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Life as an international arbitration lawyer
Associate Hazel Levent on the importance of being adaptable

When Hazel Levent first joined White & Case's Paris office on secondment from London, she was surprised. "You assume London is the epitome of an 'international city', but in many ways Paris is just as international," she says.

An obvious reason for this, Hazel explains, is Paris's enduring popularity as a seat of arbitration. Access to France's arbitration-friendly courts, renowned for actively enforcing foreign arbitral awards, as well as a community of experienced practitioners, makes Paris an attractive location to settle major cross-border disputes.

Competing to meet this demand are a number of international law firms, each bringing a global, multilingual workforce to their French foothold. Hazel first experienced this as a final-seat trainee on secondment to White & Case's Paris office in 2013. "Almost everyone you're working with is, in some shape or form, an expat. This results in an even greater level of diversity than in London," she says.

Diverse teams lead to creative thinking

After her Paris seat, Hazel returned to White & Case's London office as a newly qualified (NQ) solicitor in the Firm's International Arbitration and Litigation team. Five years later, she transferred back to the Paris office, fresh from a year-long client secondment at an upstream oil & gas company focusing on operations in North Africa. "What began as a six-month secondment in Paris as part of my training contract evolved into becoming a permanent life decision," she reflects.

She says that multi-national teams can offer different perspectives when solving complex, culturally sensitive legal problems. "It actually allows a lot of creativity and encourages thinking outside-the-box" explains Hazel. It also means that junior lawyers new to France's capital and across the globe often build close relationships in and out of the office as well. "Because you don't have family in the city, you build a family at work," Hazel adds.

The power of storytelling in arbitration

Specialising in international arbitration, Hazel's day-to-day work is spent collecting evidence and preparing to present her client's case to tribunals. Key to this, she says, is storytelling. She explains: "When I start reading into a new case, I immediately think about the best way of presenting the story, so when the tribunal is reading our submission, they remember and use the words we used to tell the story, not those of the other side."

“If you’re not convinced by your own case, how do you expect others to be?”

For Hazel, this meant applying the skills she had picked up during a summer graduate scheme at Turkish news channel NTV. She explains: "As a journalist, you're always asking yourself: How do I hook someone to this story? It's the same principle—you have to be convincing. If you're not convinced by your own case, how do you expect others to be?"

Life as an international arbitration lawyer isn't for the faint-hearted either— expect long hours working with clients across different time zones and jurisdictions. That said, organised lawyers can make it work. "Communication is key. If you're working on a document with a team in another time zone, you can plan around each other's timetables. For example, if you submit a document by close of business, my colleagues in New York would still have the whole working day to work on it," she explains.

Adapting to challenging times

With COVID-19 forcing lawyers into lockdown, such communication skills have never been more important. Hazel is working remotely and remains positive through this challenging transition. "The arbitration community is very adaptable—we're used to being presented with a challenge and then finding a solution."

Most challenging about the lockdown, she explains, is being cooped up inside. "Because people tend to live in smaller spaces, life happens outdoors in Paris—which normally makes the city feel lively," she says. The capital's compact size also means it's easy for commuters to get around on foot. "It's very walkable. If we have a hearing at the International Chamber of Commerce, you can walk from the office," she adds.

"Always stay open-minded"

Aspiring arbitration lawyers hoping to work internationally should first go back to the basics, Hazel advises. Ask yourself: What sets you apart from the competition? In her own case, she converted to law after studying at King's College London and the London School of Economics, having been passionate about international affairs. 

Being multi-lingual was another advantage for Hazel; she can speak English, Turkish and French. Whatever you do, she adds, always stay open-minded. "Most of our clients come from around the world, so you must be flexible, understanding and open to cultural differences," she says.

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