#10QuestionswithMaxwell Interview Series: Dr Matthew Secomb, White & Case
In this #10QuestionsWithMaxwell interview, we feature Dr Matthew Secomb, a partner at White & Case in Singapore. He is also a Mentor for the Maxwell Mentorship Programme (Technology in Alternative Dispute Resolution).
Matthew is the Head of the International Arbitration practice in Asia-Pacific. He focuses on international arbitration, with a particular emphasis on energy-related and construction disputes.
Faced with complex proceedings where billions can be at stake, clients look to Matthew for his cutting-edge advocacy skills and essential insider know-how.
Matthew spent nearly ten years in White & Case’s Paris office before moving to Singapore in 2015. Prior to joining White & Case in 2006, Matthew worked as counsel to the ICC International Court of Arbitration, where he oversaw hundreds of arbitrations in a wide array of industries and territories. This background has given Matthew a deep insight into ICC arbitration practice.
In this interview, he shared his arbitration style, proudest achievement in his career, fondest memories of Maxwell Chambers, and more.
Read his full interview below:
Q: What inspired you to take on practice in international arbitration?
A: The Vis moot in Vienna was at the origin of my career in international arbitration. Through the moot, I learned about arbitration. I was intrigued by this floating, transnational system of justice.
That intrigue led me to apply for internships in the field, which led me to an internship in Paris. The rest is history.
Q: Tell us your arbitration style.
A: My style could be described as pragmatic and more on the international side. It is shaped by my experience – two years in Melbourne, 14 years in Paris and now coming up on seven years in Singapore. That has allowed me to really see and experience arbitration all around the world including, for example, in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
That experience has convinced me that the best approach to arbitration procedure in particular is non-dogmatic, and purely focused on establishing the most appropriate process for the particular dispute.
Q: In your opinion, where does the future of international arbitration lie?
A: I expect to see two things:
First, greater diversity in the people doing arbitration (i.e., as counsel, arbitrator, and leaders in the field). Arbitration still has an equality of opportunity problem. It remains the case that some qualities allow people to enter and thrive in the field more easily (Anglophone, male and white (which, in full transparency, describes me perfectly)). However, the arbitration community is working hard to change this, and I expect that those diversity efforts will bear fruit in the years to come.
Second, more countries where the courts truly understand and support international arbitration. For example, at present, various countries in Asia and elsewhere have a patchy record of enforcing awards under the New York Convention. What is incredibly encouraging is the reaction from local bars, and particularly younger lawyers. The new generation of lawyers inspired by overseas studies, moots etc., are pushing hard to improve the quality of the international arbitration environment. India is a good example of this shift.
Q: If you could change one thing about the arbitral system, what would it be?
A: I would like arbitrators to be a bit tougher on parties, particularly recalcitrant ones. On average, arbitrators are a little too hesitant to crack the whip when one party is trying to drag an arbitration out. The system would work better if arbitrators were a little more proactive on that front.
Q: What do you think will be the greatest challenge facing the next generation of ADR practitioners?
A: A cliché, but making arbitration faster and cheaper. Everyone agrees that this is a worthy goal. However, legislatures and institutions can only do so much toward that goal. In most arbitrations, the counsel and arbitrators hold the primary levers that affect time and cost.
The challenge is that no single, magic bullet solution exists. Rather, to have a sustained reduction in the time arbitration takes and how much it costs will require many small changes in behavior, all pulling in the same direction.
Q: You are a Mentor on our Maxwell Mentorship Programme, what is one piece of invaluable advice you would give to our group of Mentees or other younger legal practitioners in entering the alternative dispute resolution field?
A: Work hard and follow opportunities that arise, but don’t over-plan. The tough fact is that right now there is a supply-demand imbalance for young arbitration/ADR talent. That is, lots of young lawyers want to work in the field, but the demand for young arbitration/ADR lawyers is finite.
With that imbalance, it’s just not practical to plan on the assumption that the opportunities that you want will materialize. Given the competition, they likely won’t. Rather, you should just work hard and follow whatever opportunities come up. While they might not initially seem ideal, smart, hardworking people make things happen. The trick is to be in the game.
Q: Looking back on your career, what has been your proudest achievement?
A: The younger lawyers I’ve helped develop into senior lawyers. I’ve always believed that you should focus on hiring the best trainees and junior lawyers. If you hire the right juniors and really take the time to train them, you’ll never need to hire lateral lawyers.
And picking the right people is hard. It’s not just a question of grades or bling-bling law schools (although there’s no issue with either). You want someone who is a demonstrably brilliant lawyer, but also has the right moral compass and personality (normally meaning someone who has a good sense of humor and is a serious professional, yet doesn’t take themselves too seriously).
I’m proud that over the years I’ve identified some very good people and played some modest role in bringing their careers along.
Q: If you weren’t in your current profession, what profession would you be in?
A: An academic of some nature. I love teaching and thinking about how to make things better. I also love writing (which might explain why I wrote a book while in private practice, much of it written on the train from my house to my office in Paris!).
Q: How do you like to enjoy your free time?
A: Spending time with my family and friends. Our kids, Sam and Clara, are at a fun age where they’re discovering the grown-up world, but still kids (11 & 9).
Q: Lastly, share with us your fondest memories of Maxwell Chambers.
A: Perhaps my first hearing at Maxwell Chambers as sole arbitrator in early 2016, not long after I arrived in Singapore. We were in that big round room, which was perfect for the size of the legal teams.
I took along our then trainee, and we were blown away by the quality of the facilities (arbitrators’ lounge etc) – a stark contrast to the facilities I’d experienced in other arbitration capitals. I remember thinking that I could get used to this.