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Andrew Cannon, partner in our Paris office, is an arbitration practitioner and public international law specialist. His time spent working at the Foreign  and Commonwealth office, advising the British Government in Brussels and at the United Nations in New York, enables him to offer a unique perspective to his clients. Here he discusses how he came to specialise in public international law, what he has learnt from working as a government legal adviser, and how his insight into public sector imperatives and private sector implications assist clients.

What was it about public international law that drew you to specialise in this area?

I went to Cambridge University to read law and was particularly drawn to international law, which fitted with my love of history and modern languages. It was a time when people were hailing a new world order after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and seeing a renewed cooperation in the UN Security Council. I was fascinated by the principles and concepts of international law, derived from State behaviour and custom, and the way in which it was becoming more and more relevant, not just to States, but to individuals, and companies. And I was very fortunate to be able to learn from the very best: my lecturers included James Crawford and Christopher Greenwood, both now sitting at the International Court of Justice

“I was ultimately swayed by the direct client contact that solicitors enjoy, and being part of a bigger organisation with like-minded individuals and energy, drive and diversity"

After I graduated, I was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship to study at Princeton for a year. I opted to study international politics and international law, including at the Woodrow Wilson School. It was an eye-opening experience, being confronted by the different world views and experiences of a wide range of international students, from pure multilateralists to West Point graduates focused on realpolitik.

I took advantage of my time in the States to intern at the UN, working on the preparatory committee for the establishment of the International Criminal Court, and on a range  of topics for the International Law Commission (and my UN Secretariat office had a great  view of the Chrysler building!). During that internship I met the legal advisers at the UK Mission to the UN, a memorable encounter that turned out to be an important factor in how my career later developed.

What led you to become a solicitor? Did  you consider staying on as an academic?

At Princeton I was studying with others who were on the first year of a PhD. It was tempting, but I already had a training contract at Herbert Smith and was keen to get started. Like all English lawyers, I had that choice between barrister and solicitor, and it wasn’t a straightforward decision. I was ultimately swayed by the direct client contact that solicitors enjoy, and being part of a bigger organisation with like-minded individuals and energy, drive and diversity (and an office football team). 

That said, there aren’t many law firms with the reputation and practice in public international law that would enable a solicitor to specialise in that area. I attended a lecture at university given by Lord Browne-Wilkinson and accosted him afterwards to ask which firm I should go to if I was interested in public international law. After only a brief pause, he said “Go and work with Lawrence Collins at Herbert Smith”. I started at Herbert Smith in 1997. During a fun-filled seat in Hong Kong in 1998, I was asked if I would like to return to London to work with Lawrence, and Campbell McLachlan, who had just been instructed by the Government of Chile to intervene in the Pinochet case before the  House of Lords. It was an incredibly rewarding experience, and is still the seminal national law case on sovereign immunity. It was hard work, we had a small team, but uncovered novel arguments and I hope made a worthy contribution to an incredibly high level of debate and analysis, before a bench of seven law lords.  The list of counsel involved read like a who’s  who of international law (including Christopher Greenwood and the late Ian Brownlie). 

When I qualified, the specialist arbitration group at Herbert Smith was just being established and I was delighted to join. They were a wonderful first few years to my career. 

Having started your career at HSF you  made a move over to the UK Foreign  and Commonwealth office. Why was that?

Yes, I left the firm to become an assistant legal adviser at the FCO in mid-2001. It was a difficult decision to leave, but I felt that working for the government would help give me a different insight into the practice of public international law, as I would become directly involved, from the State perspective, in the evolution of international law as it is applied to new and developing political situations.

“I was asked if I would like to return to London to work  with Lawrence, and Campbell McLachlan, who had just  been instructed by the Government of Chile to intervene in the Pinochet case before the House of Lords... [it] is still the seminal national law case on sovereign immunity” 

I was lucky enough to be posted to the UK’s Mission to the UN in New York in 2002, and to the UK Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels between 2004-2008, including during the last UK Presidency in 2005. I worked on the civil justice agenda and was involved with negotiations on the Rome I and Rome II Regulations, and spent my last two years in the legal section, advising on all aspects of the UK’s relationship with the EU. This included a considerable amount of sanctions work, attending the relevant Council working groups, drafting and negotiating sanctions legislation, and working on UK Government interventions in sanctions cases before the European courts, for example OMPI and Kadi. It was at this time that the EU was facing a range of challenges from listed individuals and the Courts were engaged in ensuring that the fundamental rights of such individuals were being properly respected. I have retained a great interest in the EU and EU law since that time.

When you talk about your time at the  Foreign and Commonwealth office it sounds pretty exciting and glamorous. What was  it really like?

I wouldn’t use the word glamorous! But it was a privilege to be involved in so many of the most important foreign policy issues of the time. There was a very steep learning curve. The legal directorate is a small group compared to, say, the legal advisers at the State Department in the US, but it is a dedicated team of real international law experts whose job is to help the government implement UK foreign policy and promote essential UK interests such as the rule of law and international human rights, dealing directly with Ministers; I worked with both Jack Straw and David Milliband during the last government. 

You returned to HSF in 2010 to practice arbitration and public international law.  How has your time working for the British Government helped or changed the way  you advise your clients?

I had always thought that I would return to private practice at some point. I learned a huge amount at the FCO, working with great friends and colleagues. It gave me a sense of the bigger picture: an understanding of how  States and governments function, and the difficulties in coordination of government policy even in a relatively efficient administration such as the UK. 

“I wouldn’t use the word glamorous! But it was a privilege to be involved in so many of the most important foreign policy issues of the time. There was a very steep learning curve”

Those skills stand you in good stead in private practice. I wanted to return to HSF for all  the reasons I had applied for a training contract there in the first place. As the market-leading disputes firm with a proud tradition of public international law work, returning was the obvious choice. My time  at the FCO had shown me the relevance of public international law at a commercial level: it touches on many aspects of doing business, including sovereign immunity, the law of the sea, secession and sovereignty issues, and  the growing field of business and human rights. The growth of international sanctions as the foreign policy tool of choice has impacted private enterprise more than ever before over the last few years, as international decision-makers target new industry sectors.  I was also keen to do more investment treaty arbitration work – perhaps the clearest example of individual entities being able to bring claims directly against States for breaches of international law. I wanted to help clients, whether States, State-owned entities or corporations, navigate through these issues  with the combined understanding of public sector imperatives and private sector implications. Joining the arbitration group  was the logical choice – many disputes involving States are resolved through arbitration, but since returning I have also worked on international law cases before the English courts, and regularly advise corporate and finance colleagues on related non-contentious matters, for example in relation to structuring investments to maximise treaty protection, the status of disputed territory, or general principles of contracting with or between States. 

You are now a partner in our Paris office. What prompted the move?

It is something of a rite of passage for young international arbitration partners to spend time in an overseas office to participate in the development of the firm’s international network. As a French speaker, Paris was an obvious choice for me and for the firm. Paris and London are both leading centres of international arbitration (famously vying for supremacy), and important hubs of public international law work. We have a strong common law practice out of Paris with an excellent team working on English law matters and English language arbitrations, and many cases where we work in tandem with a number of our other offices. Many influential arbitration practitioners are based in Paris, which also hosts the HQ of the ICC, and as a firm we are very committed to the French arbitration market and to our continuing development there. 

Key contacts

Andrew Cannon photo

Andrew Cannon

Partner, Co-Head, Public International Law Practice, Deputy Head, Global Arbitration Practice, London

Andrew Cannon