GC: Can you tell us a little about the rationale behind the International Arbitration Centre?
Owen Lawrence (OL): In the past, arbitration was always an alternative dispute resolution. You did it to be confidential or you went through the courts if you were happy with the press. Arbitration is now the default form of dispute resolution. And given how many disputes are international, certainly I see arbitration growing.
GC: What was your vision for the International Arbitration Centre?
OL: Our vision from the start was to build something for the client. Then we looked at what the lawyers needed in terms of the technology of the space, and we fitted all the operations in and around that.
We feel we’ve built the perfect ADR venue – from just minor things, like the clients (each party) have their own toilets, the arbitrators have their own toilets. The retiring room is soundproof – they can retire at lunchtime and not be bothered. They don’t have to go through the circus of the hearing room; we even have a private entrance for clients who require absolute privacy.
If a GC has made it to the court room, obviously something’s gone very wrong, they will be feeling uncomfortable, but also their MD, their CEO, whoever is called to give evidence will be very unhappy. So we’ve tried to make it as comfortable as possible for those people. They can come in, the shutters come down, they can come up in a private lift, not even my staff or I will know which clients are coming in. They can also watch the hearing from our luxurious breakout suites and enter the hearing room when needed.
I spent 20 years as a barristers’ clerk and spent a lot of time in Asia and the UAE. You’d walk into one of the big hotels and you’d see the names of the law firms in reception. And then you’d watch the client walk in, and you’d know who they were and who was instructing who. For me, it was just so uncomfortable and that was my real driver – creating somewhere where the client can relax and know that it is private. A place where they won’t bump into other lawyers.
GC: What is the market like for arbitration in London?
OL: London has a rich history of law – English law is often the default in many contracts. And location-wise, it’s a middle ground. East meets West. It’s a premier legal hub, now with premier facilities. We’re trying to create a supreme court for arbitration, somewhere that top-tier law firms expect to have their hearings and somewhere that lower law firms aspire to have their hearings.
When you talk to people and you say, ‘Oh, we’re creating a new arbitration centre,’ it doesn’t sound that exciting. But when you come in and you see what we’ve built and the level of detail we’ve gone into, people’s jaws drop, they’re like, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ We have the location and we’ve gone for it, and I think a lot of people are quite pleased by that.
We are in the heart of legal London – you can touch the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) from where we are, we’ve got the Rolls building round the corner, and Fleet Street, Chancery Lane, the Inns of Court are central legal London. So when the venue came up it, it was the right time to move.
GC: Has the response from the market been positive?
OL: We’ve had 120 of the top lawyers in the UK around for a UK arbitration photo shoot, and everyone who has seen the venue has loved it. One or two silks haven’t quite liked the level of luxury we’ve gone to – I think they prefer the old kind of RCJ antique features. Nothing’s antique in our centre. Everything’s cutting edge, like the technology in the breakout suites. With any kind of web-based application you can put a presentation onto the walls. You can email any documents you want to the photocopier. So hopefully everyone, even tech-averse people, can use all of our systems.
GC: As you were developing your ideas, were you consulting with barristers and the arbitrators?
OL: We were. The arbitral world is a very cliquey, small pool of people and I have good relationships with a lot of those, so I did seek advice from some top arbitrators who gave us some really good tips. Equally, I’ve spent the last 20 years in arbitration rooms so I know what the clerks need, I know what the arbitrators need and I know what counsel need. We’ve added all that into to this one package, hopefully creating the perfect ADR environment!
GC: When do the doors open?
OL: The first hearing floor comes live on 25th February and then we’re on to the next floor. We’re also looking at our own members list. For example, when GCs come to 10-20 years before retirement, some of them will naturally look to the arbitration world. It’s a good profession to end your career on – you can pick and choose which hearings you accept, how many you take as chair, how many you take as wing. For those in the law-firm world, who have always had a marketing team and an accounts team and now all of a sudden find themselves out in the big wide world as arbitrators, we will be providing a template to step into in terms of website clerking services, fee negotiation and everything that kind of goes into running an arbitrator’s practice in due course. We also have a roof terrace, which lends itself quite nicely to drinks receptions!
GC: If you were to describe your vision as the different floors come online what would you like to achieve?
OL: I would simply say my business plan is global expansion. I don’t think London alone needs this; I see the need to expand into various countries in Asia as well. My worry is we will not be able to accommodate the demand and we will need more space here in London.
GC: What would be the thing that you’re most proud about throughout this whole process?
OL: I am genuinely super proud to be part of raising London’s game. It’s become our motto: London is a premier legal hub, now with premier facilities, and we have delivered that without a doubt. Take our staff, for example. We’ve not just looked at legal backgrounds, we’ve taken people from the Mandarin Oriental, for example, to offer that level of service and that kind of concierge mentality. We’ve partnered with high-end restaurants to provide great food options – we know that armies march on their stomachs and so do arbitration counsel! No stone has been left unturned in bringing this facility to market.