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GAR 100 - 10th Edition

Three Crowns

10 March 2017

A radical departure from “Big Law”

People in Who’s Who Legal 6
Pending cases as counsel 42
Value of pending counsel work US$111 billion
Treaty cases 12
Current arbitrator appointments 40 (of which 16 are as sole or chair)
Lawyers sitting as arbitrator 6

Few stories have had as many hits on GAR’s website as the launch of Three Crowns in 2014.

What made it so interesting? Two aspects. First: the boldness. There have been international arbitration “boutiques” before, but this was on another level. Three Crowns opened simultaneously in three countries (the US, UK and France). So, more of a mini-firm than a boutique.

Second: the people. The founders included the illustrious Jan Paulsson, plus Constantine Partasides QC and Georgios Petrochilos – two of Paulsson’s heirs-apparent in the mighty Freshfields arbitration practice (Partasides was the practice’s co-chair).

Joining them was some top talent from other shops: Todd Wetmore (a big part of the recent success of Shearman & Sterling), Gaëtan Verhoosel (co-chair of international arbitration at Covington & Burling) and Luke Sobota (of Jones Day, where he was part of the team representing Chevron in its long-running battle with Ecuador).

Why would such good people want to leave such excellent firms? Nobody apart from the individuals in question really knows. But the official line is that Three Crowns embodies a “vision”; namely, that it is individuals, not firms, who “win” arbitrations, as long as those individuals have the “space” to focus on a case properly. Voilà: David can get the better of Goliath. So the founders say they saw a business opportunity, First, though, they had to create their own firm. The space they required was not apparently on offer where they were.

Three years on, how’s it working out? The practice has certainly had no trouble attracting more talent. In 2015, it recruited its first female partner, Carmen Martinez Lopez, who had worked with Verhoosel at Three Crowns. And it made its first homegrown partner, Scott Vesel, in the following year.

Clients have also been voting with their feet. The firm received more than 100 instructions in its first year, among them an instruction for what the firm believes is the largest claim in the ICC’s history (US$20 billion). The value of its portfolio of pending counsel work has risen to US$111 billion (higher even than that of Freshfields). Meanwhile profits per equity partner have reportedly reached Magic Circle levels.

Network

Three Crowns has offices in London, Paris and Washington, DC.

Who uses it?

The firm caters to repeat users of international arbitration who know the business well enough to forgo a big, established brand name. Since opening, it has been retained by:

  • investors bringing treaty claims against Spain over reforms to its renewable energy sector;
  • a claimant in a US$20 billion case against a state-owned company for its alleged role in an expropriation (the record ICC matter already mentioned);
  • a consortium of oil companies for a large dispute in a former Soviet republic;
  • BP (which has added Three Crowns to its list of “niche law firm providers” panel – the only arbitration firm on that list);
  • a large Asian industrial conglomerate for potential BIT claims against a Latin American state; and
  • various governments on state-to-state matters, including a very prominent Asian state that retained Paulsson and Petrochilos almost as soon as Three Crowns opened.
     

Members of the firm have also brought with them briefs from Areva, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Occidental Petroleum, Perenco, Chevron, Tullow Oil and the UAE’s Dana Gas and Crescent Petroleum.

Track record

Though it’s still early days, the firm has been pretty busy already. High points from its first two years of operation include:

  • winning Dana and Crescent a US$2 billion LCIA award against the Kurdistan regional government of Iraq in compensation for withheld gas payments (Freshfields continues to co-counsel on that case);
  • obtaining an order requiring Kurdistan to pay US$100 million within 30 days, and persuading the High Court in London to throw out the regional government’s sovereign immunity arguments;
  • helping Occidental to defend the largest ICSID award ever in annulment proceedings before the oil company reached a US$980 million settlement with the government of Ecuador;
  • negotiating a settlement for Tullow Oil in a tax dispute with Uganda that reached ICSID;
  • acting as co-counsel to Chevron during three weeks of hearings for its denial of justice claim against Ecuador in The Hague; and
  • defending a US$1.6 billion award in favour of ExxonMobil against Venezuela in ICSID annulment hearings.

Recent events

The firm achieved another victory for Dana and Crescent in their highly politicised LCIA arbitration against Kurdistan’s regional government in Iraq. In early 2017, the tribunal awarded the UAE consortium a further US$121 million while dismissing counterclaims by the government reportedly worth billions of dollars.  

It won provisional measures from an ICSID tribunal that required Cyprus to refrain from executing arrest warrants against former executives at Laiki Bank, pending a €1.2 billion arbitration over the bank’s collapse. However, it failed to obtain an order for the suspension of Cypriot criminal proceedings that the investors say are intended to frustrate the ICSID case.

Verhoosel helped a group of South African mining investors win a landmark case against Lesotho under an obscure investment treaty signed by member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). An UNCITRAL panel held Lesotho liable for a denial of justice because of the state’s role in the shuttering of a regional court that had been empowered to hear investment claims against SADC member states. The member states have reportedly responded by amending the treaty in question to exclude investor-state arbitration.

Together with Shearman & Sterling, the firm continues to act for France’s Areva in a €5.8 billion dispute with Finnish utility TVO over the construction of a nuclear power plant in Finland. There was a partial award in November 2016 on factual issues but a final award is still some way off.

There was a new instruction from Oman.  

Paulsson continues to be involved in some headline-grabbing cases as arbitrator. He was part of an UNCITRAL panel that rejected Croatia’s corruption allegations against Hungary’s MOL, and he sat on a Court of Arbitration for Sport panel that upheld a decision to ban UEFA chief Michel Platini from “all footballing activites”.

Georgios Petrochilos was appointed as emergency arbitrator in an SCC case against Moldova – but refused to order the state to suspend measures that would require a Russian investor to give up its shares in a local bank. 

Gaëtan Verhoosel was appointed a vice chair of the International Bar Association’s arbitration committee.

Client comment

A former consultant to the attorney general of an Asian state had occasion to use Three Crowns for a state-to-state treaty dispute of “vital strategic importance” to the country.

He said the firm was “proficient, knowledgeable and timely in their representation” and singled out Jan Paulsson and Luke Sobota as “first-class lawyers, but more than that, a pleasure to be around”.