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GAR 100 - 10th Edition

Debevoise & Plimpton

08 March 2017

Added another thought leader as work for Russia gets underway

People in Who’s Who Legal 7
Pending cases as counsel 82
Value of pending counsel work US$61.8 billion
Treaty cases 16
Current arbitrator appointments 22 (of which 8 are as sole or chair)
Lawyers sitting as arbitrator 5

It is now seven years since Debevoise produced its widely praised “Protocol to Promote Efficiency in International Arbitration”, but it continues to play a key role in shaping and improving the practice of arbitration. It is positioned to do so as home to thought leaders including the immediate past president International Bar Association, David W Rivkin; the president of the International Council for Commercial Arbitration, Donald Donovan; and former UK attorney general and frequent spokesman for international arbitration, Lord Goldsmith QC.

The firm recently added another strong voice: Wendy Miles QC, the former head of international arbitration at Boies Schiller & Flexner. In addition to a strong practice built up initially during 15 years at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, she is a vice president of the ICC International Court of Arbitration and vice chair of the IBA’s Arbitration Committee. She has been at the forefront of recent efforts to improve the representation of women on arbitral tribunals. 

Younger partners include New York based Catherine Amirfar, who returned to the firm in 2016 after a two year stint as chief adviser on international disputes at the US Department of State and is co-chairing a new ICCA and American Society for International Law taskforce on damages in international arbitration. 

The concentration of partners with leadership roles has led Michael Blair, Debevoise’s presiding partner, to call the international disputes practice “one of the jewels in the Debevoise crown.”

The Debevoise practice traces its roots to the great US arbitration specialist Robert von Mehren, who gained a famous win for Texaco and the California Asiatic Oil Company in the TOPCO case against Libya in the 1970s. Von Mehren, who retired from the firm in the 1990s, passed away in 2016 aged 93. He mentored the current practice leaders, Rivkin and Donovan, who have overseen the firm’s work in landmark recent cases such as Occidental v Ecuador

The past few years have seen an influx of prestigious and high-value work, not least acting for Russia in some of the “second wave” arbitrations arising from the collapse of the oil giant Yukos that are under way in The Hague.

That said, the firm is increasingly reaching out to clients with smaller matters (in the tens of millions, rather than hundreds of millions). The hourly rate may be high, but the firm promises the use of small teams to keep costs down. In accordance with its widely emulated efficiency protocol, it still aims to be the firm of choice for the smart buyer.

Network

Aside from those already mentioned, Debevoise boasts a strong team of partners, half of whom feature in GAR’s sister publication, Who’s Who Legal: Arbitration. They include Mark Friedman, Dietmar Prager, Natalie Reid and William Taft in New York; Christopher Tahbaz in Hong Kong and New York; Tony Dymond in London and Antoine Kirry in Paris.  There are also international counsel in London and Hong Kong.

In 2015, it launched a Caribbean practice with a conference in Kingston, Jamaica – headed by Reid, as a Jamaican national.

Who uses it?

Debevoise’s clients range from Nike to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the United Nations and include a high number of energy and mining companies. It is on the Shell legal panel as a relationship firm in the areas of arbitration, anti-bribery and corruption in England, the US and Russia (several former Debevoise lawyers have worked at the oil company).

It also represents GE in multiple contractual disputes arising out of its purchase of Converteam GmbH, which have led to arbitrations in Sweden, India and elsewhere.

On the mining side, it represents Tethyan Copper Company, an Australian company jointly owned by Barrick Gold Corporation and Antafogasta Minerals in parallel arbitral proceedings with the government of Pakistan and the Balochistan region of Pakistan, at ICSID and the ICC respectively. It has also advised a joint venture between Barrick Gold and Goldcorp on a dispute with the Dominican Republic.

While it normally acts for investors in investment treaty matters, its state clients include the governments of South Korea, Israel and Mexico (in US litigation arising from the Avena case at the ICJ). Singapore used it for a sensitive billion-dollar arbitration against Malaysia over railway lands. And, as mentioned, Russia has turned to it to defend claims in relation to the collapse of Yukos, as a replacement for Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton.

Track record

In 2012, the firm secured an eye-popping US$2.3 billion ICSID award (with interest) in favour of the US’s Occidental Petroleum against Ecuador – the largest known investment treaty award until the Yukos case. An ad hoc committee partially annulled the award in 2015, slashing the damages by 40%. Ecuador settled the case in the following year with a payment of US$980 million.

Debevoise helped Bahamian oil company Perenco win on liability in an ICSID case against Ecuador over a 99% levy on windfall profits of foreign oil companies. The case drags on because of an environmental counterclaim by Ecuador in relation to pollution in the Amazon.

Another impressive victory was in a commercial case, when Debevoise secured US$750 million for Hyundai Heavy Industries in a battle for control of a refinery. That won GAR’s Win of the Year award in 2010.

It secured a US$73 million award for the Man Group, one of the world’s largest independent alternative investment managers, in a dispute that entailed an ICC arbitration in São Paulo, discovery proceeding in New York and litigation in Brazil, Bermuda, Uruguay and elsewhere.

There have also been some good settlements. A Debevoise team helped Brazilian billionaire Abílio Diniz settle a dispute with his French partner in a food retail venture on the eve of the merits hearings.

Together with Allen & Overy, the firm helped their clients to agree a US$82 million settlement with the government of Belize in 2015 to end a set of investment treaty claims relating to the nationalisation of a telecoms operator.

Recent news

There was a positive result for Russia in the ongoing “second wave” Yukos cases at the Permanent Court of Arbitration – after Dutch company Financial Performance Holdings withdrew its US$1.2 billion Energy Charter Treaty claim against the state in 2016. Debevoise continues to defend the state against a similar claim by Cypriot entity Luxtona.   

The firm helped Leyton Orient football club owner Francesco Becchetti and another Italian businessman obtain landmark provisional measures from an ICSID tribunal requiring Albania to suspend attempts to extradite them from the UK. The men are facing prosecution for money laundering and tax evasion in Albania but say the criminal proceedings are politically motivated. Quinn Emanuel is co-counsel on the case.

Allegations of abusive criminal proceedings are also at the heart of an ICSID case against Romania in which the firm is representing the claimant, the Netherlands' Nova Group. The case relates to a bribery prosecution against the group’s former chair Dan Adamescu, who recently died while serving a prison sentence in the country. 

The firm is meanwhile acting for Delaware-registered fund Gramercy in a US$1.6 billion treaty claim against Peru relating to defaulted bonds issued as compensation for farmland expropriated by a military dictatorship more than 50 years ago.

Debevoise continues in its efforts to reopen a US$1 billion ICSID claim against Laos in light of allegations that the state breached a settlement agreement. A related UNCITRAL proceeding was recently revived after Singapore’s top court ruled that the China-Laos bilateral investment treaty extends to investors in Macao.

However, the firm failed in a bid to revive an ICSID claim brought by Slovak and Cypriot investors affected by Greece's sovereign debt restructuring in the wake of the eurozone crisis. In September 2016, an ad hoc committee refused to annul an award from the previous year that had found Greek sovereign bonds were not protected investments under the relevant treaty.

On the commercial side, the firm won US$40 million for GlaxoSmithKline in two ICC cases against Pernix over an agreement to manufacture and distribute a leading migraine drug in the US; and guided US mining group Freeport-McMoRan to the settlement of a dispute with the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s state mining company Gecamines.

Rivkin stepped down from his role as IBA president at the end of 2016, having led initiatives to combat climate change and judicial corruption and rubbed shoulders with the Queen, the Pope and Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Donald Donovan succeeded Albert Jan van den Berg as ICCA president, presiding over the 2016 biennial congress in Mauritius.  And senior adviser to the practice Deborah Enix-Ross was elected chair of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates – the second-highest office in the ABA.

Sophie Lamb, partner and co-chair of the energy disputes group, left the firm after eight years for Latham & Watkins in London, with Miles arriving soon afterwards. The firm also promoted Ina Popova in New York and Patrick Taylor in London to the partnership. Both were subsequently identified as future leaders in arbitration by Who’s Who Legal, as were Amirfar, Reid, international counsel Aimee Jane Lee and associates Samantha Rowe and Floriane Lavaud.