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GAR 100 - 12th Edition

Debevoise & Plimpton

05 April 2019

Took on high-profile work for Qatar in response to the blockade in the Gulf

People in Who's Who Legal 10
People in Future Leaders 5
Pending cases as counsel 118
Value of pending counsel work US$65.9 billion
Treaty cases 27
Third-party funded cases 0
Current arbitrator appointments 13 (5 as chair or sole)
Lawyers sitting as arbitrator 6

Debevoise prides itself not only on the calibre of its work but its role in improving the practice of arbitration. It released an updated version of the “Debevoise Efficiency Protocol” in 2018 and has also issued a protocol to promote cybersecurity. The firm is home to thought leaders in the profession including David W Rivkin, a past president of the International Bar Association; Donald Donovan, a past president of the International Council for Commercial Arbitration; and former UK attorney general Lord Goldsmith QC, who is also a frequent spokesman for international arbitration.

The firm recently added another strong voice: Wendy Miles QC, the former head of international arbitration at Boies Schiller Flexner. In addition to having 15 years’ experience working at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, she is a vice president of the ICC International Court of Arbitration and a 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.

Indeed, the firm takes diversity seriously and notes that its next generation of international arbitration stars is primarily composed of women partners and counsel. These include partners Catherine Amirfar (a former adviser to the US State Department), Natalie Reid and Ina Popova in New York, and Samantha Rowe in London; and counsel Floriane Lavaud in New York. 

The Debevoise practice traces its roots to the late, great US arbitration specialist Robert von Mehren, who gained a famous win for Texaco in the TOPCO arbitration against Libya in the 1970s. He mentored the current practice leaders, Rivkin and Donovan, who have overseen the firm’s work in landmark cases such as Occidental v Ecuador.  

Other names to know are Mark Friedman, Dietmar Prager and William Taft in New York; Christopher Tahbaz in Hong Kong and New York; Tony Dymond and Patrick Taylor in London; and Antoine Kirry in Paris.

The past few years have seen an influx of prestigious and high-value work, particularly in the hundreds of millions category – 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

Most of the arbitration team is based in New York with other key partners in London, Hong Kong and Paris. Debevoise also has offices in Frankfurt, Moscow, Shanghai, Tokyo and Washington, DC.

Who uses it?

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

Tethyan Copper (a joint venture between Canada’s Barrick Gold and Antafogasta in Chile) is using the firm for an US$11 billion dispute in Pakistan. It has advised another Barrick venture in a dispute with the Dominican Republic.

It has also advised Hyundai Heavy Industries and Brazilian billionaire Abílio Diniz in commercial matters.

Investment treaty clients on the claimant side include oil companies Occidental Petroleum, Perenco, ExxonMobil and Murphy Oil; Delaware investment fund Gramercy; and former Leyton Orient football club owner Francesco Becchetti.

The firm’s government clients include Qatar, South Korea, Iraq, Israel, Grenada and Mexico. Singapore used it in a sensitive public international law dispute with Malaysia. And, as mentioned, Russia has turned to it to defend treaty claims in relation to the collapse of Yukos, replacing Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton.

Track record

Debevoise won an eye-popping US$2.3 billion ICSID award (with interest) for Occidental against Ecuador in 2012 – the largest known investment treaty award until the Yukos case. The damages were reduced by 40% in annulment proceedings before Ecuador settled the case with a US$980 million payout in 2016. Debevoise is now advising Occidental in a dispute with other oil companies over the allocation of the award proceeds (see “Recent events”).

It also helped Swiss building materials company Holcim secure a US$650 million settlement from Venezuela. 

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.

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

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 proceedings in New York and litigation in Brazil, Bermuda, Uruguay and elsewhere.

It defended South Korea against an ICSID claim by subsidiaries of an Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund before the claimants withdrew their claims in 2016.

The firm achieved a landmark result for Francesco Becchetti and another Italian businessman by persuading an ICSID tribunal to grant provisional measures recommending that Albania suspend attempts to extradite the two men to face prosecution for money laundering and tax evasion. The men say the charges are politically motivated.

In the English courts, it helped Russian steel producer NLMK to stave off enforcement of a US$160 million award in favour of Russian billionaire Nikolai Maximov that was set aside at the seat of arbitration in Russia. The firm persuaded the English courts that the Russian set-aside decision was not manifestly wrong or perverse.

Debevoise also helped Russia to collect payment of a US$1.7 million costs award against a Dutch entity after launching enforcement proceedings in London. The Dutch company – a successor to a former Yukos subsidiary – had been ordered to pay the costs after withdrawing a US$3.5 billion Energy Charter Treaty claim against the state in 2016.

Recent news

Debevoise’s highest-profile work of 2018 has been on behalf of Qatar and Qatari parties in international claims arising out of the blockade imposed on the Gulf state by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt. The firm was part of a counsel team that secured provisional measures from the International Court of Justice requiring the UAE to ensure the reunification of Qatari nationals and their families who have been separated as a result of the blockade.

Following Occidental’s settlement with Ecuador, the firm has paired up with Three Crowns to defend the company in an ICDR-administered case brought by China’s Andes Petroleum, which argues it is entitled to 40% of the proceeds of the ICSID settlement. The dispute has been complicated by the intervention of Canada’s Encana, which has been joined to the arbitration and argues it is owed half of Andes’ share of the proceeds.

At ICSID, it continues to advise Tethyan in an US$11 billion claim against Pakistan that finally reached a hearing on quantum in May 2018 and is now awaiting a final award. The tribunal already upheld liability after rejecting the state’s corruption defence.

Debevoise also continues to advise Bahamian oil company Perenco in a long-running claim against Ecuador over oil blocks in the Amazon, in which the state has brought counterclaims for environmental pollution.

It is representing a French fashion client in a claim against Saudi Arabia over the alleged destruction of its retail business in the kingdom; and Nova Group in an ICSID claim against Romania that alleges politically motivated prosecutions of company officers.

States are using the firm at ICSID too – Iraq in a pair of cases brought by telecoms and logistics companies; and Grenada in a dispute with a power company.

Russia continues to use the firm in two multibillion-dollar ECT arbitrations brought by other Yukos affiliates that have already cleared the jurisdictional stage.

Dietmar Prager, who co-heads the Latin American practice, represented the Center for Reproductive Rights in Chile’s Constitutional Court, resulting in a decision upholding a bill to decriminalise abortion in certain circumstances.

Client comment

South Korean client Hanwha Q-Cells retained Debevoise to defend it in a €200 million case, and says the firm was “instrumental” in obtaining a settlement agreement. The client commends the “responsiveness and client care” of the firm’s lawyers, and adds that he was particularly impressed by New York partner Christopher Tahbaz: “He was meticulous in addressing all issues and precise in giving direction and counsel.”  

Lucy Lopez, deputy general counsel at McKinsey, says the firm is “super responsive” and offers “strategic thinking and advice”. She adds that as a client you “feel extremely well supported and in excellent hands.” London partner Patrick Taylor is “very strategic and thoughtful” while counsel Nicola Swan is “extremely client-friendly and organised.”

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