The big picture
Dispute resolution lawyers assist parties involved in complex business-related conflicts to settle them in the most favourable way possible, which may well include helping them through a dispute resolution procedure. The main types of dispute resolution procedure are litigation, where a verdict on the dispute is reached by a judge in court; arbitration, where an independent arbitrator resolves a dispute; and mediation, where the parties try to reach a settlement without having to ask somebody else to decide the issue for them. Dispute resolution lawyers also help clients reach settlements without using formal dispute resolution procedures.
How are lawyers involved?
Dispute resolution lawyers advise their clients on the law as it relates to their case and on the strategic conduct of the dispute. If disputes progress to formal proceedings, they'll draft the necessary legal documents and guide the client through a trial or any other hearings. Some senior dispute resolution lawyers may spend a part of their time acting as arbitrators or mediators. Dispute resolution lawyers also advise their transactional colleagues on how to help their clients avoid, or minimise the negative effects of, potential future disputes in relation to their deals.
On a dispute
A dispute resolution lawyer assisting a client involved in a commercial dispute is likely to start working on the matter by advising the client on their legal position, and what chance they have of winning their case at court or in an arbitration. They may then advise on potential ways to settle the dispute and liaise with the other parties involved on their client's behalf to agree the terms of any potential settlement. If the dispute progresses towards a formal dispute resolution procedure, they will advise their client on what steps in often complicated processes to take and when. They will prepare the documents needed, which will include statements of the client's case, and often witness statements and expert reports. They'll also assist with collecting the evidence required to back up arguments made.
As the trial or hearing nears they might brief a barrister to represent their client, or prepare to argue their client's case themselves. They will attend the trial, acting either as an advocate or assisting the barristers working on the case. Once a dispute has been settled or a verdict given by a judge or arbitrator, dispute resolution lawyers will play a role, if necessary, in ensuring that the settlement agreement or verdict is enforced.
Typical trainee tasks include:
- reviewing documents provided as evidence by the other side to a dispute
- organising documents into catalogued files (known as bundles) for use in court
- drafting attendance notes - records of a meeting with a client or a barrister
- research into legislation and case law.
The areas of law dispute resolution lawyers use include:
- contract law
- tort law
- criminal law
Sarah Lee: dispute resolution partner at Slaughter and May
What kind of disputes do you work on?
My work covers the whole range of litigation, arbitration and mediation.
What kind of clients do you act for?
We work for large commercial organisations - FTSE 100 companies, global organisations, financial institutions, and governments.
Can you tell us about a dispute that you've worked on recently?
Last year, we finished a High Court trial that took three years to prepare and which lasted seven months in court. Our client was an English plc with operations around the world. The dispute concerned competition in the telecoms markets of several Caribbean islands - and yes, my team and I got to spend some time out there!
The case was a good example of some of the issues that you come across as a litigator at a firm like Slaughter and May. It raised questions of foreign law and many of the documents and witnesses were based abroad. There were interesting issues around the interaction of different legal systems. Our overall strategy was very important. Preparing for the trial was challenging logistically because of the number of jurisdictions involved - we had to review a very large number of documents, pull together all the evidence, take statements from witnesses, and find relevant experts.
What do you enjoy about your practice area?
I'm naturally inquisitive, so I like to find out what's driving a dispute. I enjoy the strategic thinking involved too: how can the evidence be best presented; is there a way of resolving the dispute without going to court; what are the internal pressures on an organisation that are influencing its position? I also like winning, which you get to do as a litigator.
What kind of person is suited to your practice area?
You need to be a bit of a detective. You have to be interested in digging for facts and in building up a picture of what's happened. You also can't be afraid of confrontation, because you will always have an opposing side to deal with. Both sides may have very entrenched positions, so you need to be prepared to argue your point and to be able to stand your ground.
What are the current big issues in your practice area?
With the increased use of electronic communication, you often have to trawl through thousands, if not millions, of documents even on cases where the legal issues are quite narrow. It's a challenge to control all that information and to sift through it to identify the key evidence quickly and cost effectively - increased use of electronic searching is one answer.
I think there is still room for barristers. Advocacy skills are essential for a litigation solicitor. All our dispute resolution associates have training and access to qualifications in this area and use don't just use these skills at formal hearings but also when we're presenting arguments in correspondence, in meetings with the other side, in arbitrations and in mediations. But for high-profile cases where lots of money is at stake you need the very best advocates, which means barristers who are in court day in and day out. As a solicitor there is plenty of advocacy involved in your job but you also do many other things as well, like liaising closely with the client and working with witnesses from an early stage.