SINGAPORE – Talk to Singapore arbitration attorneys about Maxwell Chambers, and they’ll light up as if you’ve mentioned a trusted colleague or a respected judge.
While it’s actually a place, by many accounts it has meant more to the development of Singapore’s reputation as a friendly destination for alternative dispute resolution than any one individual.
As global business becomes more integrated and companies seek opportunities in riskier markets further afield, resolving disputes through arbitration and mediation has grown more common.
Sometimes parties add such clauses to their contracts to save money and time versus litigation. Others, they use them to protect themselves against foreign states or unfamiliar legal systems.
As arbitration proliferates, regional centers from Sao Paulo to Atlanta are positioning themselves as less costly and more convenient alternatives to traditional Western European destinations like London, Paris and Geneva.
The Atlanta International Arbitration Society, or ATLAS, was formed by a consortium of attorneys in 2011 to lead Atlanta’s effort, which its leaders say will accelerate with the Center for International Commercial Arbitration set to open on the fourth floor of the $82.5 million law school building at Georgia State University next year.
In design consultations, ATLAS leaders have looked to a variety of models, including the International Dispute Resolution Centre in London, Arbitration Place in Toronto and Singapore’s Maxwell Chambers.
Arguably Asia’s most prominent logistics hub and often lauded for its open economy, Singapore was one of the early movers in cities’ efforts over the last few years to capitalize on their legal institutions by adding a physical location for arbitrations, which can take place anywhere from a hotel conference room to a temporary office.
A White & Case study from 2010 showed that the formal legal regime and the law governing the substance of the dispute were the top two reasons parties chose an arbitral seat, but close behind were convenience and perceived friendliness to arbitration.
While the legal seat of the case and the location of the hearings don’t have to match, they only split about 15 percent of the time, according to a separate 2012 study.
For that reason, even the most receptive jurisdictions are seeing the need to augment their legal “software” with the “hardware” of an actual facility, said Peter Megens, a partner in the Singapore office of Atlanta-based law firm King & Spalding LLP.
“Singapore’s very fast and efficient as a judiciary, it’s extremely supportive of arbitration, so if you do need the help of the courts you can get good courts here who will help quickly and get good judgments. They know what they’re doing,” said Mr. Megens, an Australian native who has worked extensively on international arbitration throughout Asia.
But it wasn’t until 2009 that the case load really “shot up” thanks largely to two developments beyond the obvious fact that global trade is on the rise.
First, the Singapore International Arbitration Center, the institution that handles arbitrations in the jurisdiction, reformed its rules and brought in a new board of directors that opened it up to the world. Then it moved into the dedicated location, providing a tangible symbol that it was open for business.
“To me, Maxwell Chambers was a bit of a game-changer,” said Simon Dunbar, a partner in the King & Spalding arbitration practice who has been practicing law in Singapore since 2006.
SIAC’s own numbers bear him out: Between 2008 and 2009, new cases in Singapore jumped 60 percent from 99 to 160 and have steadily grown since, landing at 259 in 2013.
Atlanta took care of the “software” issue in 2012, when the leaders of the newly formed Atlanta International Arbitration Society, or ATLAS, successfully lobbied for a change in Georgia’s arbitration law that aligned it better with standards of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law.
But having a home for ATLAS was part of the plan since Arnall Golden Gregory Managing Partner Glenn Hendrix spearheaded the group’s formation in 2011, said Shelby Grubbs, an attorney at Miller & Martin PLLC and the newly appointed director of the Atlanta Center for International Arbitration and Mediation.
Like Mr. Megens, he noted that most arbitrations are held in the city where they’re seated, and Atlanta’s chances grow as the world grows more interconnected.
“Is globalization over, or is it accelerating?” he said. “I think this is an increasing pie and there’s every reason to think that these regional centers like Atlanta will be increasingly important in providing dispute resolution services generally.”
And well-established centers like Singapore and Hong Kong, both of which he plans to visit on an Asia trip later this year, provide “very impressive programs” to study.
A Symbol of Openness
New as a real-estate entity, Maxwell Chambers is an old building that stands in stark contrast to the adventurously modern architecture that characterizes much of Singapore’s cityscape.
The British customs house dating from the 1930s is dwarfed by glossy skyscrapers, including a new luxury apartment building currently being built just behind it.
The renovated interior, however, includes the most modern of touches: soundproof rooms closed off by steel doors that look as fit for industrial refrigerators as legal chambers, state-of-the art audiovisual equipment, even wide hallways like the London center – able to accommodate the “auras” of visiting arbitrators patrolling the halls, the ever-smiling Eunice Tan, head of international relations at Maxwell Chambers, said while giving Global Atlanta a tour of the facilities.
Spanning four floors, one with office space, Maxwell Chambers boasts 24 prep and procedural rooms of varying customizable sizes, each with its own level of panache. View a virtual tour
Some Indian arbitrators prefer a courtroom setup with antique furniture, while a round room making use of the building’s rotunda is the most popular for bookings. A favorite of practitioners is the Arbitrators Lounge, which features couches, refreshments and a large flat-screen TV.
The options are all part of Maxwell Chambers’s plan to be a place where arbitrators want to be, counting on the fact that they’ll recommend the place to clients.
“That’s one of our tricks of the trade,” Ms. Tan said. “Who wants to be the one that says, ‘Let’s do this in a hotel?’”
She added that the staff is always toying with new room configurations, noting that the setup can affect the mood, and intangibly, the outcomes of the proceedings. One room set up for mediation featured a round table, a plush couch and soft rug, presumably to foster a friendlier environment. (In mediations, the goal is to work things out before bringing in a tribunal or going to court.)
Whatever it’s doing, Maxwell Chambers seems to be working, and Atlanta is taking note.
Maxwell Chambers has its charms, but it’s not the only model out there, said Douglas Yarn, a Georgia State University law professor who was instrumental in getting the school to agree to host the arbitration center.
“We looked at everybody’s space,” he said, noting that many floor plans and amenities are available online.
“We had only a certain amount of space that we could devote within the law school to this program,” said Mr. Yarn, who is also executive director of the GSU-housed Consortium on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution.
One thing thing the GSU center won’t copy from Maxwell Chambers: a round room, and that’s for the better in Mr. Yarn’s view.
While attractive aesthetically, conversations with prospective users revealed that they don’t prefer it for mediation, an area where Atlanta hopes to excel, Mr. Yarn said, adding that flexibility is paramount given that arbitration centers often allow their spaces to be used for educational events and training.
“In terms of just the space, I think we’re kind of focusing broadly on having right-sized rooms. That is, we have a variety of rooms of different sizes that provide the right mix,” Mr. Yarn told Global Atlanta.
The latest configuration includes four small breakout rooms and six “seminar” and conference rooms holding eight to 20 people that can be used for arbitration hearings or mediations. The center also has access to a GSU conference center that can seat up to 200 people or break out into smaller rooms. The school’s alumni lounge and cafe is also readily accessible up one flight of stairs.
Being inside the school will make it challenging to provide office space for outside dispute-resolution organizations, which consider Maxwell Chambers the place to be.
“It’s sort of like having a clubhouse for the arbitration community, and I think that’s been a driver,” said Mr. Dunbar of King & Spalding in Singapore.
The Singapore International Arbitration Center, while large in name and influence, occupies a cramped office on the building’s second floor, flanked by firms and other organizations faced with similarly small conditions.
Maxwell Chambers, a private company with the government as its main shareholder, is looking to expand into another historic building next door to accommodate even more players. Georgia State won’t be able to do the same.
“As a public law school, we’re not there to provide offices,” Mr. Yarn said.
But the location provides other advantages, said Mr. Grubbs, the director.
Few locations around the world will have as ready access to legal expertise and students, as well as a law library one floor up. Georgia State’s law school also attracts master’s law students specializing in dispute resolution who can offer assistance that fuels their learning experience.
Mr. Grubbs said it will also be as “ecumenical” as possible, inviting participation from other schools, potentially through the formation of moot teams like the one he will be coaching at the University of Georgia this year.
With the “democratization of international law” that has occurred along with globalization in the past few decades, alternative dispute resolution is one of the fastest growing fields in legal education, Mr. Grubbs said.
The center “is a convening agent, so it’s great being in a law school because we want Atlanta to be not only as a place where hearings and mediations take place, but also where the industry knowledge and learning with regard to international arbitration and mediation is centered,” he told Global Atlanta.
Still, it will provide the level of service that attorneys are used to, he said. Practitioners scarcely have time to worry about where to eat or stay when they’re locked in rooms hashing out legal deals sometimes for weeks at a time. With one phone call to the center, a concierge service will make these arrangements, Mr. Grubbs said.
“Part of what we want to sell is hospitality,” he said.
The center also plans to offer smartboards and state-of-the-art teleconferencing equipment, setting apart from other centers by providing the ability to bring in witnesses and attorneys by video from all over the world.
ATLAS and Mr. Grubbs are collecting ideas on how to make the Atlanta center into a “laboratory” for new technologies that smooth out arbitration proceedings. While unsure of how that will work, he hopes to form alliances with the technology community to develop solutions that can be licensed for use in other centers around the world.
Impact and Outreach for Atlanta
Mr. Grubbs is under no illusions that Atlanta will have hundreds of cases as soon as it opens its doors in 2015.
Data from the London Court of International Arbitration show that less than 10 percent of the disputes handled there in 2013 were introduced that same year. Some stretched back into the past as far as a decade.
But that’s all the more reason to be ready to move quickly on an issue that is crucial to the city’s international standing, said Mr. Grubbs, who between now and the center’s opening will serve as head of international for GSU’s Consortium on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution.
Despite the esoteric nature of the subject, promoting arbitration around town has been like “pushing on an open door” because stakeholders like Mayor Kasim Reed and the Metro Atlanta Chamber understand the economic impact it can have, both immediately and intangibly, Mr. Grubbs said.
A study of Toronto’s Arbitration Place estimated that parties spent $256.3 million on 425 arbitration proceedings in the Canadian city in 2012.
Granted, 65 percent of that went to the fees of the arbitrators, who aren’t always based in the city where the proceedings are held. But the rest went to the venue, court reporters, service providers and other expenses. Beyond that, an estimated $3.1 million trickled down to the local area through hotel stays, plane tickets, meals and more. Arbitrations involving international parties brought in about six times more fees on average than domestic disputes.
The New York State Bar Association estimated in a 2011 report that increasing the number of dispute-resolution cases by 10-20 percent would result in $200-$400 million in additional revenue for firms based there.
Singapore doesn’t tax the fees of attorneys who conduct arbitrations there, showing its dedication even at the highest levels of government to keeping its status as an arbitration hub.
“I don’t think we are where (Singapore is) with regard to aligning the center with the overall international agenda with the city and the state of Georgia and so forth, but I think we are certainly moving in that direction,” Mr. Grubbs said.
That’s one reason that as a public institution the Georgia State law school supported the effort.
“It’s not just the international cachet associated with it; for us at the law school we see it as part of our service mission and our connection to the bench, the bar the business community and the state of Georgia broadly,” Mr. Yarn said.
Atlanta may be a bit behind competitors, but like Singapore, the Georgia capital’s air accessibility makes it an attractive crossroads between Asia and Latin America, Europe and Latin America, Africa and Asia and other pairings, he said.
That diversity of connectivity is something many of its chief competitors – namely, Miami – can’t offer, said Mr. Yarn,
“Miami is not the true international trade crossroads that Atlanta is. We’re competing with New York, we’re not competing with Miami,” said Mr. Yarn, who was involved at one point in Miami’s successful efforts to position itself for Latin American arbitrations.
Mr. Yarn has also been involved in two separate moves – decades apart – to position Atlanta as an arbitration center. Before playing a similar role in 2012, he helped draft a new arbitration law for Georgia in the 1980s.
“Since then, Atlanta has really set itself much more further down the road as a place for international commerce and as a headquarters for international companies, so the critical mass is finally here,” he said.
Mr. Grubbs said the landscape is completely different from when he was coming up.
“When I was a young lawyer, this was strictly the province of Wall Street, London and maybe Paris,” he said. Now, “there is a lot more international law. We are touching law firms here and law firms throughout Georgia and the Southeast that are involved in international matters to an extent that I never dreamed I would be.”
Brian White, a King & Spalding attorney who has been involved in arbitration hearings all over the world and now sits on the ATLAS board, stressed that connectivity has been key for Atlanta’s nascent effort to promote itself as an arbitration center.
“We describe it on the ATLAS website as the world’s most accessible city, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.”
The next ATLAS annual conference will be held in November in conjunction with Africa Atlanta and a Doing Business in Africa event backed by the U.S. Commerce Department.
With Delta Air Lines Inc.’s direct links to the continent and Atlanta’s cultural and historic ties there, Africa is seen as a prime spot from which Atlanta can attract arbitration proceedings.
Learn more about ATLAS at http://arbitrateatlanta.org.
Learn more about the Africa event here.
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