Sara Gillingham Aukner FCIArb on why age isn’t experience

We speak to Sara Gillingham Aukner FCIArb about why she wishes she became an arbitrator sooner, the importance of networking, and why arbitrators should actively encourage new people by appointing them as chair of a tribunal. 

Did you always know you wanted to be a lawyer?  

I fell into the profession: my first degree was economics and international relations, and it was compulsory to do some Public International Law. The Cubazucar case on state immunity got my attention – a Cuban state-trading entity shipping sugar to Chile until a coup and a dispute. International trade and geopolitics - I was hooked – and that’s how I ended up doing maritime law. 

Was going from general counsel to being an independent arbitrator and mediator a difficult transition? 

It wasn’t a difficult transition at all. In fact, I think being general counsel was great training as you develop interpersonal and non-legal skills and learn to explain complex disputes concisely and in non-legal language. You need to be able to negotiate and strategise - you may have to resolve disputes internally as well as externally. You may have to teach others, you may have to lead more than one team, and you must develop leadership skills. 

The desire for change came out of work-life balance issues. General counsel is a demanding role and shipping is 24/7. I now enjoy flexible hours and I have my evenings and weekends back. Becoming self-employed was scary but I built up a financial buffer before embarking on my own and the rewards have outweighed the risk. No regrets. 

What is the most enjoyable part of being an arbitrator? 

A lot of time is spent working alone and by email, so I enjoy being co-arbitrator on a tribunal and sitting in hearings. Otherwise, the social aspect of attending events and talking to people. 

What has been the highlight of your career so far? 

There have been several milestones – Ciarb Fellowship, becoming a panel member of the Singapore Chamber of Maritime Arbitration, and becoming a full member of the London Maritime Arbitration Association. 

Women are underrepresented in arbitration – what needs to change? 

Active encouragement of women to step forward and for women to lean into it. You must commit time and energy to telling people you want to arbitrate. It might seem daunting, but most people are positive and surprisingly helpful. 

One simple step is to put at least one woman (or two!) on any shortlist of three potential arbitrators. It is a good way to introduce new talent in a constructive way – and it is still up to the parties to decide.  

Arbitrators should actively encourage new people by appointing them as chair of a tribunal, rather than their buddies. Acting as chair is learning by doing with the benefit of experienced co-arbitrators as colleagues. 

What has been the biggest challenge or obstacle you've faced in your career - and how did you overcome it? 

Being considered “too young” even though I was over 50 when I started arbitrating. Age is not experience - I learnt more in the first five years as general counsel of a large fleet than in the previous 20 years of legal practice. 

First, I had to drop hints into conversations so that people would realise I was older than they thought. Then I stopped colouring my hair – no more explanations needed. 

What are the soft skills that arbitrators need? 

A good dose of common sense, a sense of fairness and the ability to be diplomatic. Good communications skills - verbal and written - are a must. And develop a thick skin – you will upset the losing party, and the ‘successful’ party may not be so happy either. 

What advice would you have to everyone who is interested in arbitration? 

The advice I was given: focus on training your interpersonal skills, for yourself and not just for your career. Most employers will encourage (and pay for) courses in leadership, strategy, and negotiation skills. Also consider a personal coach or a mentor – the two are different so ask yourself (and others who know you) where you need help and why before you decide. I chose a coach because that was relevant for me, and building an arbitration practice requires self-motivation. 

Then build on educational and professional skills, and network. Many relevant events and courses are free, and are an opportunity to get to know people, see and be seen. I also recommend becoming a Ciarb Fellow – it was recommended to me and is considered the gold standard for arbitrators. Ciarb Fellowship provides a good grounding as you work with different procedural rules and with different practitioners from different jurisdictions. It is also another opportunity to meet other people embarking on a similar career path.  

Looking back at your career with hindsight, would you do anything differently? 

I wish I had considered arbitrating earlier than I did. I also wish I had considered joining a set of chambers when I started out – for the administrative help as well as to have colleagues. 

In more general terms, I should have made more time to meet people for coffee when asked and attended more events. It is easy to sign up then bail out either to work late or go home to the family. It can be daunting attending on your own or if you have other pressures on your time, but it is a good way to meet people and broaden your horizons. I would have learnt more and built a wider network, and that is never wrong on any level. 


Sara Gillingham Aukner FCIArb brings extensive operational experience on a wide range of shipping, international trade & finance and insurance matters from her time as lead lawyer at a ship operator, including trade and corporate finance, derivative and physical trading, and cross-border insolvency issues. Sara has been involved in all forms of dispute resolution worldwide as practitioner, user, and client, with a diverse background from private practice in a City of London law firm, in-house as P&I Club and FDD Lawyer then General Counsel of a leading dry bulk operator. Sara has been a full-time arbitrator since 2018 with appointments in London, Hong Kong, Oslo and Singapore, also on SIAC and UNCITRAL terms, and many times as a sole arbitrator. She is based in Oslo, Norway (since 1994) and accepts appointments world-wide. A Full Member of the London Maritime Arbitrators Association (LMAA); Member of the Baltic Exchange; Panel Member of Singapore Chamber of Maritime Arbitration (SCMA); member of London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA). 

Join us for two events to mark International Women’s Day: