Faculty Focus

George A. Bermann

International Arbitration

Professor George A. Bermann has helped Columbia Law School become one of the world’s premier institutions for the study of international arbitration

By Mary Johnson

Winter 2010

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Last summer, a U.S. Commerce Department representative phoned Professor George A. Bermann with an interesting proposal. The veteran professor listened intently as the representative explained how Bermann, a renowned expert in international arbitration, was the perfect man for a groundbreaking new project.

The Iraqi Ministry of Oil had begun issuing agreements with foreign investors concerning the country’s oil fields. But maintaining solid relationships with outside entities would depend heavily on Iraq’s ability to resolve contract disputes outside its own court system. Arbitration proceedings were not common in Iraq, but the ministry’s officials recognized the importance of implementing new ways to handle potential disputes. If someone could teach them the negotiation strategy, they would use it. 

That’s where Bermann entered the equation: The Commerce Department wanted him to create at Columbia Law School a three-day crash course in arbitration, laying the foundation for a dispute resolution structure that could help the embattled country improve its relationships with foreign investors. The professor was happy to help. “In today’s world, arbitration has become a vehicle of enormous practical importance in terms of international dispute resolution,” says Bermann, the Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and the Walter Gellhorn Professor of Law. “Iraq is a war-torn country. It needs to make investors feel comfortable, and one of the ways you make investors feel comfortable is to agree that you will resolve disputes outside of your own courts.”

In February, 20 Iraqi lawyers, engineers, and economists arrived at the Law School and spent the next few days with arbitration experts including Bermann and Pieter H.F. Bekker, a lecturer-in-law who teaches a class on investment law and arbitration. “The participants from the ministry were extremely receptive, extremely focused, and asked a lot of very pertinent questions,” Bermann recalls. “It was a great success.” And there has already been talk of expansion, he adds. “I understand [the Commerce Department is] going to come back here again with officials from Pakistan.”

Bermann joined the Law School faculty in 1975, following his graduation from Yale Law School and a brief stint at Davis Polk & Wardwell. Since then, he has focused his teaching and scholarship on various facets of comparative and private international law. Bermann has authored and edited for the American Bar Association a series of five books on the administrative law of the European Union. He has co-authored casebooks on both European Union law and the law of the WTO. He founded—and continues to direct—the European Legal Studies Center, which publishes the Columbia Journal on European Law. He has served regularly as a visiting professor at institutions in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands. And in addition to his trademark courses in EU Law and Transnational Litigation and Arbitration, Bermann has pioneered, with Professor Katharina Pistor, a challenging first-year elective called Lawyering Across Multiple Legal Orders. 

In recent years, Bermann’s work has centered increasingly on international arbitration. Those efforts have helped the Law School develop a worldwide reputation as a leader in the field. He is currently chief reporter of the Restatement of the U.S. Law of International Commercial Arbitration for the American Law Institute, the first project of its kind in the field of arbitration. Bermann also serves as director of the American Arbitration Association, a group that provides alternative dispute resolution services to individuals and organizations worldwide. He is a member of the Academic Council of the Institute for Transnational Arbitration, which offers continuing education for professionals in the field. And he has participated in multiple international commercial arbitrations, more than half of which were conducted at the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Court of Arbitration.

A devoted educator, Bermann is constantly searching for new ways for students to explore the field of arbitration. One such opportunity is an innovative moot court focusing on mediation and arbitration that will be held in Hong Kong in August. Bermann, who is heavily involved in several other moot courts, helped establish the competition through a partnership between Columbia Law School and the City University of Hong Kong. Bermann has also enlisted the help of several students in conducting research for the International Arbitration Restatement. Currently two years into his work on the monumental treatise, Bermann anticipates that several more years of analysis—and, therefore, a few dozen new student research assistants—are still to come.

While the professor continues to expand the Law School’s international offerings, sometimes the students create their own opportunities. And Bermann positively beams as he recounts some of their arbitration-centered endeavors. He notes that the American Review of International Arbitration is the only student-run arbitration journal in the country. And the 2-year-old Columbia International Arbitration Association, a thriving 70-member student organization, recently hosted a successful conference at the Law School on aggregate arbitration.

“The student demand for arbitration education and experience is sky-rocketing,” Bermann says with a smile.

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