Interview Series - Simon Dunbar

#10QuestionswithMaxwell Interview Series: Simon Dunbar, Gateway Law Corporation

In this #10QuestionsWithMaxwell interview, we feature Simon Dunbar, a director at Gateway Law Corporation, who also co-leads the International Arbitration practice. He is also a member of the Maxwell Steering Committee.

Simon is an experienced international dispute resolution lawyer, who specialises in international arbitration and acts as both advocate and arbitrator.  Based in Singapore for more than 16 years, Simon has been involved in some of Asia’s most complex and high-value disputes.

Simon is admitted to practice in Singapore, England & Wales (as a solicitor advocate) and New York, and has experience of both common law and civil law systems.  He has represented clients in international arbitrations under most of the major institutional rules, focusing on joint venture, energy, technology and infrastructure disputes. 

In addition to his work as counsel, Simon regularly sits as arbitrator, and has served as sole or presiding arbitrator in ICC, SIAC and ad hoc arbitrations.  He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (FCIArb), is listed on the arbitrator panels of various arbitral institutions and is an accredited mediator.

Before joining Gateway, Simon was partner in the global disputes practice of a leading international law firm, having spent more than 17 years at international law firms in Singapore and New York.

Among other accolades, Simon has been recognised in the legal directories as “very impressive,” “an unbelievably good lawyer”, and “a formidable advocate.”  He has also been described as “the hardest working lawyer on the planet”, “excellent as arbitration counsel or arbitrator” and someone “who knows the arbitration space inside out and knows the region inside out.”

In this interview, he shared his day-to-day routine as an international dispute resolution lawyer, the biggest change he had seen in the way arbitration proceedings are conducted since he began his career, skills and traits he would encourage in the next generation of dispute resolution lawyers, and more.

Read his full interview below:

Q: What inspired you to take on practice in international arbitration?

A: My career in international arbitration happened as much by chance and good fortune as it did by design.  Having planned for a career at the English bar after university, a scholarship, an LL.M. and a job offer from Shearman & Sterling diverted me from that course.  I took the New York bar instead, and started practice as a bankruptcy (litigation) lawyer in New York. 

A few years later, I followed my wife to Shearman & Sterling’s Singapore office, transferring to the firm’s International Arbitration practice – where I began working with John Savage KC.  That was 16 years ago.  I’ve been based in Singapore, practising international arbitration, ever since.  And I am still working on some matters with John.

Q: How would you describe your day-to-day routine as an international dispute resolution lawyer?

A: An average day starts early with the school run – dropping my 12- and 9-year-old kids off at school before 8am.  

It then continues with me, my laptop, my phone and a cup of local coffee (or two), working closely with my colleagues.  International arbitration is very much a “team sport” – and close collaboration among team members is essential.  

Based in Asia but with a global client base, mornings allow for a focus on work – drafting submissions and preparing for hearings and meetings.  As the day picks up and other time-zones open, virtual meetings and calls occupy my time – typically until late at night.  

Leaving aside the pandemic period, an international practice also calls for frequent regional and global travel – for client meetings, witness interviews and hearings, as well as for conferences, client seminars and other business development.

Q: Since you began your career, what has been the biggest change you have seen in relation to the way that arbitration proceedings are conducted?

A: Putting to one side the many changes we have all encountered during the pandemic, I have observed three broad trends over the last 16 years:

Codification – When I began my career in international arbitration in 2006, many of the “go to” rules and guides that we regularly turn to today didn’t exist.  The IBA (Evidence) Rules were relatively new and not universally adopted.  Most arbitral rules didn’t have provisions for emergency arbitrators, expedited procedures, early dismissal, consolidation,  and many other provisions we take for granted today.

Specialisation – Very few firms had dedicated “International Arbitration” groups. I was lucky to start practising international arbitration at Shearman & Sterling, which did.  Students didn’t study international arbitration as a specialist subject at law school.  And most specialists alighted at a career in international arbitration after a journey through other dispute resolution practices.

Democratisation – One of the most significant and welcome changes I have witnessed and played a role in has been the “democratisation” of international arbitration.  International Arbitration is no longer the preserve of a handful of elite global arbitration practices, centred in Europe and focused on one or two global institutions, also centred in Europe.  Singapore’s meteoric rise is a prime example of this.  Over my career, it has developed into a world-class seat, with a leading global arbitral institution, experienced global practitioners – in international firms, local Singapore firms and specialist boutiques, and, of course, Maxwell Chambers.  This democratisation has been accompanied by greater diversity – in arbitration counsel and arbitrators – as step-by-step the arbitration service providers more closely reflect the diversity of their users.

Q: Without sacrificing confidentiality, could you share with us one memorable case you handled?

A: There have been many over the years.  One which stands out, in particular, was a case that I led, together with my long-time colleague, and fellow director, Kevin Lim.  More than USD 1.8 billion was in dispute.  

From the other side, we encountered jurisdictional challenges, arbitrator challenges, dissipation of assets, parallel domestic court litigation, privately instituted criminal proceedings against our client, its director and in-house counsel and the introduction of improperly obtained evidence. Sadly, a few weeks before the main merits hearing, one of the co-arbitrators became seriously ill and passed away.  

Working with co-counsel, we obtained a worldwide freezing injunction from a court outside of the seat (in support of the foreign-seated arbitration).  We also navigated an unusually complex tribunal appointment mechanism, obtained early dismissal of most of the opponent’s counterclaims, and an anti-suit injunction, preventing the pursuit of parallel civil litigation and privately instituted criminal proceedings.  

For me, the case serves as a reminder of the range of powerful tools that are available to participants in international arbitrations in Asia, and how these can be deployed effectively to keep a dispute on track and pursue it to a successful outcome.

Q: Looking back on your career, what has been your proudest achievement?

A: At 41 years old, I still feel a bit young to be “looking back on my career”!  But as I reflect on almost 18 years of practice, my proudest achievement is that I have managed to chart my own course.

As the first in my family to attend University, I read law at Trinity College, Cambridge, a place where my grandfather, a delivery driver and the grandson of an immigrant from Singapore, had made deliveries many years earlier. I am grateful for the scholarships and other opportunities that flowed from that, which have allowed me to study law in the UK, Germany and the US, become qualified in New York, England & Wales and Singapore, to work in, and become a partner of, top-tier US law firms in New York and Singapore, and to be appointed arbitrator in many cases over the last 12 years.

My proudest achievement, though, is my decision last year to chart a new course, by leaving the relative comfort of “BigLaw” to build a boutique global arbitration practice, rooted in Singapore, together with a long-time friend and colleague.  I have for some time wanted to practice international arbitration differently – from a platform which offers the same world-class service but with greater rate flexibility, fewer conflicts and more senior-level attention on matters, while developing and promoting the next generation of local and regional international arbitration practitioners.

Q: If you were not in your current profession, what profession would you be in?

A: While I’d like to imagine I could have become a fighter pilot, or perhaps another Roger Federer, I think an academic would be a more realistic alternative – as it would combine my intellectual curiosity and interest in the law with my enjoyment of teaching and commitment to developing the next generation of lawyers.

Q: What steps do practitioners need to take to maintain their profile in the arbitration community?

A: While there are many ways to maintain a profile in the arbitration community, some good advice I received a long time ago is that the “best business development opportunity is sitting on your desk right now” – recognising that consistently doing a good job on each case before you is key to developing a successful practice.

Q: What skills and traits would you encourage in the next generation of dispute resolution lawyers?

A: Pragmatism – clients want commercial solutions to their problems; for instance, for some clients and matters, it may be more valuable to navigate a matter to a commercial resolution than to secure an award which may take years to enforce.

Empathy – underlying every dispute, including the most “commercial” of disputes, are people, their lives and livelihoods; disputes should therefore be handled with care, and with an understanding of what is at stake for the parties.  Greater diversity – in all its forms – among tribunal members, counsel teams and experts is a critical component of this.

Adaptability – Over my career, the way arbitrations have been conducted has changed significantly.  If change is the only constant, then the next generation must be ready for, adapt to, and drive that change.  At the same time, as digital natives, they need to remember that for some time to come, they will be reporting to, and appearing before, senior lawyers and tribunals who are altogether more “analogue”.  An ability to bridge that divide will be a key asset.

Q: What is one thing that you have always wanted to do but have not had a chance to accomplish yet?

A: While I have picked up a few Chinese words and phrases from my children, I am not proficient in the language.  A long-term goal of mine is therefore to become proficient in Chinese.

Q: Lastly, share with us some of your fondest memories of Maxwell Chambers.

A: As someone who remembers what international arbitration in Singapore was like long before Maxwell Chambers existed (and the difficulties in securing suitable venues for holding hearings), I’d single out attending the opening of Maxwell Chambers, as well as the opening of Maxwell Chambers Suites.

In the years since then, Maxwell Chambers has become more than just a building, or a venue for hearings.  It has become an iconic focal point for the international arbitration community in Singapore, and a preferred meeting point for busy international arbitration counsel and arbitrators from around the world.

But for me, it is a place where I conducted my first oral advocacy as international arbitration counsel, where I sat for the first time as arbitrator, and where I gained some of my first speaking opportunities at conferences and seminars. It was also the setting for a training video “movie”, produced by the SIAC many years ago, in which I played a role.


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