When Jennifer Kirby was in law school, she had no idea what international arbitration was.
Her legal education, she explained in a lecture at Miami Law on Tuesday, encompassed what is now known as domestic law, and she had "no connection to international legal matters or any interest in it at all."
But she loved Paris and wanted to live there. After graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law, she toyed with the idea of going into transactional law because it might send her abroad, but found the work "deathly boring." Kirby decided she would be a litigator and, with luck, retire in Paris some day.
Admitted to the New York Bar in 1996, she spent several years working for multinational law firms as a litigator. She clearly remembers being given her first international arbitration case and asking her superior exactly what the term meant. "You will figure it out," he replied.
Not only did she figure it out, but eventually – thanks to her immersion in international arbitration – she fulfilled her dream of living in Paris. Just last year, Kirby opened her own boutique practice in international arbitration on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and called it Kirby, plain and simple.
Now a renowned arbitration expert, Kirby was addressing Miami Law students, faculty and administrators in a lecture titled, "Representing international business parties in arbitration: Does size matter?" The event was hosted by the International Graduate Law Programs.
Her move into private practice followed stints with the International Court of Arbitration, which she served as both counsel and deputy secretary general, and with Herbert Smith, a multinational law firm, as a partner in its arbitration group in France.
Kirby quickly realized that things had changed since she was last in private practice. Specifically, she noted the huge increase in the number of multinational firms claiming international arbitration expertise, the fierce competition for cases and the pushback from potential clients regarding fees. Kirby said that most of the cases were for disputes that involved sums of more than $100 million.
Once at Herbert Smith, Kirby, using what she called "unscientific market research," asked colleagues what they thought about the potential of a boutique arbitration practice targeting international cases involving less than $20 million. Their positive response, and an evident demand in the market, led to the creation of Kirby's firm.
She said she has benefited greatly from referrals from colleagues in multinational firms who conclude that cases involving less than $20 million in disputes are not cost-effective for them to take on. During her lecture, she noted that there is "no link between the amount in dispute and the complexity of the matter or the time spent on it."
As for advice for students interested in international arbitration, Kirby said that "really getting an incredibly solid grounding in litigation skills that you learn through doing litigation in the United States is critical in the early years." She added that networking is especially helpful, and encouraged students to reach out to the international arbitration community for contacts.