There’s never a shortage of unusual legal proceedings in Miami. It’s just that very few of them ever enhance the city’s image, as last month’s court hearings on Justin Bieber’s genitalia so charmingly reminded us.
But that's changing. Away from the tabloid headlines, Miami has been gaining a more respectable law reputation. How else to explain that the city was just chosen as the site for one of the year’s most important international arbitration cases? Namely, the dispute between the Panama Canal Authority and a European construction consortium, involving a billion-dollar cost overrun that threatens to shut down the Canal’s epic expansion project.
Or that Miami this week hosted the congress of the International Council for Commercial Arbitration? It’s one of the world’s most prestigious legal gatherings – it’s only been held in the United States once before – and it brought more than a thousand lawyers here from as far away as India. Like Ian Hunter, an attorney who came from London.
“I’m not surprised that Miami is becoming more important,” Hunter said. “The infrastructure here for arbitration is marvelous.”
Get used to that kind of talk, Miami. In legal circles, anyway, your nickname’s no longer Miami Vice. It’s Miami Arbitrate.
The change has local attorneys like Eduardo Palmer, secretary of the Miami International Arbitration Society, saying things that might have seemed far-fetched here a decade ago:
“One of my dreams is to work to make Miami one of the centers of international law in the world,” Palmer told me at his Coral Gables offices. “We're developing a consciousness of Miami as a center of international arbitration.”
That this looks likely to happen signals a significant shift in the legal universe.
International arbitration used to be the domain of wool-suited northern capitals like London, New York, Paris or Geneva. But subtropical Miami is suddenly competing with them. It’s a trend that promises the city not just legal cachet but economic benefits, evidenced by the ICCA congress.
Edward Poulton, another British attorney at the congress, noted that “Miami is using its natural geographic location. And it's a nice place to visit."
His first point is more important. By geographic location Poulton means: Close to Latin America. And like so many changes in Miami, this one started with changes in that region.
In the 20th Century, globalization and free trade were anathema to Latin America’s insular and protectionist business practices. And so as a result was international arbitration. The region’s governments and companies simply didn’t trust the idea of taking their legal problems abroad.
But in the 21st Century they’ve embraced it.
“The opening of the markets in Latin America was key,” says Katherine González Arrocha, Latin American arbitration director for the International Chamber of Commerce in Panama. “Governments [there] have realized that international arbitration gives security to investors.”
And Miami – turf viewed by the region’s players as Latin American but also impartial – became the logical place to seek that arbitration.
“To have lawyers in Miami not only specialized in arbitration but also knowing Latin America’s languages and being close to the culture, legally speaking but also in general terms,” says González, “that is definitely a very positive aspect.”
But Miami needed to be more than just Latin America-friendly to compete with traditional arbitration meccas. After all, as the Panama Canal case shows, Latin America is doing booming business with Europe and Asia – and their legal eagles also had to be sold on Miami.
The city’s international character, especially inside its legal community, helped. But what really sealed the deal were a series of bold legal reforms – starting a decade ago with a Florida Bar decision, backed by the state Supreme Court, to let lawyers from anywhere in the world practice international arbitration here.
In 2010, Florida also became the first U.S. state to adopt the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) model. “That was a big deal,” says Palmer. “It sends a message to the rest of the world that Florida is implementing an infrastructure that is all designed to enhance the international arbitration appeal of this jurisdiction.”
The other big deal, says University of Miami law professor and current ICCA President Jan Paulsson, has been the Miami-Dade Circuit Court's recent appointment of special arbitration judges. “That speaks volumes,” says Paulsson, “in terms of a commitment to really understanding the problems of international arbitration and handling them well.”
The one thing Miami still needs to do, Paulsson adds, is develop local intellectual firepower.
Compared to centers like Paris, Paulsson says, “there is so far a deficit of thought leadership” on international arbitration in Miami, of attorneys who “not only do this work but think about it and regularly comment on it. That’s the next step.”
But one that doesn't seem so far-fetched anymore.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.