“Self-awareness is a single most important factor in anybody’s professional life,” says Aloysius (Louie) Llamzon, a senior associate at a world-class law firm, a recognized author, a husband, and a father of two. “Think about it,” he explains, “the ability to be forthright with what you are good at, and then to pursue it wholeheartedly can be very powerful.” He then smiles, “well, perseverance is also important.”
This is a short story of a rising star in the field of international arbitration who ambitiously, yet in a subtle manner navigated towards his dream job against some substantial odds. It is also about one of his specialties and, conveniently or not, one of the most sensitive and pressing issues in international arbitration today – corruption.
From the Philippines to the Yale Law School to the Permanent Court of Arbitration
Dr. Llamzon was raised in the Philippines, a Southeast Asian country famed for its rich biodiversity and countless natural wonders compiled in more than 7000 islands. While studying law at the Ateneo de Manila University, Dr. Llamzon acquired an appetite for international law. For him, competing in the global international law moot court competition (the oldest and the largest in the world), the Philip C. Jessup, wasn’t an isolated experience. Instead, Dr. Llamzon took it as a blueprint for his, at that time far fetched, “Plan A” – to become an international arbitration counsel.
In the early 2000s, the Philippines wasn’t the market for international law, nor was a J.D. from the Philippines the key to unlocking the needed doors elsewhere. Thus, Dr. Llamzon moved to the United States – Yale Law School – to pursue his LL.M. and J.S.D. Even now, he is not reluctant to partially credit luck for getting accepted to a top-tier law school. “Every three years, approximately one student from the Philippines gets accepted to Yale Law School; I know a handful of equally worthy or worthier candidates who did not get in,” says Dr. Llamzon.
At first, the studies at Yale Law School shocked Dr. Llamzon. The U.S. legal education drastically differs from the Philippines’ civil legal system. “In the Philippines, students get rewarded for the meticulous knowledge of the textbook, while in the U.S., students are encouraged to have strong opinions and express them eloquently,” explains Dr. Llamzon.
After law school, Dr. Llamzon became a successful corporate associate at two prestigious law firms: one in Hong Kong and the other in Manila. Although daily dealings with faceless contracts were quite a distance from his beloved international law, Dr. Llamzon gave it one hundred percent. In fact, he even hoped that maybe, just maybe, one day he would become as passionate about it as he felt about international law. It did not happen. Nevertheless, the quick-paced demanding nature of corporate law prepared him for the next step – a dream job as a legal counsel and then senior legal counsel at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), the Peace Palace in The Hague. Although the PCA could be described as a birthplace of some of the best international law practitioners, this transition for Dr. Llamzon meant a significant pay cut. He did not hesitate. “I have to admit, I enjoyed the work at the PCA even more than I expected, it was a dream come true,” Llamzon smiles, recalling the variety of the transboundary disputes he worked on that stretch from the Bay of Bengal Maritime Boundary Arbitration to the disputes under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Today, Llamzon is a senior associate at Kings & Spalding LLP, a powerhouse for international law. His office shares two zip codes: New York City and Washington DC. Dr. Llamzon is all over the place. To simplify his professional story is to admit that sometimes a traffic light goes from green to red without pausing at yellow. And when it happens, “you have to be ready, it is not enough to put everything out there and wait to see what happens,” Llamzon says when asked about the best strategy to land a dream job.
In international Investment Arbitration Corruption is Parked Somewhere In-between the Gray and Hairy Area, – Rest Assured of That
While conversing with Dr. Llamzon, I couldn’t help it but notice the sense about him of doing something with a real intention. Seems that being brave and successful are synonyms for him. His book “Corruption in International Investment Arbitration” has been the first of its kind. In fact, its success demanded a second edition, on which Dr. Llamzon is currently working, only this time, the topic explores corruption in international commercial arbitration.
His thorough analysis of corruption maintains a resonance that speaks of countries, investors, government officials, counsels, arbitrators, the how it all started, and maybe, what it will look like tomorrow. So where did this interest in corruption in international investment arbitration come from? The answer is simple – his surroundings. Growing up in a developing country, Dr. Llamzon witnessed first-hand the endemic destruction corruption brought to his motherland. Later as a counsel, he was introduced to the pain an attorney may suffer on a daily basis and in a very direct way when working on a case entangled in corruption. “Some of such cases stayed with me to this day,” admits Dr. Llamzon.
Even so, Dr. Llamzon is interested in corruption because of its unique nature where morality and the rule of law become one- requiring anything but a simple solution. Here, the challenge provides a space for a creative, strategically driven solution. In fact, it is also one of the primary reasons why Dr. Llamzon felt in love with international arbitration in a first place.
Take two contrasting examples. First, suppose that even the strongest on the merits case may be dismissed by the tribunal solely because of a small bribe that an investor paid to a government official at some point of the investment. Second, imagine a case where corruptive practices have been well known in that particular country or region and caused substantial damage, yet there is no sufficient evidence to prove it. Should both cases be treated equally?
Today, in terms of corruption, international investment arbitration tribunals primarily sanction investors. However, for corruption to occur, there have to be two perpetrators: an investor and a public official. In other words, there has to be proof of government being complicit, in order for the investor to lose the claim and for the same complicit government to win. Does that sound fair?
Although arbitration has a structure to hold parties accountable, the implementation of such decisions is pushed down on the states themselves. Thus, according to Dr. Llamzan, the elephant in the room is a hairy question of whether corruption in international arbitration is approached and treated in the right way.
For instance, there is no unanimous legal definition of corruption in the field of international arbitration. Instead, its definition is primarily built on various examples. Also, there is no single standard for burden of proof. Should there be one? If so, “should it be heightened?” asks Dr. Llamzan. In short, despite of a significant progress in this area, one thing is clear, in the words of Dr. Llamzon, “every major issue in regards to corruption in international arbitration is unsettled.” Yet, the momentum that has built behind it makes this issue a compelling one to follow. Rest assured, Dr. Llamzon will be in the front row.
To conclude, Dr. Llamzon’s journey towards becoming a leading international arbitration practitioner wasn’t straightforward or easy. To succeed, he had to learn how to be patient, honest, persistent, and, above all, how to make lasting friendships and professional connections. “Looking back, only now my career starts to make sense, especially those few instances in which I interrupted the natural flow of the events, such as leaving corporate law practice in Hong Kong to pursue international arbitration in The Hague,” says Dr. Llanzon.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Dr. Llamzon: what’s next? This time he paused. “The best part of being an attorney is the audacity to think that one day you are going to be wise enough to be a judge,” Dr. Lamzon said.