Building your Profile in International Arbitration. Interview with Roman Khodykin, Partner, Berwin Leighton Paisner


Russian Arbitration Association, Newsletter, Issue 1, 2013

Please tell us about yourself. Why have you chosen a career in law? Where have you studied?

I was born in Irkutsk, a town in Siberia. Most of my childhood was spent sailing on the lake Baikal and the Irkutsk reservoir. My first ever job was a sailing coach at a local sailing club.

A friend of mine got me interested in law and I enrolled at the law faculty of Irkutsk State Technical University. I graduated with honours in 2000. Even while being a student I was very much interested in research and scholarly activities, and participated in all sorts of conferences and even won a regional Law Olympiad in Civil Law for which I received the Presidential scholarship.

I wanted to do a Ph.D. but it was rather difficult in Irkutsk. There was no academic council empowered to grant Ph.D. in my area of interest (civil law or conflict of laws). Nor was there a good legal library in Irkutsk, all scholars would go to Moscow, St Petersburg or another big city just to spend a few weeks in a library. That is why in 2001 I moved to Moscow to take a chance with Moscow think tanks.

I passed the entrance exams to and became a Ph.D. student in the Private International and Civil Law department of Moscow State Institute of International Relations. That was one of the most important building blocks in my arbitration career. It is the only Russian institution where international commercial arbitration has been taught for more than 30 years! Although my dissertation was in the field of conflict of laws rather than arbitration, I learnt a great deal during my Ph.D. studies there. Not only was I lucky to have one of the most prominent arbitration specialists in the country  Professor Sergey N. Lebedev  appointed as my research supervisor, but also the department gathered together a number of remarkable scholars and arbitration practitioners, such as Alexey A. Kostin, Vitaly A. Kabatov, Alexander I. Muranov, Nikolai G. Eliseev, Evgeniy A. Vasiliev, Elena V. Kabatova and others. It was a pleasure studying there, to be part of this small arbitration community and to absorb arbitration knowledge on a daily basis...

In 2003 I went to London to study at the School of International Arbitration, Queen Mary. My professors there were Dr Loukas Mistelis and Julian Lew QC. They are brilliant scholars and teachers to say the least. The breadth of their knowledge and expertise and the approach to teaching makes the School of International Arbitration a unique place. It was a privilege to study there.

In 2005 I defended my dissertation "Principles Underlying Conflict of Laws Rules in Private International Law" and was awarded a Ph.D. Since then and until August 2012 I taught Conflict of Laws, Civil Procedure and International Trade Law at Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

It looks like you have spent a lot of time on academic matters. But we also know you as a successful practitioner. Please tell us about this side of your career

It is alarming how many Russian scholars write about arbitration without having handled a single case. I like the description offered by Dr Loukas Mistelis: "Arbitration is like sex because lawyers talk about it more than they practice it." So I realised that in order to succeed in arbitration career it is important to manage real cases.

When I came back from London I started working at Monastyrsky, Zyuba, Stepanov & Partners (MZS). I joined the firm by lucky chance: Yuri Monastyrsky had read one of my articles and invited me for an interview. I worked at MZS for two years and that was a really enjoyable time. At that time the firm had an unbeatable track record in domestic litigation. This was due to the quality of litigators they had on board, in particular, Yuri Monastyrsky and Dmitry Lovyrev. I learnt a lot from them. I appeared in courts in a number of high profile cases. Last but not least, the firm had a very friendly environment; it was pleasure to go to the office every morning! This is why it was very difficult for me to leave the firm but I wanted more exposure to international arbitration cases.

In 2005 I joined the Moscow office of Clifford Chance. The firm gave me great arbitration experience and was the top practice in the market with Ivan Marisin and Timur Aitkulov working as two parts of the same whole. I also worked with John Beechey, Audley Sheppard, Rob Lambert and Nick Munday in the London office. They are all excellent lawyers and they helped me a great deal in developing my arbitration knowledge and skills. We always worked closely with other offices and I made a lot of friends in the international arbitration community through my work there.

In May 2012 I became a partner at the International Arbitration Group of the London office of Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP (BLP). This was another big leap in my career. The firm gave me an opportunity to build my own arbitration practice. BLP gathered six very talented arbitration partners. It is a delight to work with Nic Fletcher, Stuart Isaacs QC, Michael Polonsky, Carol Mulcahy, Richard Power and Amir Ghaffari.

In your view which one is better for a young practitioner  a firm with an established and well-staffed arbitration practice, where the junior lawyer will arguably have a less significant role, or a firm with a smaller practice, where the lawyer's role will be more significant?

I think that any young arbitration practitioner should have an experienced mentor during the early stage of his or her career. It is an exciting feeling for a young practitioner to handle a case with limited supervision from partners or senior colleagues, but it is very easy to lose track and miss the opportunity to hone your skills to a level when other members of the community will respect you. I am grateful to all those who helped with advice and wisdom at the beginning of my career.

A significant number of lawyers turn to arbitration after practising in another area (litigation, corporate, construction, energy, etc). In your view what are the advantages and disadvantages of such "converts"?

There are definitely pros and cons. On the one hand, conversion helps to attract lawyers with a specialist background to the realm of arbitration. This is especially useful if you are looking to appoint, say, somebody with in-depth knowledge of derivative products since there are not many arbitration lawyers with such skills around.

On the other hand, a lawyer who spends only part of his career in this area will suffer in terms of professional development and experience vis-a-vis somebody who spends 100% of time doing arbitration work. A pure arbitration lawyer is usually more marketable and able find an arbitration job more easily.

A lot of most significant Russia related arbitration matters are handled in London and Paris. Should a young practitioner aim to spend at least some time practising there (either secondment or otherwise) to gain exposure to such matters and also other legal cultures?

England has been a hub for international arbitration for many years. The same is true for Paris. These are very arbitration-friendly countries with a significant number of arbitration practitioners around. Although it is difficult to get noticed in arbitration centres like these, it gives a young practitioner great exposure and experience.

In my experience English lawyers are adept at approaching new tasks and challenges. They are not phased about drafting a type of document they have never drafted before. At the same time, they understand the consequences of improper advice and take drafting very seriously.

In the UK and the US a significant number of international arbitration practitioners move from private practice to academia and back or combine two careers. Is the situation the same in Russia or will it become the same? Should young arbitration practitioners publish?

The key difference of the Russia-related arbitration market is that Russian authorities on arbitration tend to have come to the area from other directions  academia or sitting as an arbitrator (Who is Who of Arbitration in Russia in: Global Arbitration Review, Volume 3, issue 3). Therefore, in order to become an active player in this market it is necessary to invest in academic writings and conferences. The situation is slightly different in the UK where academic achievements are not usually regarded as providing sufficient substance unless accompanied by practical experience. For the Russian market, I believe it is desirable to have an academic background.

Are there any qualities or skills a person should possess to practice in international arbitration?

Arbitration is a very challenging environment and is not the place for those who are lazy or disorganised. In a way, it affects your personal life quite substantially because your life is planned a couple of years ahead. At the same time, arbitration rewards its humble servants with very interesting and mentally-challenging work.

How do you get noticed by people compiling professional rankings?

Before answering this question, I would emphasise that I have rarely met lawyers who have been completely satisfied with the way professional rankings are compiled. There are varying levels of transparency in the way the legal directories are collated and firms ranked. At the same time, some clients pay attention to them that and is why all law firms are flexing their muscles on getting the rankings right.

In the arbitration world, the most significant directory is GAR100 and GAR30.

It seems to me that it is easier to get recognised if you work in a big and reputable international firm. But no firm would get recognition unless you are recognised by peers in the arbitration community. A diligent and gifted arbitration lawyer will get noticed by the arbitration community and the legal directories, sooner or later.

How do you get noticed by clients? Is it a matter of your profile in the professional community, the firm you work for or something else or all of these factors combined?

There is no rule set in stone. Every lawyer has their own strengths and attracts clients in his or her own unique way. Just be yourself. Don't waste your life trying to be somebody else. The most important thing is to work hard and be fair to your client. A company I worked against in an LCIA case two years ago recently approached me with a view to representing them in another LCIA case. This is the most pleasant way to get instructions from a client.

Your advice to young practitioners.

Looking back now, I would say that there have been a number of events that shaped me as an arbitration practitioner: my education and Ph.D. studies, colleagues I worked with during my career, even my family who have supported me throughout. My philosophy is to learn from every colleague or opponent I work with or against. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and what I am trying to do is to absorb other people's strengths but distil weaknesses.

Use every opportunity to hone your skills, e.g. conferences, moot court competitions, publications. These all are building blocks in your career. Think whether your current firm / position / responsibilities help you achieve your goals and challenge you enough to encourage your professional development.

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