because even then I didn’t realize the scope of what we were undertaking. But about 25 women got together and founded ArbitralWomen as a non-profit organisation under French law. Our first General Meeting took place in 2006 in Montreal where Donald Donovan introduced us at a gathering sponsored by his firm Debevoise & Plimpton.

Today, I am sometimes amazed by all the activity going on among ArbitralWomen; particularly in Europe, the U.S. and in some South American countries. Many organisations ask us to cooperate or support them, but even if we think their ideas are great, we sometimes don’t have the resources to take an active role. We try to concentrate on our core goal of advancing women in dispute resolution and not take on more than we can handle.

Is there something that women in arbitration can do to help promote each other?

Sure. We ArbitralWomen are doing lots of work on a number of fronts. Years ago, our then President, Lorraine Brennan, was working with an institution and another group asked her to support a conference. When she realized that there were no women speaking at this conference, she refused to support the conference and told the group why. Many of us began to write or call – and still do at times – when we hear about an upcoming conference with no women speakers, or only a token one or two. We don’t just complain though; we offer to introduce female experts that could contribute to the topic. We have had an effect; today it’s rare to see a conference flyer without at least a few women on the panels. But it isn’t enough. We are looking for parity, to reflect the high proportion of women lawyers now working in the field.

We also refer people to the webpage of ArbitralWomen which has made the names and CVs of our members publicly available, countering the old excuse, “I’d be happy to invite/appoint a woman, but I don’t know any.” We encourage women to volunteer to speak at conferences; the men around me did it all the time, but the women never did, always waiting (usually futilely) to be noticed and invited. ArbitralWomen has a mentor programme and recently a brand-new parental mentorship programme. We also offer limited financial support to law student teams which are either all women, or where half at least are women, for attending the Vis and Vis East Moots. YAWP, our young practitioners’ group, is very dynamic.

We organize or cooperate on scores of seminars, networking meetings and informal dinners or cocktails around the world each year. And we are currently working on a new full-day training seminar to deal with unconscious bias in the world of arbitration. Watch for that later this year.

Several years ago, you became a full-time independent arbitrator, mediator and counsel after teaching at various faculties for many years. That was surely a scary moment. Why did you take this step?

This was not really scary but something that I had wanted to do for years. At that time, I was teaching and doing occasional arbitrations as sole arbitrator or co-arbitrator. A friend said to me, "I could use help. Do you want to leave academia?" So, I started to work with him as counsel. He was quite well-known and we had some big construction cases. Eventually, we parted ways and I continued on my own, but decided not to seek complex cases as counsel because I didn’t have the infrastructure for that. (In contrast, with a little help and good computer systems, an arbitrator can work solo quite effectively.) These days, I love the challenges of working as a sole arbitrator and as a chair of the tribunal, but occasionally get involved as counsel to assist other lawyers who want arbitration advice but don’t want to send their clients to another lawyer. And by the way, I haven’t entirely given up teaching, and regularly do LL.M. and professional courses in law schools and for arbitration organisations.

Do you see any particular risks or benefits for female arbitrators practicing as an independent arbitrator?

Speaking generally, you are independent and on your own, so you can work at your own pace. Another advantage: I have no wish to retire because I love my work and can keep on doing it. In a university, where the retirement age is 60, or some law firms, when you reach 55, they show you the door. To me, that doesn’t make much sense. It’s a waste of good experience and judgement. As an arbitrator, those are two very important qualifications so it is a great way to prolong your career!

The risks on the other hand are the same as with any small business. It’s labour intensive and there’s little that can be delegated. You never know when the next business comes in. So even if you are busy, you hesitate to decline to take a case because you don’t know when the next one will appear. It is certainly a comfort to have other sources of income, especially at the beginning of a solo practice.

As to special risks and benefits for women, the risks and potential benefits are similar for women and for men, but the continuing bias (often unconscious) against women arbitrators means that the risk is greater, and the benefits not as readily available. That’s what we’re working to change.

You spent a significant amount of your legal education and professional life on different continents: Canada, Europe and Hong Kong. How would you describe the situation of women in law in Hong Kong?

When I was teaching at a law school in Hong Kong, at graduate level there were approximately 50% women, in some courses even more. There are lots of female law graduates in Hong Kong law firms, but many still avoid litigation and arbitration and few become barristers (except in the traditionally female niche of family law). Female partners are still not the norm in most Hong Kong firms, although most firms now do have a few. Many women still gravitate towards government, or transactional work or banking. Women today in litigation roles are far more numerous, but are still to a great extent in junior roles or second-chair roles. Female arbitrators in Hong Kong are particularly rare. Because arbitration proceedings are confidential however, we simply do not know who is doing it. There may be some experienced female arbitrators who aren’t even on my radar. To find out, I even sent a letter to women lawyers asking them to identify themselves if they were resident in Hong Kong and had experience with ICC cases. I received zero feedback, except from women who said, I live in or near Hong Kong and would like to do an ICC case! So I think we are still very few!

What is the situation like in Canada?

The situation of women in arbitration in Canada is not that different from that of female arbitrators in Hong Kong. Canada is an excellent place to arbitrate, but for some reason it’s an undiscovered jewel. Canadian business operators seem to prefer ad hoc arbitration, which means there is not much information out there about the arbitrators they are appointing. There are lots of women working as counsel, but I know very few women arbitrators in Canada. I am trying to find them, but again, because of the private nature of arbitration, it is hard to locate them if they don’t identify themselves. In both Canada and Hong Kong, I can still count the women arbitrators I know on two hands. I may not know everyone, but I am going to keep trying to find them!

In Germany, many highly qualified women lawyers become judges nowadays given that the conditions for balancing work and family-life are much better than in other legal professions. Are there any comparable trends in Canada or Hong Kong?

In civil law countries you decide whether you want to become a judge in your early to mid-twenties; in common law countries you become a judge after having been counsel after ten years or more of litigation experience. In common law jurisdictions, by the time the question of going to the bench arises, you are already in your late thirties, forties or more; your childbearing years are often ended. If you’ve managed to sustain a busy litigation practice while raising a family, then the idea of becoming a judge or arbitrator may feel like a step down on the stress scale, because you’ll have either regular work hours, or the autonomy and flexibility to organize your own career. An arbitrator can decide – in theory at least – how much to work and when to work. But developing a career as an arbitrator is also a daunting task, different work from being a law firm partner, but probably just as much. If you’re to succeed, it’s much more than just deciding disputes. First you need to get appointed!

Did you have any female mentors in the course of your career?

No, not really. I knew a few established female arbitrators but we were all in different cities and never actually worked together. Over the years, I had three male colleagues who were also friends and to some extent mentors. Only one was (and is still) an active arbitrator. But I learned so much from just being around them and from asking their advice on various issues as they arose.

Do you have any advice for female law students and young practitioners who wish to aim for a career in international arbitration?


Get a good, solid education, write a few articles about an idea, a case, a conference that interests you. Become an expert in a field that excites you. Think of using your private expertise and interests to complement your professional knowledge. (Think Art Law, Sports Arbitration). In a law firm, become the “arbitration go-to person” by keeping up to date on current events and sending a quick note around to the partners mentioning this interesting development. Volunteer to organise, but also to speak at conferences. Ask a question of one speaker at every conference you attend. People will notice you, even if you weren’t on the podium. Stay visible. Attend conferences and join local/regional arbitration groups. Be ready to seize opportunities for networking, exposure and experience, and personal support. Be prepared to work long and hard. We often hear that, to succeed in this field you have to be twice as good as a man. You cannot afford to be thin-skinned, and you must persevere. Join ArbitralWomen for all of this. And choose your life partner well!

Which women lawyer should be nominated as a role model for breaking.through? Why?


There are so many incredible women to inspire us! Take a look at the women portrayed in "Women Pioneers in Dispute Resolution", published by ArbitralWomen and the German organization GIZ. It’s a lovely book made up of photos and a series of vignettes about women who have in some way broken through barriers in dispute resolution. Women like Karen Mills, an American arbitrator who has lived in Indonesia for 35 years. Gabrielle Kaufmann-Kohler, a Swiss scholar, arbitrator, teacher and talented businesswoman. Sabine Stricker-Kellerer, formerly a partner in a multinational firm, who has been working successfully in arbitration and whose son has followed in her footsteps. Nayla Comair-Obeid has overcome tremendous male bias to establish her arbitration law firm in Lebanon and now has her son and daughter as partners. And Teresa Cheng, the exception that proves the rule in Hong Kong. A very busy arbitrator, Teresa has recently been appointed Secretary for Justice in Hong Kong. I do recommend the “Pioneers”-book for inspiration!

Thank you so much for this interview!

Toronto / Frankfurt on the Main, 4 April 2018. The interview was conducted by Nadja Harraschain.

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