The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
Jonathan C. Hamilton, Partner—Latin American Arbitration
Jonathan C. Hamilton is Partner and Head of Latin American Arbitration with global law firm White & Case. He is a leading authority on international disputes and investment, with extensive additional experience in complex negotiations and crisis management. Over the past two decades, Jonathan has successfully advised on some of the most critical economic and legal issues of the era in Latin America and beyond, such as the development of the new Ecuador international airport, the Peruvian energy sector, the Bolivian mining sector, the Latin America pension fund sector and the Panama Canal expansion, as well as the recuperation of the cultural patrimony of Machu Picchu. Recognition for his recent matters includes the 2013 OGEMID Most Influential Arbitration Award of the Decade; 2012 OGEMID Best Arbitration Award; 2011 Latin Lawyer Deal of the Year/Disputes; 2010 Latin Lawyer Deal of the Year/Finalist Disputes; 2009 Latin Lawyer Deal of the Year/Disputes and 2008 OGEMID Best Arbitration Award.
Please provide an overview of what, substantively, your practice area entails.
I am an international lawyer who is a partner and head of Latin American Arbitration with the global law firm of White & Case LLP. Over the past two decades, I have developed a practice that focuses on international disputes and investment, as well as complex negotiations, crisis management and policy matters. I have a particular focus on issues related to Latin America, advising clients from around the world. I also focus on social responsibility efforts related to development and the rule of law, and I am a professor of international investment and negotiations. You can read more in my book on Latin American Investment Protections and on digital media.
What types of clients do you represent?
The clients are diverse and based around the world. They include multinational corporations from Latin America (especially Brazil and Mexico) engaged in South-South and worldwide investment; United States and Canadian corporations, as well as companies from Europe, Asia and beyond, engaged in investment in Latin America; and sovereign states. Examples include energy, mining, construction and transportation firms and financial institutions from places like Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Spain, Hong Kong, Canada, Switzerland, India and the United States. The Republic of Peru has also been a longstanding client. This hybrid of corporate and sovereign experience derived from all parts of the world brings great synergies to my practice. It also ensures a great array of cultural exposure. My clients also include non-governmental organizations engaged in development, human rights, philanthropy and rule-of-law issues related to Latin America.
What types of matters do you work on?
The practice involves an interaction of issues and stakeholders at the intersection of critical issues of the era in Latin America in beyond. My matters have included, for example, the cultural patrimony of Machu Picchu and the Nasca Lines, the construction of the new Ecuador international airport, the Argentine sovereign debt crisis, the first case by a Latin American sovereign registered at the World Bank, the development of the Peruvian energy sector and the Panama Canal expansion. My practice includes structuring investments to mitigate risk, managing communications and treaty-based international disputes, as well as coordinating before tribunals and courts in multiple jurisdictions; and general corporate counseling on a range of transactional matters including project finance, privatizations, acquisitions and joint ventures. In addition, I have particular experience in complex negotiations and crisis management, including policy and media-related issues that span borders, that draws on a background in public affairs and the media.
How did you decide to practice in your area?
With inspiration rooted in my childhood, I identified issues and ideas that fascinated me, developed a strategy, found the best platform and mentors for it—and followed through. Some of those ideas and the international focus emerged from my childhood growing up in the Deep South, at a - cultural and historical crossroads. When I was a boy, I was injured in an accident and spent around a month in the hospital. After I recovered, my father took me on a one-month trip to three continents. It was my first trip abroad, and we started with a visit to Latin America, Rio de Janeiro to be precise. It opened a world of opportunities to me, and I started Spanish language classes as soon as I could in middle school. Later, when I went to law school, my career concept was premised on an historical moment in Latin America: New policies, new investment protections and new investment flows, I thought, would lead to new types of disputes and new frontiers for legal work. It was an important moment for development, rule of law, human rights and international relations in Latin America, and I wrote about these issues as they were unfolding in my courses at the University of Virginia, such as my first paper on arbitration, “International Arbitration as a Component of Latin American Reforms.” With my interests established, I picked the White & Case platform because of its historic founding over a century ago, its pioneering presence as a global law firm, its platform of offices in Brazil and Mexico and leadership in international arbitration and dispute resolution. That platform has delivered over time.
What is a typical day or week like in your practice area?
Interesting legal issues and interesting people in interesting places. A typical day involves people from diverse multinational backgrounds, and incredible teamwork. Strong legal analysis and skills are essential, and must be combined with an extra level of cultural and emotional intelligence to facilitate negotiations, communicate messages and advocate in international disputes. These factors shape the work of our whole team. We have an established model for how we organize matters and communicate with clients, counterparts and tribunals. That leaves more space for me to analyze, negotiate, write and think strategically. The same factors also shape the concrete dimensions of our work. Calls with Europe, Asia and across the Americas fill the day. Many clients and matters require face-to-face attention, particularly when complex negotiations or issues are involved. I have the chance to work in places like São Paulo, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Lima, Buenos Aires, Panama City, Caracas, Bogota, Santo Domingo, Quito, London, Madrid and Miami, as well as London, Paris, New York and Rome.
What is the best thing about your practice area?
The practice is dynamic and virtually never boring. It is legal work that tends to be linked to political and economic trends and events. Sometimes I walk out the door in the morning, pick up the newspaper, and the front page focuses on what we worked on the day before.
What is the most challenging aspect of your practice area?
The practice involves many issues of first impression. One time, a summer associate came to update me after working on a project for a week, and said “I hate to tell you, but I could not find any prior example or precedent of how to deal with this issue.” My reply was, “I am very sure that is the case—that is why the client came to us.”
What training, classes, experience or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
Be an entrepreneur and a team player, all at once. Simultaneously, respect the institution where you have an opportunity to work and find ways to pursue your interests with the objectives of the institution. This is true whether it is a law firm, a government entity, a multilateral organization, an arbitration institution or a non-profit. It helps you build a platform for your work that can have longevity, because it takes time to truly build something. Also, I chose to go to the University of Virginia, which nurtured my interest in emerging democracies and development, and where I had the opportunity to serve as Editor-in-Chief of the Virginia Journal of International Law, the oldest continuously edited student journal of international law. Taking on a rigorous role with a leading law journal provided an exceptionally good legal training, and it was also an entrée to interesting matters when I started to practice with the firm.
What misconceptions exist about your practice area? What do you wish you had known before joining your practice area?
There is a misconception that legal work is boring. Before I became a lawyer, I studied history, earned a master’s degree and produced documentary films. Some lawyer friends tried to convince me not to go to law school because it would be boring and impossible to find a balance between personal and professional life. Fortunately, I did not listen to them and instead followed a vision I had when I was working with my uncle’s law firm in my hometown.
There are necessarily intense times, such as when we went to the hearing in a landmark case representing tens of thousands of individual bondholders, or when I had to make numerous trips to complete the renegotiation of an airport project in Ecuador. I see such work as being no different than an athlete who has the opportunity to play in the World Cup: It requires significant focus, but is an exceptional opportunity that can be combined with a healthy balance in life that involves great people and great places. Balance is a challenge, and an opportunity, in every field and endeavor.
What is unique about your practice area at your firm, and how has it evolved since you have been at the Firm?
White & Case was once described to me years ago as “the private State Department,” and that has proven true in all of the best ways. The week I first walked into White & Case on Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan, I was looking for ways to develop a practice focused on Latin American disputes and investment, and fortunately the Firm and timing were on my side. I started with a hybrid focus on both deal and disputes work with a focus on Latin America, and I was the first associate in my class to ship off to a foreign office, to Mexico City. At the time, a senior White & Case arbitration partner, Charles Brower, asked me if leaving New York meant abandoning my interest in international disputes. I said, to the contrary, I hoped I was going to find the crest of a wave of Latin American arbitration and investment. This was admittedly hopeful and speculative, but it soon came to fruition. I am now based in the Washington, DC office, and, in effect, based across Latin America.
Thanks to teamwork over time, White & Case is now the number one firm in the world in international arbitration and at the top tier for deals and disputes related to Latin America. We were pleased when one professional publication recently concluded: “White & Case has cemented its position as the top arbitration firm in Latin America.”
What activities do you enjoy when you are not in the office, and how do you make time for them?
The ideas and adventures and activities of wonderful children and diverse friends. Plus documentaries, photography, percussion and piano, architecture, running and travel. I also try to take advantage of small windows of time in a busy routine. A few years ago, I fit in a visit to the Champions League final in Lisbon: the best in the world playing with incredible intensity. As a bonus, my team won.