From Inspiration to Motivation

Entrepreneurs shared their insights on how to start up your own international arbitration practice at a recent event organised by Ciarb YMG and Obeid & Partners.

Are you considering going it alone? If you have decided to start your own practice, be prepared for some challenges ahead. At Paris Arbitration Week 2023, Dr Zeina Obeid FCIArb of Obeid & Partners and Baptiste Rigaudeau MCIArb of Lalive, Chair of the Ciarb YMG Global Steering Committee, spoke to a panel of expert dispute resolution practitioners who were happy to share their tips on how to get a new arbitration practice off to a great start.    

The panelists included (left to right):

Dr. Hamid Gharavi, Derains & Gharavi
Marie-Aude Ziadé, CBR & Associés
Alexis Mourre, MGC Arbitration
Galina Zukova, Zukova Legal
Alfredo De Jesús O, Alfredo De Jesús O

Understand what drives you

The discussion started with each speaker clarifying why they chose to become independent practitioners and start their own boutiques. Besides individual motives, a clear spirit of entrepreneurialism emerged amongst the speakers, a need for independence, which Gharavi coined "freedom". Freedom to shape an arbitration practice, to choose a preferred sector to specialise in, to work for specific clients, to decide the pace of work, to select partners and teams. Gharavi added that, to him, one of the perks of being independent is to have the power to choose your priorities and implement them, notably to find a work-life balance, which is often difficult in large organisations.

Put your clients first

De Jesús felt the best way to operate as an independent counsel successfully is by prioritising the client’s interests. Ziadé elaborated that while large organisations tend to implement a standardised practice and pace, as an independent practitioner, you can shape your practice and decide on the service levels you feel your clients are looking for. Ziadé’s previous experience as head of disputes at a multinational company and her expectations at that time enabled her to develop a customer service philosophy and guideline at CBR & Associés.

Know your market

The success of your practice will initially be built upon your own experience. Zukova reflected on how her experience at the ICC helped her develop her network and gave her significant exposure to arbitration. As a former president of the ICC, Mourre emphasised the value of his experience when he set up his practice, underlining how much he had learned from the variety of missions pursued by the ICC. He added that, like Zukova, he had clearly benefitted from his exposure to the arbitration community when launching his firm. When his mandate at ICC ended, going solo was his obvious next step.

Make the most of your network

The panel discussed the value of working in both large, international, and small law firms before setting up your own practice. All agreed on the value of making connections and working collaboratively to grow your practice. They acknowledged that working with and learning from highly qualified, recognised professionals in their careers had been of tremendous benefit. While some of the panelists had started their firm with clients already signed up and others had not, all had ultimately called on their network to kickstart their practice. Ziadé also flagged the importance of finding personal and professional mentors as a critical ingredient for success. Particularly when you are making important decisions, it is useful to share them with a mentor and have them challenged.

Draw up a business plan

The panel agreed that while setting up a boutique feels like a leap into the unknown, having a business plan is key. A business plan will help with long-term planning for your practice as well as being a useful tool to measure your progress. As a partner of your own practice, you need to be focused on the present, servicing current clients, as well as thinking longer term about developing the business. The panelists agreed it is important to diversify your practice and not confine yourself to working only one market to ensure you have a pipeline of clients and business, at least until you have built up your reputation. 

Stay on top of the business

In addition to running a practice comes the responsibility of managing the business itself. The panelists agreed that the importance of this area of responsibility should not be underestimated. They noted that it is essential to carve out time to allow yourself to oversee the day-to-day running of the business. This includes administrative duties such as accounting, taxes, IT and managerial activities such as HR and recruitment. The speakers added that such administrative tasks are generally invisible in large organisations and should be considered before setting up your own practice. 

Look after your people

Surround yourself with a strong team that shares the same priorities and principles. Mourre highlighted that making careful recruitment decisions was of vital importance, as you spend a great deal of time in each other’s company, working together. To him, of crucial importance is a high level of trust, good communication and respect between partners to ensure the firm’s success. Ziadé added that it is important to build a high-quality team of associates who understand, share and exemplify your company values so that all business development tasks can be more easily shared amongst partners and associates and that everyone is truly part of the overall project. All speakers agreed and added that a recurrent difficulty for independent practitioners is to find the right balance between recruiting as a response to an overwhelming workload and being overstaffed.

Build your reputation

Building your profile, being visible in the sector and to end-users is important. While all felt that publicity was a ‘nice to have’ when launching a new practice, the upfront investment required might make it impossible. The general consensus was that of far greater benefit was to build a strong reputation through delivering outstanding results for clients. This is the most powerful calling card for boutique firms. Zukova elaborated that to succeed as an independent practitioner, you need to network with the key arbitral institutions and, with clients, at all times, go the extra mile, being accessible, providing personal service and tailoring all advice to deliver true added value.

Have self-belief

De Jesús finished by saying that, in addition to being already highly trained before the “plunge”, another important ingredient of success is to "believe and convince yourself that it is possible".  

To conclude, all speakers confirmed that if independence has a price, shaping your own practice is so enriching and satisfying that it’s worth the sacrifices.

About the author:  Antonii Dubeu is a law student specialising in international arbitration and litigation. He is pursuing a Master 2 in Arbitration and International Trade at the University of Paris-Saclay and a certificate in Energy & Finance at HEC Paris. Born in Ukraine, Antonii speaks French, English, Russian, Romanian and Ukrainian.