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Life, Career and Being Yourself: An Interview with Justin D'Agostino

28 May 2021
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Our CEO Justin D’Agostino recently shared his career and personal stories with Neil Kaplan CBE QC SBS and Chiann Bao for Delos Dispute Resolution's 'In Conversation with Neil' webinar series, supported by ArbitralWomen.

During the discussion, Justin spoke about everything from his upbringing, education and pathway into the legal profession, to his lifelong career choice of international arbitration and current issues in dispute resolution, as well as his move into management and his transition into the CEO role at the height of the global pandemic.

Justin stressed his long-term commitment to international arbitration, and its importance to Asian businesses, over a career spanning 21-years, ranging from his visiting teaching commitments to Beijing’s Tsinghua University; his ongoing support for the promotion of dispute resolution in Asia, and the challenges of improving diversity in arbitral appointments, as well as managing hearings during – and after – the pandemic.

He said: “While there will always be a place for physical hearings, I expect we will move to a hybrid world in the new normal,” in which arbitral hearings would combine virtual and physical appearances.

Hailing the innovations undertaken during the pandemic, he said: “There is no doubt people have embraced technology in a different way; we have seen efficiencies, and cost savings, through it, and tribunals have embraced it,” a process which would only be accelerated by artificial intelligence, and technological advances, which would change the world of work, not just in arbitration.

“Technology,” he said “will be a massive disruptor for our industry over this period and digitalisation is going to transform what we do,” which he explained that, together with “risk, reputation, and regulation”, were principal concerns of general counsel and boards.

Speaking on the growing popularity of arbitration in Asia, he referenced the importance of regional arbitral institutions such as SIAC and HKIAC, and the positive influences bearing on their increased caseloads, as well as the prospects for future growth from Asia, including China.

This, he said, was due to “a concerted effort by these jurisdictions to ensure that they are world-class and have got the infrastructure right”, and discussed both the transactional and disputes attractions of Hong Kong, Singapore, and other key Asian markets in depth, including competition between jurisdictions, and the long-term economic and business strengths of Hong Kong, which is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.  

Justin also discussed his work as CEO of Herbert Smith Freehills, including the impact of the global pandemic on the firm’s business, staff, and clients. While acknowledging the benefits of technology in facilitating communication, he acknowledged that, as someone who took his energy from human interactions, it had taken “a deliberate shift” to get that same energy.

Leaders, he said, “had had to think completely differently about how they communicate,” which he had done with through regular video blogs to ensure people at his firm felt more connected to the organisation, with positive results.

Discussing the pressures caused by digital working, especially during the pandemic, he stressed the importance, especially for younger lawyers, of proper downtime, and the need for employees to feel engaged and enthused by their work for the firm, and to manage work/life balance properly.

On the subject of diversity, Justin acknowledged the progress made in securing gender diversity within his law firm, his own global leadership on LGBT+ issues, as well as recognising the work still needed to be done around ethnicity and race.

On his personal and professional commitment to LGBT+ issues, Justin said: “I have been out as a gay man ever since I've been working as a lawyer, [and] was always very open about my sexuality.”

“I took the view very early on that I was going to be very honest and authentic about whom I am. I think that stood me in good stead… as a good guiding star … as a role model.”

He added: “What we need to do as law firms is to create an inclusive culture for everyone, no matter whether you identify as LGBT+, whether you identify as an ally, whether you are minority ethnic, you want to be in a place where you feel included, and that's what's at the heart of the culture that I'm trying to create in my law firm; a culture of inclusion.”

On improving gender diversity, while acknowledging progress in the percentages of female partners appointed to the firm’s partnership, he said the firm was committed to identifying the reasons for lower retention rates for female lawyers, saying the firm wanted to “create an environment where we can keep women and create career paths that they want to follow.”

On ethnic diversity, Justin acknowledged the significant effect of the Black Lives Matter movement in reshaping his thinking on ethnic diversity and race, including the existence of white privilege, and the importance of appreciating race in professional contexts, including raising his own firm’s awareness, through its “10 Actions for Change” programme, while recognising the complexity of the issue.

Justin concluded: “I have been very blessed by having a career which is truly international, [in] having been able to work in Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and London; it's opened my eyes to the world, to cultures, to language. If anybody has an opportunity to broaden their horizons by truly having an international perspective, and spending time working in another place and getting under the skin of another culture, that is time well spent.”

To listen to the conversation, visit Delos’s YouTube Channel: https://youtu.be/ErXhtrZlB7k . Please note, this link will expire on 7 June, 2021. After that, Delos will add the link to its 'Members Area', where the video will be available permanently for Delos members: https://member-delosdr.org/video-neil-conversation-46-justin-dagostino/

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For further information on this news article, please contact:

Corinne McPartland, Communications Lead

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