Claus von Wobeser is the founding and managing partner of Von Wobeser y Sierra (Mexico). He is also the president of the International Chamber of Commerce Mexico, the president of the Latin American Arbitration Association (ALARB), he is a member of the International Council for Commercial Arbitration’s (ICCA) governing board. In addition, he is a former member of the ICC Court of International Arbitration (1982–1988), the former president of the ICC Mexico Arbitration Committee (1987–2016), a former vice president of the ICC Court of Arbitration (2006–20015), the former co-chair of the IBA’s Arbitration Committee (2005–2006), and former member of the LCIA Court. He obtained his law degree from the Escuela Libre de Derecho (Mexico) and his PhD from the European Law Studies from Université de Droit, d’Economie et de Sciences Sociales (Paris 2).
Questions & Answers
Thought Leaders 2023 - Interview with Claus von Wobeser
Can you briefly describe your career to date?
I began my career as an in-house lawyer for a chemical corporation. After a couple of years, I joined what was, at the time, Mexico’s best law firm as a transactional lawyer dealing mainly with M&A and corporate governance matters. In the early 1980s, the firm appointed me to manage their Paris office, where I lived for almost four years, and during which time I completed my PhD and became first involved in arbitration matters as a member of the ICC Court.
In 1986, a couple of years after I returned to Mexico, Maclovio Sierra – a close friend from law school – and I decided to leave our respective law firms and start what we thought would be a boutique law firm: Von Wobeser y Sierra.
During the first years of Von Wobeser y Sierra, my practice mainly related to transactional matters, as arbitration was almost non-existent in Mexico. However, this would change by the beginning of the 1990s, as the Mexican economy significantly opened its economy to foreign investment and, consequently, to commercial and investment arbitration.
For the past 25 years, I have devoted my legal practice primarily to international arbitration, acting as arbitrator and counsel in commercial and investment cases involving various countries, industries, and legal systems. I am mainly active as an arbitrator in investment cases involving Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Additionally, I regularly act as an expert witness in Mexican law, international law and arbitration issues before foreign courts and arbitral tribunals.
What do you enjoy most about being a lawyer in your practice area?
I particularly enjoy having the opportunity to work both as an arbitrator and counsel. As counsel, I have been honoured to build strong relationships with inspiring leaders across various industries, and it is my privilege to protect their interests in Mexico and overseas. As an arbitrator, I am proud to uphold the rule of law, assisting in developing legal standards that, if applied and upheld, might help to make Latin America a more stable and welcoming investment environment.
Additionally, my work within the Latin American Arbitration Association (ALArb) as the current president intends to further develop the arbitration practice in the region by creating a dynamic academic and professional forum and a networking space for the arbitration community. I am honoured to contribute to developing international arbitration in the region.
What was the most challenging case or transaction you have ever worked on and why?
The most challenging case I have ever worked on is probably the Commisa v Pemex case. I participated in this case for several years and at different stages: including the arbitration, the award annulment procedure in Mexico, and the award enforcement proceedings abroad. I acted as an expert in Mexican law in the enforcement proceeding in New York. I contributed to successfully convincing the competent judge to enforce the award after its annulment in Mexico. It was gratifying to ultimately see a favourable result for Commisa after so many years of litigation.
What are the greatest challenges for lawyers in your practice area in your country this year?
I believe the worst of the pandemic has passed now, and Mexico and the world are showing a fair amount of resilience. However, the pandemic’s economic impact and the war in Ukraine’s effects will continue to affect the ordinary course of business and life in Mexico. Additionally, Mexico’s current administration will likely continue its hostile attitude towards private investment in critical sectors for the country’s development. This challenging environment for the economy and the world will likely boost international disputes in all sectors that, in many cases, will jeopardise the subsistence of many of our clients. The challenge for the lawyers in arbitration will be to find creative solutions to help their clients face the unprecedented circumstances we face today.
How do you expect your practice to evolve over the next five years?
The covid-19 pandemic transformed the international arbitration practice concerning technology. During the past two years, the pandemic forced arbitration practitioners to adapt to new technologies to conduct proceedings. Arbitral institutions have also adapted to this new reality. For example, the new ICC arbitration rules expressly provide that hearings may be held remotely. I believe the technological tools we discovered during the pandemic are here to stay.
Additionally, the pandemic proved that arbitration is an effective way to solve disputes, and it can be done remotely or virtually, leading to positive changes concerning costs and effectiveness. I think an increase in arbitration cases will accordingly continue to exist over the following years. In fact, according to the latest ICC numbers, the institution recorded a total of 946 new arbitration cases in 2020, the highest number of cases since 2016. I believe that the numbers will continue to grow.
What three recommendations or notes would you share with younger lawyers stepping into your practice area?
First, I recommend not trying to emulate the career path of successful arbitration practitioners from a different generation. Their success was circumstantial to the time when they built their careers. In football, players should go where the ball is going, not where it has been. The same principle applies to legal practice. Therefore, young practitioners should aim to identify and understand tomorrow’s problems.
Second, young practitioners should understand their clients’ business and the quantum of the case. A lawyer cannot effectively present a case if she does not understand its underlying business logic. In a similar sense, I believe that lawyers should focus more on the numbers of the case. It is not unusual to see lawyers focus entirely on the case’s legal aspects and leave the quantum issues entirely to the experts. I believe this is a big mistake. After all, clients go to arbitration to settle monetary disputes, not to sponsor complex legal disputes. I think that to represent a client in arbitration properly; lawyers must understand the quantum of the case and what it means to their client.
Finally, I would advise younger lawyers interested in arbitration not to focus their academic studies on arbitration. Arbitration is a proceeding that is better learned by practicing it. Instead, I believe it is much more valuable to focus one’s legal education on mastering substantive legal issues.
What do clients look for when selecting you as a lawyer?
In my experience, clients seek honesty, and their lawyers being always very up-front with them regarding their cases. This leads to a fundamental factor: constant communication with clients, especially during these uncertain times. Also, clients want a lawyer who can provide them with practical and creative solutions to protect their business. Finally, a lawyer must have a well-prepared team to support them, especially when acting as counsel.
How would you like to see your law firm develop in the coming years?
The firm is undergoing an institutionalisation process with the assistance of specialist external advisers. Particularly last year, we invested a lot of time and effort into creating a solid organisation, operating under rules that will ensure that, over the years to come, we continue to provide the same excellent service with the same commitment to clients as we currently do. This year is no different. We continue to work very hard to reach these goals. Moreover, we have recently implemented transparent rules so lawyers may know what is expected from them and how to advance in their careers within the firm. In addition, we want to retain and develop the talent of our younger lawyers at the firm. Finally, we are very proud to be a firm that promotes diversity and respect in the workplace. We have created a diversity committee, which has the goal to ensure respect and promote an inclusive work environment that does not make any distinctions based on gender, age, ethnic origin, social or economic conditions, sexual orientation, etc.
You have enjoyed a very distinguished career so far. What would you like to achieve that you have not yet accomplished?
A pending goal that I still have is writing my book on arbitration. In the future, when I stop being so active in my firm’s cases, I would like to devote more time to academia. I want to contribute to the arbitration practice in the region by leaving a legacy and transmitting my experiences and the knowledge acquired throughout my professional career.