Young EFILA in conversation with… Kabir Duggal

Dr. Kabir Duggal is an attorney in Arnold and Porter’s New York office focusing on international investment arbitration, international commercial arbitration, and public international law matters, serving both as arbitrator and mediator.  He is recognised as a “Chartered Arbitrator” by both the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and the Asian Institute of Alternative Dispute Resolution.  Dr. Duggal is also a Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia Law School, an adjunct Professor at Fordham Law School, and a Course Director and a Faculty Member for the Columbia Law School-Chartered Institute of Arbitrators Comprehensive Course on International Arbitration. Amongst his various other roles, he acts as a Consultant for the UN Office of the High Representative for Least Developed Countries on the creation of a novel “Investment Support Program.”  He is also the Co-Founder of REAL (Racial Equality for Arbitration Lawyers), a non-profit seeking to create greater representation in international arbitration. He is a graduate of the University of Mumbai, University of Oxford (DHL-Times of India Scholar), NYU School of Law (Hauser Global Scholar), Leiden Law School (2019 CEPANI Academic Prize), and is currently pursuing an SJD Degree from Harvard Law School. 

We sat down with him to candidly discuss his wide-ranging work, what attracted him to the field in the first place and to hear his tips for the next generation of international arbitration lawyers and scholars.

Young EFILA: What attracted you to a career in arbitration?

Kabir Duggal: In law school, I was interested in pursuing a career with an international component– studying international law, and dealing with different people, cultures, and languages. International arbitration was still a relatively new area of study, and I did not fully appreciate its potential. At this stage, I mulled over working in human rights or working for an international organization.

Upon graduation, I connected with a Professor/mentor who suggested a career in international arbitration. Due to his advice and guidance, I was able to secure my first job in international arbitration. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. However, my suggestion to all readers–find mentors and foster a relationship with them.  

YE: What is your most treasured memory workwise?

KD: There are two memories that are particularly treasured.  

First, I enjoy assisting states in developing their international law capacity. When I engage with government officials, build capacity, and tackle complex rule of law and human rights issues, I am making a contribution to improving things, even if in small, incremental steps.

Second, as I become more senior, I enjoy initiatives that make things easier for the younger generation, especially those directed towards making our practice more inclusive. I am involved in a couple of diversity initiatives, such as REAL (Racial Equality for Arbitration Lawyers) and the Rising Arbitrators Initiative (RAI) that seek to address broad, systemic, societal problems. 

YE: And the most challenging moment in your career?

KD: Not a challenging moment per se, but I find it difficult to find an appropriate work-life balance, especially when I am involved in numerous initiatives that I am passionate about.  I have recently revived my practice of yoga and mindful breathing and feel this effort helps keep me grounded.  

YE: What is the best professional advice you have ever received?

KD: I am privileged to have many mentors who have provided me with a lot of valuable advice.  

First, as the British wartime motto says, ‘keep calm and carry on’. This profession is very demanding, and it requires resilience. Do not let the difficult moments weigh you down. Life is made of ups and downs, and it is important to develop support systems to help during difficult moments.  

Second, and connected to the first, do not hesitate to ask for help. People sometimes think that one mentor is enough. I disagree. Find lots of mentors whom you can turn to for advice and inspiration – those who look and sound like you, who will easily understand your background; and those who are completely different from you. You will need both and can learn from both. Remember, too, that mentorship is a reciprocal relationship.  

Third, foster relationships with both peers and mentors. It is always helpful to share periodic updates and keep in touch. Relationships of any kind require nurturing.  

YE: What qualities and skills make a good arbitration lawyer?

KD: There are two sets of skills to think about: hard skills and soft skills. When it comes to hard skills, the key skill is advocacy–both written and spoken. However, just as there is not one universal way of thinking, there is not one ‘correct’ way of writing or speaking. 

Adopting the KISS rule for drafting (“Keep it Simple and Stupid”) is a good start. You should not need another lawyer to explain your arguments to the reader or listener. However, apart from that, find your own style – the style that works for you, and helps you come across as authentic.  

Writing and oral advocacy are skills, and like any skill one must keep practising to improve. So, consider writing papers, contributing to blogs, and becoming involved in moot courts.

More importantly, with so much emphasis placed on hard skills, we often forget soft skills, such as cultural awareness and emotional intelligence. Our field strives to be international, but we sometimes fall short of this. The growth of this practice must celebrate our diversity, including differences in languages, accents, and traditions. This is a strength of arbitration, not a weakness to be ironed out.

YE: What do you think about work-life balance?

KD: Work-life balance is fundamental to our practice, and as a profession, we should talk more about this. Most of us are pushed in many different directions. 

For example, if you are a woman or a minority lawyer, you are likely to feel the impact of a work-life imbalance more deeply because of systemic bias. Our profession should not put people in the position where they must pick between their family and their job, or where they cannot nurture passions outside work. 

There are a couple of things that I would recommend. First, think about what makes you happy and fulfilled beyond work. This may be walking, reading, yoga, listening to music – whatever helps you relax and get away from the monotony. Second, develop a support network of friends and family who can help you to destress and offer advice at difficult moments. Third, be conscious of the need to develop good habits when it comes to food and exercise because work pressure may result in us ignoring these.  

YE: What would you do if you weren’t working as an arbitration practitioner?

KD: I was exploring two other fields during law school – diplomacy and human rights.  My prior professional experience was primarily in the human rights area, and this will always remain a passion. I try and be mindful of human rights in everything I do, including my arbitration practice and academic roles. Thinking broadly about systemic issues, and arbitration’s status as a flexible method for resolving disputes, lends itself nicely to this. I try to explore the human rights dimensions of disputes as well. I am delighted that the next generation is already concerned about these complex issues—this should be encouraged and celebrated.

YE: Thank you, Kabir!

*** This interview was conducted by Ioana Maria Bratu and forms part of Young EFILA’s Interview Series with Arbitration Practitioners ****