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The big picture

Dispute resolution lawyers assist parties involved in business-related disputes to settle them in the most favourable way possible, which may include a dispute resolution procedure. The main types are: litigation, where a verdict 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 themselves with the help of a mediator. Dispute resolution lawyers also help clients reach settlements without using formal dispute resolution procedures.

Why are lawyers needed?

Dispute resolution lawyers advise their clients on the law relating to their case and on strategy. 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 act as arbitrators or mediators. Dispute resolution lawyers also advise transactional colleagues on how to help their clients avoid, or minimise the negative effects of, potential future disputes in relation to their deals.

On the job

A dispute resolution lawyer will advise their 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’ll advise their client on what steps to take and when. They’ll also prepare the documents needed, which will include statements of the client’s case, and often witness statements, expert reports, and other evidence.

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, either as an advocate or assisting the barrister. Once a dispute has been settled or a verdict given by a judge or arbitrator, dispute resolution lawyers can help ensure that the settlement agreement or verdict is enforced.

Areas of law used include:

  • Contract law
  • Tort law
  • Company law
  • Criminal law

In practice: we spoke to Sarah Lee, partner at Slaughter and May

What kind of deals do you work on?

My work includes litigation, arbitrations and some mediation.

What kind of clients do you act for?

We work for large commercial organisations – FTSE 100 companies, multinational firms, financial institutions, and governments.

Can you describe one of your deals?

We acted for an English telecoms plc with operations around the world on a matter that took three years to come to court and which lasted seven months. 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!

Much of the evidence and witnesses were foreign, so there were interesting issues around the interaction of different legal systems. Strategy was important. Preparing for the trial was challenging logistically because we had to review a very large number of documents.

What do you enjoy about your practice area?

I’m naturally inquisitive, so I like to find out why have people fallen out and what’s driving a dispute. I enjoy the strategic thinking too. Is there a way of resolving the dispute without going to court? What are the internal pressures on an organisation that are stopping it from settling? I also like winning, which you get to do as a litigator.

What kind of person is suited to your practice area?

You have to be interested in digging for facts and in building up a picture of what’s happened. You can’t be afraid of confrontation, because you’ll always have an opposing side to deal with. Both sides may have very entrenched positions, so you need to be prepared to have an argument and be able stand your ground.What are the current big issues in your practice area?

Now that we all use email, you have to trawl through at least hundreds, and perhaps millions, of documents. It’s a challenge to control all that paper and to sift through it to get to the real issues quickly and cost effectively – increased use of electronic searching is one answer.   

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