Young ICCA Webinars: In Conversation with Prof. Dr. Mohamed S. Abdel Wahab
In this webinar, Prof. Abdel Wahab shares his views on a number of topics related to his diverse background and experiences in international arbitration, including his standout career moments, diversity in international arbitration/dispute resolution, how to build a career in international dispute resolution and efficiency in international arbitration.
Post Event Report
by Foluke Akinmoladun* and Shadha Zawawi**
On the 8th of October 2020, the Young ICCA webinar series featured Prof. Dr. Mohamed S. Abdel Wahab, Founding Partner & Head of International Arbitration, Construction and Energy Groups at Zulficar Partners. Prof. Abdel Wahab shared his views on a number of topics related to his diverse background and experiences in international arbitration. He gave several golden nuggets on how young practitioners can build a career in international arbitration from his personal experience and encouraged them in their quest to develop a stellar career in the field. Over 75 delegates participated in the webinar which was coordinated by Susan Kimani, Events Coordinator with Young ICCA, Theominique D. Nottage, one of Young ICCA’s Co-chairs and Rahul Donde, Young ICCA’s Global Events Director.
The webinar was categorized into three broad themes on the basis of the questions received from participants before the webinar: building a career in arbitration, diversity in international arbitration, and efficiency and due process in arbitration followed by some live questions from the participants at the end.
Prof. Abdel Wahab discussed some of his career highlight moments and his first encounters in the legal field. Reminiscing on his first big break into the legal field in Egypt in1998, he recounted that he was fresh out of law school graduating as top of his class of about 4000 students from the Faculty of Law of Cairo University. He recalled how he used to ask partners in the firm for work and eventually, was handed a case that had been ongoing for about ten years. He recounted how he was able to raise a point within the country’s civil procedure code that had not been tested which ultimately worked in their favour. Since then, to turn around a case at penultimate stage and the ‘ability to make a difference’ became his passion. This also helped him gain recognition within his team and paved a way forward in his career development.
Prof. Abdel Wahab candidly shared his words of advice for building a successful career in arbitration. He advised young professionals to keep working hard and to work on their ‘toolbox’ in order to get ahead in the field by paying particular attention to the hard skills. For him personally, he focused on working on his hard skills and the resultant work made him visible. He also shared tips on how to be a well-prepared arbitrator, or even as counsel, and cautioned young practitioners to think about all aspects and not to ‘fall into the traditional common trap of familiarity’.
When given the opportunity, he believes that there is ‘no option but to perform exceptionally well’. Mastering and understanding of the procedures of international arbitration, comparative law, the laws of different legal systems and interdisciplinary approaches, are a few areas that Prof. Abdel Wahab advised were important for young practitioners who want to make it in international arbitration to focus on. He urged them to make the most out of the roles as co-counsel in international cases, contribute substantive value, do more than just the day’s work and to love one’s work.
In explaining how to navigate the waters of international arbitration and excelling there, he noted that it is important not to underestimate the experience that a practitioner gets from domestic cases both as counsel and as arbitrator. He advised young practitioners to set themselves apart, master the law of their jurisdiction and use these opportunities as launchpad into getting into the international space. He gave the example of how he was honoured with the Swiss ASA Prize for Advocacy in International Commercial Arbitration while still having his practice in Egypt which reiterates the fact that it does not matter where you practice but what you do that counts.
Talking further on skills and career choices, Prof. Abdel Wahab explained that he had no regrets as far as his past decisions on his career choices were concerned. He observed that it is best to be forward looking as regretting the past only drains you of positive energy. When it comes to facing professional challenges, he cited the challenges to be seen as a world-class practitioner beyond the territorial boundaries of one’s jurisdiction and being seen as a regional authority.
In the second segment of the conversation, Prof. Abdel Wahab shared his views on diversity in arbitration. He noted that diversity, whether gender or cultural, has colossal impact on arbitration and discussed its importance.
Prof. Abdel Wahab also highlighted how women have added to the arbitration field by bringing superior qualities to the arbitration process. He acknowledged the excellent role and efforts of institutions and various initiatives such as the Pledge (Equal Representation in Arbitration Pledge), Arbitral Women and other such initiatives. He also referred to ICCA’s Cross-Institutional Task Force Report on Gender Diversity in Arbitral Appointments and Proceedings, which reports the work being done in terms of gender diversity. While he noted the work being done by various institutions on this front, he mentioned there is still a lot to be done to improve diversity in arbitration also highlighting other aspects of it such as inclusiveness of other age groups and cultural backgrounds.
Having dedicated part of his PhD studies to cultural studies, Prof. Abdel Wahab expounded on how working with a tribunal, or even counsels from different cultures helps in cultivating tolerance and co-existence. He discussed how cultural diversity shapes our communications skills and aids us in appreciating different approaches giving the ‘ability to get best decision-making process’.
To improve diversity, Prof. Abdel Wahab underscored the need for parties, as well as counsel, to live up to the expectation in terms of making arbitral appointments, by trying their best to diversify tribunal appointments. He also talked about how institutions like ICCA have helped young professionals in the arbitration field with numerous initiatives such as Young ICCA and noted the efforts of arbitral institutions in trying to infuse new blood into the system by giving opportunities to young professionals.
In the third segment of the conversation, Prof. Abdel Wahab shared his view on the impact of COVID-19 on international arbitration describing it as ‘transformative’. He explained how COVID-19 has tested international arbitration and made it imperative to reconsider traditional approaches with respect to procedural aspects of arbitration. He highlighted the wealth of resources and information being shared in the international community in the wake of COVID-19. One such resource, also available online, is ‘International arbitration and COVID-19 revolution’ which is co-edited by Prof. Abdel Wahab himself along with his colleagues Prof. Dr. Maxi Scherer and Ms. Niuscha Bassiri.
Prof. Abdel Wahab also discussed the impact of COVID-19 on current legislation, international law practices and other aspects of arbitration such as diversity, efficiency, and technology. Reflecting on its wider implications on initiatives, he acknowledged Lucy Greenwood’s campaign for more electronic arbitration for greener environment.
Recognizing how frustrating it would have been for recent graduates whose opportunities such as internships have been impacted abruptly because of COVID-19, he encouraged them to look at the other side of these serious challenges. He discussed the myriad of other opportunities that have opened up like virtual internships in international firms abroad and work from home policies adopted in most law firms. This brings a whole new way of practice in and of itself and recent graduates should take advantage of it. He also noted how remote working facilities could assist people with special needs and expressed the need for these opportunities to be explored as well.
In terms of breaking into investment arbitration, Prof. Abdel Wahab emphasized the need for studying the field carefully and building up on the knowledge of international law. He advised reading ICSID awards and considering writing good publications on the topic. Additionally, he encouraged young professionals to consider acting as tribunal secretaries and participating in other initiatives of arbitration associations. In Africa, he particularly noted the initiative by the African Academy and spoke about the efforts of his bright colleagues who are taking this initiative forward. He noted that Africa has recently stirred up the interest of many people and there is growing talent in the region. He spoke about ‘arbitral scouting’ of such brilliant arbitration practitioners across the globe to bring them into the field and provide them with opportunities.
Lastly, the session rounded off with some questions from the participants on combining academic and professional careers and further advice for young practitioners. Prof. Abdel Wahab spoke fondly of his experiences as an academic and paid humble tribute to his students whom he considers having learnt a lot from. He described it as ‘a two-way process’ and ‘cleansing’ for him. He closed the presentation with an encouraging message to the young professionals noting that, apart from interest and passion, young professionals need to focus on building their skills, capacity, flexibility and bringing value to the table in order to properly project one’s self in this profession- ‘to have what it takes’, as he says.
* Foluke Akinmoladun is the Managing Solicitor of Trizon Law Chambers, Nigeria. She is a lawyer qualified to practice in Nigeria, an accountant, a mediator and arbitrator with practice focus on maritime, construction and ADR. She is currently based in Lagos, Nigeria.
** Shadha Zawawi is an advocate admitted to Sindh Bar Council, Pakistan and her primary area of practice is arbitration. She is currently based in Canada where she is undertaking her LLM in International Business Law from Osgoode Hall Law School, York University.
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