Young EFILA in conversation with… Dmitri Evseev

Dmitri Evseev is a former partner of Arnold & Porter, where he spent over 15 years acting as counsel and arbitrator in high-profile international arbitration disputes. He has served as lead counsel in investment treaty disputes for Sweden, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Kyrgyzstan, Costa Rica, and numerous other States and private clients. In mid-2022, he joined Arbitra International in London as a full-time arbitrator. He serves as Vice-chair of the Board of SCC Arbitration Institute and is a member of multiple panels, including the ICSID Panel of Arbitrators. Recently, he also launched Arbitration City (Arbi.City), a new community platform for international dispute resolution professionals.

Young EFILA sat down with Dmitri to learn about his rich career, work philosophy and the new venture.

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

Dmitri Evseev: I fell into arbitration, almost by accident. I didn’t study it in law school. At the time, there was not a single course in international arbitration at Harvard, or most other US law schools. I started at WilmerHale in Washington DC, and I was in the litigation group doing various kinds of litigation, including appellate litigation when I got a call from a partner named Gary Born from the London office who said: “You speak Spanish, you know computers, we have something that needs an associate on a case. Can you go to a particular Latin American country and interview some witnesses in Spanish?” And I thought: “Well, my Spanish is a little bit rusty” but I said “Sure” and haven’t looked back since. It has been a fun 20 years: a lot of exciting cases, different locations, thousands of different kinds of challenges and problems. After that first case, I quickly found there were some opportunities, particularly in investment arbitration, which got my attention. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Until last year, of course, when I stopped acting as counsel.

YE: Of course, and we will get to that. But taking a step back, what would you say differentiates arbitration lawyers from “other” lawyers that we normally associate with big law firms?

DE: For me, it was actually the team and the people and I felt like it was a far more international community, than in the fairly narrow world of US litigation, which didn’t seem to be as dynamic and diverse or as much fun as the arbitration scene. Furthermore, it was also the issues – because so many of them are novel. In the US litigation, you are researching thousands of cases that have dealt with almost exactly the same issue that you’re dealing with. And much of the time you are arguing minutiae, but in arbitration, you’re often dealing with issues of – as far as the tribunal is concerned – first impression and reasoning from first principles. There is much more room for innovative argument, there’s much more room for the diversity of viewpoints on a particular issue, than in domestic US litigation. Finally, I found the absence of US-style discovery to be a really refreshing thing as an associate in particular. You could dive straight into the issues, you didn’t have to deal with two years of document discovery and various motions and those sorts of things.

YE: What would you say is the most underrated element of being an arbitration lawyer, and the most overrated?

DE: I don’t know if it’s underrated or overrated, but some people have this kind of a badge of honour that they work crazy hours and never see the light of day. And I know that sometimes you are working very intensely on a case, but that shouldn’t define your arbitration career or your arbitration life, because sometimes you need the time to be able to step back, pause, think about the case that you’re working on, think about your professional development and your career and where you want to be. I think that sometimes, especially at the younger levels, there’s this focus on billable hours and on getting as many hours in as possible, and impressing the partners or whoever you’re working with. But I tend to think that sometimes you do much better work when you’re not exhausted, when you have a little bit of space and time to think.

I would always tell everyone I work with that it’s a marathon not a sprint, as these cases last a long time. There’s a lot of room for intense bursts of work, but you have to look at the big picture, and you have to look at how you can avoid getting burned out, how you can avoid going down the rabbit hole that maybe you shouldn’t have gone down and saved yourself a lot of time and effort.

And in terms of the most underrated area: people tend to come into investment arbitration because they’re interested in the law. They are interested in the legal issues, they’re interested in the principles of investment law, maybe they’re interested in policy, various kinds of environmental issues or other issues that are at the forefront of the discussions in academia in particular. But 90% of arbitration is about the facts of a particular case, very little of it is about pure law, a lot of it is about applying law to the facts. 90% of what you spend your time doing is understanding the facts, figuring out how to present the facts to the tribunal. That is something you quickly understand once you become involved in arbitration practice. But I think as a student coming in – or as a very junior associate looking to do arbitration – that is something that you perhaps don’t appreciate enough. You will be spending 90% of your time learning a particular industry, learning how things work in a particular jurisdiction, a very particular kind of technology, a very particular kind of project. I think the most important skill for an arbitration lawyer is actually to be able to digest complex facts and to present them in an effective manner, rather than necessarily being an encyclopaedia of legal cases and precedents. Because that’s not what wins cases. What wins cases is presentation of the factual circumstances, which is what the tribunal really wants to know. Arbitrators likely know the law better than many of the lawyers who are presenting the cases to them. What the tribunals want to know is the facts, and that’s what will drive their decisions in the cases.

YE: You have already given us some great pointers for younger arbitration lawyers, is there any piece of advice that you would consider the best professional advice you have received yourself in your career?

DE: Interestingly enough, probably the best career advice is also the best life advice that I’ve received, from one of my own partners at Arnold and Porter. And it has to do with finding your ikigai, which is the Japanese term for, essentially, achieving a unity of different aspects of your professional life in a way that is fulfilling. There are four characteristics: whether you find your work personally fulfilling, whether you are good at that particular work, whether you can get paid for it, and whether you feel like it is a good thing to do for the world. It is essentially a Venn diagram of these four elements. And oftentimes, you can look at your current position in life, and you can say: “Okay, well, at this point, I’m good at what I’m doing, and I can get paid for it. But I don’t feel like I’m being personally fulfilled. And I don’t feel like I’m necessarily doing good for the world, or my broader ideals and whatnot.” And then you think about how you can move towards the centre of this diagram where all the circles overlap.

YE: A perfect segue to another question we have. In your opinion, how can an established professional give back to the arbitration community?

DE: There are lots of ways, and I think one of the most important ones, of course, is mentoring and supporting younger lawyers, and helping them to understand more about the world of arbitration, to get their foot in the door. And in particular to give constructive feedback. Oftentimes in law firms, people are not very good at providing feedback because they’re doing one thing after another, and often there’s not enough time to sit down and say “Well, look, here’s what I think you did really well. Here’s what you can work on.” As an associate, in particular, I think you need to be very insistent (to the extent you can and obviously, being polite about it) to get feedback and get a few minutes of the partner’s or senior associate’s time. This is how you improve. I found that I improved my writing tremendously when I was clerking for a US federal court of appeals judge who revised pretty much every sentence that I wrote. I thought myself a very good writer when I came into that job, but obviously I could have been an even better writer. I learned a lot from working with my judge and from looking at every one of the edits that he made to my work.

YE: We would like to ask you about innovation in arbitration. And here, we would love to learn more about Arbitration City – how did you come to the decision to launch it, what is it, how and why should others get involved?

DE: One of the reasons I started Arbitration City is actually because I was thinking about how I could contribute to the arbitration community and provide help that went beyond representing parties or sitting as an arbitrator. And I had always wanted to focus on technology that could be deployed better in arbitration. The arbitration world still operates with technology that’s mostly 20-30 years old. How we communicate, how we work on submissions and in general how cases operate. We don’t have the time to understand how newer technology can work for us to make things more efficient. And I think a lot of the technology is not customised for arbitration so it takes a lot of time to figure out exactly how to deploy it, and people don’t do it. And so that’s where I thought I could potentially help. I worked in tech before going into law, and I had my own company back in college, doing computer networking, and I also worked in law firms in this field. And this was all before I went to law school, where I also ran servers for the Harvard Law Review and various organisations including the well-known Berkman Center for Internet and Society. So I always had my eye on technology that could be used in the legal field. And so I started Arbi.City precisely with the idea to make it a platform for innovating, and creating different online tools and technology that arbitration and other disputes lawyers could use to work on cases together, to help with networking, learning, and everything else that we do as arbitration professionals. The natural place to start seems to be the world of professional networking and events. A lot of people of course use LinkedIn, which is not arbitration-specific, but people have a lot of complaints about it, including about a lot of irrelevant content, strange algorithms and difficulty in finding information on LinkedIn, which is not really structured in any particular way. These days, the technologies exist to create more private and customised social networks, professional networks for particular communities, and the arbitration community seemed like it was ready for a professional networking app. An app that was focused on arbitration news, arbitration events and simply connecting with one another, professionally. And that is what we have done, we have created a platform and a mobile app for arbitration professionals to connect and find information about the latest events, headlines, podcasts, etc. We only launched a few weeks ago, but we are finding a lot of interest. Different organisations are signing up to join forces in different ways. And I think the potential is really limitless.

YE: Is Arbitration City open to anyone who identifies as being part of the arbitration world or are there screening procedures?

DE: We verify email addresses and we block anyone who does not comply with our community guidelines. But otherwise we are open to anyone with an interest in arbitration. You indicate that interest by registering on our platform, so if you’re not interested in arbitration, most likely, you’re not going to be there. Within the platform there are groups that you can join, and some groups are open to anybody while other groups, just like on LinkedIn and Facebook, have a moderator, who decides what categories of people should be admitted to the particular group. We’re not just for lawyers, by the way, we are for experts, other kinds of consultants, language specialists, anyone who works in the international disputes field. The idea is to bring together not just lawyers, but all professionals involved in the arbitral process or international litigation and mediation for that matter.

YE: And to finish on a light note, is there a book you would recommend to our readers?

DE: Well, one of my favourite fiction writers is Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote with great humour and originality about what it means to be human. I would recommend what I think is his earliest novel, Player Piano, which is about a world in which machines do almost all the work, and most humans have very little left to do. As we are now on the cusp of a revolution in AI which will transform many professions, including the practice of law, I think it’s quite a relevant read, even though it was written quite a long time ago. A lot of science fiction does not age well but I think this book does.

YE: Many thanks for your time, Dmitri!

**** This interview was conducted by Agata Daszko and forms part of Young EFILA’s Interview Series with Arbitration Practitioners ****

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