Tips from the Top: Young ICCA interviews Marie-Odile Désy

Marie-Odile Désy is a Deputy Counsel at the Secretariat of the ICC International Court of Arbitration in Paris (France). Prior to joining the ICC, she worked as an associate at Derains & Gharavi where she participated in arbitral proceedings conducted under the arbitration rules of the International Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA) and the rules of the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) and also acted as administrative secretary.

Marie-Odile received LL.B. (civil law) and J.D. (common law) degrees from the University of Montreal (Canada) and an LL.M. in international commercial arbitration from Stockholm University (Sweden). She is admitted to the Paris and New York bars.

1.    What drew you to the world of International Arbitration?

The most concise answer to this question is not what but who. Kaj Hobér, prominent Swedish arbitrator, first introduced me to the world of international arbitration during an exchange semester in Sweden. I soon realised that international arbitration was truly unique in that no case is like the last one: the countries will be different, as will the legal and factual issues involved. This was particularly attractive to me as I grew up in a two different countries and therefore was not only comfortable operating in different languages and cultures but actively sought out situations and experiences that provided that kind of diversity.

2.    When did you start laying the groundwork for a career in International Arbitration? (e.g., was it while in law school, during a moot court, during your career or placed on a case within your firm)

My first exposure to international arbitration was, as mentioned above, through a university exchange semester in Sweden. After this exchange semester, my interest was piqued and I wanted to study this field more in-depth. I found that there was a masters program specialised in international arbitration at Stockholm University (one of the few at the time) and therefore after completing my studies in Canada, I returned to Sweden to pursue my LL.M. in international arbitration. The rest as they say is history…

3.    What kind of groundwork did you do to set yourself up? (e.g., what steps did you take to enter the field?)

While at Stockholm University, I participated in the Willem C. Vis moot competition. This experience was truly enriching, not only to hone my advocacy skills, but also to interact and obtain advice from well-known practitioners in the field.
Soon after completing my LL.M. studies, I was fortunate to be offered internships first with the ICC International Court of Arbitration and then with leading international arbitration practices in both Paris and London. These experiences allowed me to work with exceptionally talented practitioners on complex arbitration cases navigating between various legal systems, while building an important network of contacts.

4.    Describe a pivotal moment in your career in arbitration and how did that affect your career (e.g., an opportunity to work with a prominent arbitrator/on a pioneering case?)

It is difficult to pinpoint a specific pivotal moment in my career, but I can speak about a case close to my heart in which my firm at the time was counsel to a foreign bankrupt company against whom a frivolous arbitration had been initiated. It was truly a David versus Goliath case. Without getting into the specifics, the arbitral tribunal in place in our case refused to bifurcate the proceedings to rule on the question of jurisdiction despite all the facts pointing to a baseless claim.  Through research, I found that there was a way to bring our case before the local English courts to obtain a stay of all proceedings (including the arbitration proceedings). There was however no case law addressing the specificities of our case and the outcome was uncertain, as the legal text that we were relying on had been raised in only a few instances. We took the risk and were able however to successfully demonstrate to the Court the absence of any real claim and obtain stay of all proceedings, creating case law at the same time. In the end, the claimant withdrew all its claims and the arbitration was terminated. It was one of those moments where all your efforts pay off and you truly feel that your client has been vindicated.

The end result was very much a team effort, but I was fortunate to have the guidance and trust of the partner at my firm, who allowed me to run point on this case, coordinate with the client and local counsel and attend all local court hearings on her behalf.

5.    If we look at arbitration as a battlefield, what are the three metaphorical weapons any lawyer needs, and why?

If I were to sum up the three most important given my experience, I would say (1) mental stamina to be able to deal effectively with the challenges of a deadline-driven environment, (2) confidence providing the ability to work past the criticism and frustrations that one is bound to experience along the way, and above all (3) a team-player attitude, because too often, in my opinion, people forget that international arbitration is not a one-person sport, but a team effort. Complex cases are not won by one person, but rather with the support of a whole army of staff. Those who acknowledge this fact and cultivate this team effort are the true stars of international arbitration in my book.

6.    Upon reflection, are there any decisions you made that you feel aspiring arbitration practitioners could learn from?

Try to decide early on what type of practice is right for you, which is something that can be experienced by way of internships and trust your instincts in this respect. If are disappointed with a law firm or a lawyer don’t get discouraged – there are many types of practices and even more styles of practitioners. Some get lucky and find the right fit straight away, for others, it may take a few tries.

7.    Is there any additional candid advice or insight that you can offer to assist those who are entering the field, deciding whether to enter the field, or already are in the field of International Arbitration?

The one advice that I often give is to be conscious of the realities of this field. It is easy to be blinded by the glamour that international arbitration seems to offer from an outside perspective. The reality is that this “glamour” is overrated, for example while international arbitration does involve travelling, much of it, if not all of it, will be spent in hotel conference rooms preparing for a hearing or at client’s offices reviewing documents. International arbitration is highly rewarding but it demands hard work and long hours, often at the price of many personal sacrifices.