FAI Interview with Mika Savola, Chair of the FAI Board

Mika Savola in a nutshell

  • Master of Laws (1996) and Political Sciences (1993), University of Helsinki
  • Trainee and associate lawyer at Hannes Snellman Attorneys Ltd 1995-2002, partner 2002-2018 (until 31 March), Head of Dispute Resolution 2006-2016
  • Secretary of the Finnish Arbitration Association 1998-2010, Board member 2004-2017
  • Chair of the FAI Rules Revision Task Force 2012-2013
  • Chair of the Redemption Board of the Finland Chamber of Commerce 2013-2015
  • Chair of the FAI Board 2013-2018 (until 31 March)
  • Independent Arbitrator as of April 2018

 

Global Arbitration Review reported in December 2017 that you are leaving Hannes Snellman Attorneys in Helsinki at the end of March 2018 to become a full-time arbitrator in Israel. You will also step down as Chair of the Board of the FAI as of 1 April 2018. Could you briefly tell our readers about your future plans?

During my 20-year career as attorney, I have worked as counsel in close to a hundred arbitrations, including both domestic ad hoc and FAI cases but also a great number of international proceedings governed by the SCC, ICC, DIA, LCIA, SCAI, SIAC and UNCITRAL Rules. To say it has been a great ride would be an understatement. However, little by little my interest and focus have shifted to serving as arbitrator in commercial and investment treaty cases. I find that resolving complex disputes as arbitrator is intellectually rewarding, and my skill set is best suited to that type of work.

As of now, I have acted as sole, presiding and party-nominated arbitrator in some 50 arbitrations, across different business sectors and under a number of applicable laws and arbitration rules. But it is not easy to accept arbitrator appointments while working at a large Nordic law firm due to recurrent conflicts of interest. Therefore, after long deliberation, I have decided to leave Hannes Snellman, resign from the Finnish Bar Association and the FAI Board, and move abroad to become a full-time independent arbitrator.

In practical terms, I will be running my independent arbitrator service from Herzliya, which is a northern suburb of Tel Aviv and a hub of Israeli high-tech industries. As of April, my plan is to work exclusively as arbitrator in commercial and investment disputes. Largely free from any conflicts of interest, I expect to sit in international cases seated in major European venues as well as in domestic Finnish arbitrations, including both ad hoc and FAI proceedings. Also, I look forward to accepting appointments in squeeze-out cases governed by the Finnish Companies Act. Though I believe I will be acting mostly as chair or sole arbitrator, I shall be pleased to serve also as co-arbitrator nominated by one of the parties.

 

When looking back at your five years as the Chair of the FAI, how would you describe your work at the helm of the FAI Board, and what have been the FAI’s biggest achievements during these years?

A lot has happened during my tenure. First of all, we adopted revised and state-of-the-art arbitration rules, which have proven to work well in practice. Also the fact that we introduced an International Board – with many distinguished international arbitration specialists as members – was a major positive change. It has greatly benefitted the FAI in finding optimal arbitrators in complex cross-border disputes and in administering our cases according to the best international standards.

Further, we have taken a number of other measures to actively raise the FAI’s profile both in Finland and abroad. To name just a few examples: the FAI has regularly arranged joint arbitration seminars with other leading arbitration institutes, such as the ICC, SCC and DIS; it has launched an electronic newsletter and started publishing anonymized case comments on landmark decisions and awards issued in FAI arbitrations; and it has created the Finnish Arbitration Academy, a half-year study programme intended to educate the participants in becoming skillful and efficient arbitrators and counsel in arbitration proceedings. To date, the Academy has been held four times, and already 115 participants have completed it.

As to the FAI caseload, I am particularly happy to note two key developments. First, the number of international cases has grown steadily, which goes to show that our efforts to increase the FAI’s visibility are probably paying off. Second, we have put emphasis on promoting gender diversity in arbitrator appointments, and the results are encouraging. In fact, when comparing different arbitration institutes around the world, the FAI is now second to none when it comes to the frequency of appointing female arbitrators. This applies equally to domestic and international FAI cases.

But I would be remiss if I did not stress that, whatever success the FAI has witnessed over the past few years, that is hardly due to any one person only. Instead, it is the sum total of hard work of all the members of the FAI Board and Secretariat. I remain immensely grateful to them, and wish to thank all my colleagues at the FAI for their professionalism and seamless cooperation in administering our cases and promoting FAI arbitration in Finland and abroad.

 

How do you envisage the FAI’s role in the future?

I think the FAI is well-positioned to gain more market share in the competition with other European arbitral institutions. With solid rules and highly professional staff, it stands to reason that its caseload will continue to grow and become even more internationalized going forward.

However, to ensure future success, the FAI must keep pace with the latest trends in the rapidly changing world. One thing to pay close attention to is the increasing call for transparency in case administration and arbitrator appointments. To illustrate, the ICC Court made a groundbreaking move a couple of years ago when it started to give reasons for its decisions in cases of challenge of arbitrators, prima facie jurisdiction and consolidation. It is difficult to disagree that parties to any institutional arbitration proceeding will have a legitimate right to request reasons for such rulings, regardless of their “administrative” nature. Therefore, I am not surprised that also other institutions have chosen to follow the ICC’s example and provide the parties with reasoned decisions. Personally, I believe the FAI should do the same.

Another question that merits consideration is whether the FAI should also publish the names of the arbitrators appointed in all FAI cases, obviously without disclosing the names of the parties involved in any proceedings. A few arbitral institutions, such as the ICC, VIAC and Milan Chamber, have recently decided to do so. Some arbitration practitioners claim that this is a welcome development, because it makes users feel more comfortable by allowing them to assess e.g. the age, gender and geographical diversity of the appointees. However, disclosing arbitrator names is not without potential pitfalls, and it remains to be seen whether other arbitral institutions are inclined to change their current practice accordingly. The FAI should carefully monitor any developments in this respect.

 

And how do you see Finland’s future as seat of arbitration? Is there any need for legislative or other changes?

I am cautiously optimistic. As such, the FAI has been instrumental in the process whereby Finland is already gradually transforming from something that used to be a backwater of international arbitration into a much better known and more reliable venue of cross-border dispute resolution. But there is only so much that any arbitration institute can do on its own. To further increase its international appeal and credibility, Finland should revise its arbitration law too. Our current Arbitration Act, which has been in force virtually unchanged for more than a quarter-century, is somewhat outdated and should be amended to bring it fully consistent with the best current international norms and practices. I personally think the time is ripe for Finland to adopt the UNCITRAL Model Law without any meaningful derogations from it – and I know there are many others who share the same view.

Apart from the need for legislative changes, there are also other important issues that should be borne in mind if Finland wants to enhance its position as a recognized arbitral seat. Considering that arbitration is a special form of dispute resolution distinguishable from court litigation, the law and practice of arbitration should be taught and studied already at the university level. Additionally, I find it crucial that the FAI continue to arrange the Finnish Arbitration Academy, preferably on an annual basis, with a view to expanding the pool of domestic practitioners who can act as counsel and arbitrators in accordance with the best international standards even in the most complex cross-border disputes. At the end of the day, it is only by achieving a critical mass of highly competent and internationally-oriented arbitration lawyers that Finland can develop into a leading centre of international arbitration, in the same way as Stockholm and Sweden have done over the past decades.

Having said that, I do not believe that there is any insurmountable obstacle to Finland experiencing similar success as Sweden. Quite the contrary, we have a number of attributes that are essential to a well-functioning arbitral seat: an arbitration-friendly culture and court system, a stable and neutral political environment, lack of corruption, absence of excessively cumbersome visa and work permit requirements, as well as availability of support facilities such as accommodation, transportation and other infrastructure. On top of that, I would add the high Finnish education level, coupled with an efficient and solution-oriented approach to problem solving. All these factors contribute to Finland’s strength as a seat, provided only that we modernize our Arbitration Act and see to it that Finnish law students and practitioners are consistently trained in the art of arbitration.

 

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