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GAR 100 - 4th Edition

Debevoise & Plimpton LLP

18 February 2011

Debevoise & Plimpton’s arbitration practice can trace its roots to Robert von Mehren, arguably the US’s first truly eminent figure in the field.

People in Who’s Who:
Pending cases as counsel:
Value of pending counsel work:
US$20 billion
Treaty cases:
Current arbitrator appointments:
19* (of which 11 are as sole or chair)
No. of lawyers sitting as arbitrator:

Von Mehren and members of the firm, in the 1970s, represented two US oil companies (Texaco and California Asiatic Oil) in claims against the Libyan government that led to a landmark award.

The practice passed into the hands of David W Rivkin and Donald Donovan, who’ve presided over its steady international expansion. It has come to stand out over the years for the size and regularity of its wins. In the past decade it has secured figures north of US$500 million on behalf of First Eagle Funds, Central European Media Enterprises (CME) and Hyundai Heavy Industries, to name a few.


The practice has grown far beyond its New York origins and now has a major presence in Europe with particular strength in London and Paris. Over the years the staffing of those offices has varied. In particular it took some time for the London office to develop a core of English-trained lawyers. Today, the London practice is led by a former UK attorney general, Lord Peter Goldsmith QC. Until recently London was home to Peter Rees QC, now legal director at Royal Dutch Shell.

Who uses it?

On the commercial side, clients include Aditya Birla Group in a US$1 billion telecoms joint venture dispute with the Tata Group; Daewoo Motor in an ICC arbitration in Singapore; and GlaxoSmithKline and Virgin Galactic, in separate LCIA claims that recently settled.

In investment law, ExxonMobil is using the firm on a NAFTA claim against Canada over investments in Newfoundland and Labrador province, First Quantum Minerals is using it in a claim against Zambia over a tax on foreign mining investments, and Occidental has retained them in a US$3 billion claim against Ecuador.

Big wins

Debevoise & Plimpton has won some very large awards, often backed up by victories at the enforcement stage. Its victory for US financial institution First Eagle in a claim against the Bank for International Settlements is a good example. In a dispute governed by public international law, a five-member tribunal constituted under the 1930 Hague Conventions found that the BIS had afforded First Eagle insufficient compensation when it recalled its publicly traded shares. The final award was worth approximately US$500 million.

In 2004, the firm won and subsequently enforced an award worth US$120 million on behalf of Occidental in an ad hoc arbitration against Ecuador under UNCITRAL rules (a case separate from the US$3 billion ICSID claim). A US$360 million award in favour of CME was also enforced against the Czech Republic.

In late 2009, the firm obtained a US$750 million ICC award on behalf of Hyundai Heavy Industries in a battle for control of an oil refining venture.

Recent events

Undoubtedly the story of the year was Peter Rees QC’s departure. Rees told GAR he feels he leaves the practice in good shape. It’s gone from one partner to four in his time with the firm.

Meanwhile in Paris, counsel Michael Ostrove left the firm after more than 15 years to join DLA Piper.

On a brighter note, Sophie Lamb in the London office made partner in mid 2010.

New York partner Mark Friedman for his part joined the LCIA court and became co-chair of the IBA’s arbitration committee.

Lord Goldsmith was among the group of experts appointed by the European Commission to examine the relationship between arbitration and the Brussels I Regulation. And in November, David W Rivkin learned he’d been chosen as the IBA’s new secretary-general, making him the first international arbitration practitioner to hold the post.

Debevoise & Plimpton also released a protocol on how to promote efficiency in international arbitration. The idea is for firms to voluntarily implement a code of best practice. The “Debevoise Protocol” has been well received and frequently mentioned at arbitration events. Jan Paulsson, the head of international arbitration at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, endorsed the idea at a recent conference to mark the 25th anniversary of the HKIAC.

Client comment

Contacted by GAR, one regular user gave the firm a ringing endorsement: “They are as plugged in to the international arbitration community as anyone, but I think they are smarter and easier to work with,” they said. “Better prepared and more in control than our opponents, they are not cheap but you do get good value.”

* excludes Peter Rees QC cases.

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