Earlier this year, Burford invited Equity Project Champion Sophie Nappert—an independent arbitrator with 3 Verulam Buildings in London who is the peer-nominated moderator of OGEMID and ranked on GAR’s Top 30 List of Female Arbitrators Worldwide—to interview a woman lawyer she considers a rising star in international arbitration. She immediately suggested Saadia Bhatty, counsel in the international disputes resolution team of international law firm Gide in London.
Sophie and Saadia sat down in London to discuss opportunities and challenges for women in law. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
Saadia Bhatty: What are your tips for female practitioners who want to evolve in this market?
Sophie Nappert: Arbitration can be a field that prizes individuality in every aspect. As an arbitrator, until we are replaced by algorithms, we are still appointed because of who we are. So I would say to anyone, woman or man, to be yourself.
These are the sort of existential questions I asked myself. What kind of lawyer am I? What kind of arbitrator do I want to be? Are there appointments that I will say no to even though I need to get the work and get started?
We all have an interest, a passion or an intellectual pursuit that fires us up. I would say don't be afraid to bring that to the table and be generous with it. Generosity is perhaps a funny way of building business, but I found that it pays off. That certainly was, and is, my model on OGEMID.
People are people—they are human at the end of the day. And the human side of this profession is something that I found plays to women's strengths and it is something that we ought to own in a very powerful way.
Saadia Bhatty: The OGEMID platform that you have described (and I can speak for my generation of lawyers and a lot of women I have spoken to), has created a safe space for people to be able to contribute in this field which oftentimes feels controlled by a small number of people. The field sometimes feels impenetrable but forums like OGEMID create a place that gives people the opportunity to post, even if they don't actually dare to. I have heard from people of all jurisdictions and generations that this has been extremely inspiring for young lawyers.
Sophie Nappert: I'm always delighted to hear that. We have tried to make it a unique place—when the #MeToo movement started emerging, for example, to have a degree of that recognition on the platform, not without controversy I will say, but it was important that this was reflected because the legal profession is not immune as we all know. That dialogue is something that would have never happened a few years back and it is heartening to see that there is that willingness to see those words in print.
Saadia Bhatty: You mentioned the term individuality which is very interesting. When we are selecting arbitrators, we certainly look for an individual profile. Doesn't the equation change though when you are in a law firm and you want to progress and ultimately reach equity partnership? Don't you feel like there is this conformism that young lawyers are kind of pushed into? The question being: Would your tips be different for lawyers wanting to progress in a big law firm?
Sophie Nappert: As you know, I have been out of the law firm environment for a long time so I can't profess to have up-to-date views—but I think that's a very realistic assessment. Any organisation needs a degree of conformity, certainly in the law. First of all, clients are uncomfortable in the disputes arena because it’s an outcome that no organisation likes, so they tend to be risk-averse in their every approach. So, when they come to their law firm they expect some sort of conformity.
That said there’s been a lot of work done by law firms at higher echelons to try and encourage some level of individualisation. But it happens at a much higher level, not necessarily when you are younger. When you are younger there is this perception that you need uniform training to give you the necessary skills to practice law but then you take the skills and you do with them what you will.
What I can't answer is whether it would make for a better profession if we encouraged more offbeat-ness earlier. It's an interesting proposition though whether there would be another way of training lawyers that would be more creative.
Saadia Bhatty: Well, I think creative is the key term here. As you mentioned we go through phases in our careers, certainly in the first three to four years of our careers it would seem there is little creativity.
However, since getting into a more senior role I have definitely seen that creative thinking is extremely valuable to clients. I have seen clients not go to a specific firm but go to a specific lawyer for their particular approach and strategy. We should be encouraging more creativity at different levels.
Sophie Nappert: The important point is that creativity needs to be profitable as law is a business. What is so fantastic about The Equity Project is the fact that money is put behind gender diversity and that will speak. It’s not just a budget to talk about diversity on panels—it’s actually business.
Saadia Bhatty: Would you explain what The Equity Project is and how you think it's a gamechanger?
Sophie Nappert: The idea of earmarking $50 million worth of funding for cases that are led by women or women-led law teams, where women are first chairs or where the client originated from a woman lawyer is a brilliant idea, because it provides a concrete incentive for change. It got the market to sit up and take notice. Burford has quite a few projects in the pipeline and the response has been fantastic. I hope that we can see the pool grow and we can see other competitors follow suit not only for women but for other types of minority-led cases. That confirms the fact that this is a business and it is led by money; this puts money and diversity together in a very constructive way.
Does your generation see a project like this just lip service or being something really inspiring?
Saadia Bhatty: It’s hugely inspiring. I have no reserve on that statement. It’s like you said: Until you take concrete actions you can’t produce results.
There will always however be sceptics discussing whether a diversity initiative is just lip service. The same comments on corporate social responsibility, when you have companies protecting the environment or signing human rights/green charters—is it really to bring change or just to improve their own brand name?— have been made within the legal industry, especially with respect to law firms looking to achieve the label of being “diverse”.
Whatever you do there is going to be some scepticism because the issue of gender diversity is out there and it needs to be addressed. But actions like The Equity Project, specifically creating funding for projects that are led by women—that will have an impact.
Sophie Nappert: Even if Burford did not fund any projects, it still creates awareness and sends a message. That in itself is useful.
Saadia Bhatty: The baby steps I have seen in the last couple of years which I thought were powerful were the incentives coming from the decision-makers themselves—so in our case our clients. As an example, my firm was recently invited by one of the biggest French companies to pitch its services and the core six partners across our firm were interviewed by a women-only group of more than ten in-house lawyers representing the company. Clearly, the company wanted to send over a message: We take gender diversity very seriously and we want to know what you are actively doing to promote diversity within the firm.
We had to put our numbers out there and during the interview the company representatives said something as specific as "when you send over a team pitch and there are no women in the team or it's led by a non-woman, it's insulting for us who are making the decision." It was an extremely powerful message.
We made it on the panel but we have changed our approach completely. It is not an isolated example. I've heard it over and over again. The pressure is coming from the clients. At the end of the day, they are the people that employ us and if the initiative comes from them—it makes a huge difference.
Sophie Nappert: Talking about diversity is great: It makes us speak about things other than the law; it makes us speak about human values and the values of this field. Talking about these issues brings out the important values that we want to champion.
Read more of "Q&A: Sophie Nappert and Saadia Bhatty":
Part I • Part II
Sophie Nappert is an independent practice arbitrator and the peer-nominated moderator of OGEMID, the online discussion forum on current issues of international investment law, economic law and arbitration. A former Head of International Arbitration at global law firm Dentons with over 20 years of legal experience, Sophie has been ranked in Global Arbitration Review's Top 30 List of Female Arbitrators Worldwide and is commended as a “leading light” in the field by Who’s Who Legal.
Saadia Bhatty is Counsel at Gide admitted to the New York and Paris bars She is Counsel in the International Dispute Resolution (IDR) team of Gide’s London office and advises and represents States and private entities on a wide range of contentious and non-contentious international dispute resolution law matters, in particular in international commercial and investment arbitrations and other public international law matters (including advice on treaty and legislation drafting). Saadia is also a board member of a number of arbitral organizations including ArbitralWomen.