The Billion Dollar Question: Can Digital Arbitration Help Settle A High-Value Dispute?

Overview of the Case

High-value commercial dispute amidst the pandemicMulti-Billion DollarDigital arbitration via online hearings

There’s a notion that high-value disputes and digital arbitration cannot go well together. After all, there are still some people who are skeptical about digital arbitration’s security or are concerned about presenting a high-value claim without in-person interaction. However, the current pandemic has forced many to reconsider.

So can digital arbitration really help settle high-value disputes? And if yes, how much can it handle?

For expert international arbitration lawyer, Sebastian Mejia, the answer is in the billions. Yes, billions with a “b”. 

We spoke with him about a case he’s participated in where they used the power of technology to push through arbitral proceedings amidst a pandemic.

Story of the High-Value Dispute

The story begins in early 2020. Like other complex commercial disputes, tens of thousands of documents were submitted and a long hearing on the merits was scheduled. However, an unexpected wrench got in the way — the pandemic.

“I think we all had some innocence back then. And we thought, this is going to be gone in a couple of weeks, let’s hold the date, what’s the worst that can happen? Right. Well, the worst happened” Sebastian tells us as the world started shutting its doors and encouraged everyone to stay indoors. The pandemic ensued, travel restrictions were placed and many businesses were affected.

At first, the participants in the case were keen on having an in-person hearing. They waited three months until they realized it wasn’t going to happen. Sebastian said that they could wait more but they would lose a year, or maybe more. So all participants— clients, counsel, arbitrators, and everyone else in between finally decided to hold a virtual hearing — and it worked.

A Digital Solution for the High-Value Dispute

Digital arbitration was employed in many aspects of this high-value case, but it was most apparent in two ways — document review and online hearings.

Sebastian says how their process was incredibly streamlined due to the help of document review software and a specialist team. With those, combing through thousands of documents and retrieving useful information from them was much more efficient. “So all these AI-assisted and technology-powered review tools helped us identify the key documents, and I’m pretty sure that within the 10,000-something documents that we had, we didn’t miss a single important document. And I’m 100% confident that the reason for that was not only the great people that were working on it but also the tools [that helped us] do it,” he says.

Aside from reviewing documents, digital arbitration tools empowered them to do an online hearing that transcended the expectations of everyone who was a part of it.

The key was operating in hubs instead of simply doing the virtual hearing separately from their home offices. The hearing itself was virtual but counsel and arbitrators worked together in hubs from where they connected. “We organized hubs. So for example, on our side, we had a hub in one of our European offices. And the others were in different parts of the world. It was not the first, but it was definitely the largest [and most complex] virtual hearing I had been in.” Sebastian recalls.

By operating in hubs, they were able to collaborate more efficiently and effectively. Whoever was doing the advocacy at the time, had their camera and microphones on, while everyone else had closed mics. Through this, the teams got better at reacting during the hearing because they weren’t constrained by the environment unlike in physical hearings.

Sebastian also attributes the success of their virtual hearing to their third-party providers who supported the video conference set-up and all other technical aspects. Many think that virtual hearings are just another video conference, but he says that these hearings have to be done with meticulous planning in order to be successful and to do that one has to get the right service providers and establish appropriate protocols.

The proceedings are still ongoing and Sebastian is positive that it will continue to be a great experience because they have the proper tools, providers, and protocols through the help of digital arbitration.

Implications to Other High-Value Disputes

If a multi-billion case is using digital arbitration to run its proceedings, what’s stopping anything else?

The pandemic has clearly opened the eyes of more people to the possibilities that technology can provide. However, there are still some caveats to using it. Sebastian says that online hearing should not be treated just like a regular video conference, nor should it be planned like a physical hearing. Online hearings have their own set of nuances which should be addressed early on to reap success – connections and disconnections, security, or protocols for witness and expert examination are just some of the elements that need to be considered.

Bottom line is that digital arbitration can help settle high-value disputes or any-value dispute for that matter. All it takes is rigorous preparation and strategic use of technology in order for it to be effective. Hopefully, this will be the start of a new era for the legal system and technology.

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