As the primary career advisor for graduate students in alternative dispute resolution (ADR) at USC Gould School of Law, I meet a tremendous number of bright, aspiring lawyers who dream of careers in arbitration. While most litigators will practice before an arbitrator during their careers, percentage- wise only a handful of attorneys will serve asneutral arbitrators. Few students understand how to prepare more efficiently and effectively for the role.
Introduction to Arbitration as a Career
Briefly, arbitration is a form of ADR which utilizes a third-party neutral in a decision-making role (as opposed to mediation, where the parties determine the outcome). It is sometimes referred to as “trial-lite,” in that the arbitrator hears evidence and renders a decision but the proceedings tend to be less formal, less costly and less time-consuming than formal litigation. Like other ADR practices, arbitration can help parties preserve long-term business relationships.
Several factors attract attorneys to the profession, including the autonomy and prestige afforded to arbitrators, the opportunity to leverage knowledge and experience to help solve problems, and to be part of a rapidly growing field. The U.S. Department of Labor projects job growth in arbitration to grow at an above average rate through 2026, faster than the overall legal profession. Arbitrators can expect no shortage of demand for their services. In the U.S., more than 90% of all lawsuits settle out of court, and an ever-growing number of domestic and cross-border disputes use arbitration to sidestep an otherwise confounding collection of overlapping institutions, jurisdictions, and treaties. “Ultimately, there are few real shortcuts to a career in arbitration.”
Recent guest speakers at USC Gould have stressed the importance of basic lawyering skills like research and writing (specifically drafting opinions) as well as litigation advocacy. Law school and LLM coursework should be chosen to develop these skills, as well as to acquire more targeted knowledge of arbitration processes. Many schools offer ADR degree programs with an exciting menu of arbitration courses, including International Arbitration, Arbitration in the U.S., Arbitration Advocacy, etc. Through specialized courses, students discover the intricacies of specific arbitration practice areas: intellectual property, construction, cross-border disputes, labor and employment, etc. Additionally, students can explore more than 350 arbitral bodies worldwide, various sets of arbitral rules (AAA, ICC, etc.), and crucially, developing trends in this rapidly evolving field.
Exposure to the expanding borders of arbitration practice will help students identify where and how they can best leverage their specific education and skills to advance more quickly. Arbitration practice varies by region, with major hubs in North America, Asia and Europe, as well as by legal subject matter.
One of the primary tasks for recent graduates is to accrue arbitration experience. The large, well-known arbitration providers, such as JAMS and AAA, traditionally seek established neutrals who bring recognition and attract clients. Fortunately, recent graduates can focus on other arbitration panels where the barrier to entry is lower. Industry groups like FINRA (www.finra.org) offer a structured environment for young professionals to arbitrate securities-related cases. For those with a background in labor and employment, arbitration panels for labor disputes exist at both the federal and state level. In states like California, attorney- client fee disputes are subject to state bar rules of arbitration. Attorneys licensed in California can join panels at local bar associations and gain experience arbitrating such disputes with little delay.
Honing basic lawyering skills like research, writing, and trial advocacy can help aspiring arbitrators build a foundation from which to transition to a career as a neutral. Clerking for a judge or prominent arbitrator helps attorneys develop these skills, especially in the area of drafting opinions. Young associates should aggressively pursue litigation experience as well, much of which may come in the form of arbitration advocacy. Finally, after accruing experience as an arbitrator, an ADR fellowship can serve as the catalyst for further growth. Several large arbitration providers offer fellowships, notably the JAMS Fellowship, AAA Fellowship, and Weinstein Fellowship.
Becoming licensed to practice in multiple jurisdictions, for example the U.S. (California, New York and Washington, DC are the most common), China, England and Wales, and India, is critical for developing a career in international arbitration. This often requires academic work beyond a first degree in law, and students should pay careful attention to eligibility requirements in each jurisdiction.
Many successful practitioners initially target jobs at global law firms with large or fast-growing arbitration practices, including Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, Baker McKenzie, Clifford Chance, Dentons, DLA Piper, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Shearman & Sterling, and Sullivan & Cromwell, to name a few (www. vault.com). Pursuing positions in their overseas offices can help an aspiring arbitrator cultivate the necessary expertise to succeed.
Alternatively, attorneys can seek entry-level positions in arbitral institutions such as the International Chamber of Commerce, Hong Kong International Arbitration Center, International Center for Dispute Resolution, Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, and many others. These institutions are great targets for entry-level jobs in international arbitration. Recent graduates should consider all openings, including case managers, junior managers, and assistants. These positions present opportunities to develop a strong network and spot trends in the field, such as the growing popularity of hybrid Med/Arb processes, and technology’s impact on ADR practice and policy.
Options abound for arbitrators seeking career development and networking. Research professional membership organizations for arbitrators, such as the International Council for Commercial Arbitration (ICCA). Some membership organizations offer accreditation, including the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (CIArb). Ultimately, there are few real shortcuts to a career in arbitration. There is no substitute for acquiring relevant licensure, specialized education, and practical experience. But success leaves trails. Students should use their alumni networks mercilessly to reveal prior paths to success, and closely monitor trends in the field to plot the path, not just the next job.