S.I. Strong im Porträt
„Several male academics needed to be convinced that I was the instigator of the convention.”
S. I. Strong, Professor at the University of Sydney and Practitioner in international dispute resolution about equality in international law, a career in academia and the initiation process of an international convention.
You are a professor but also work as an arbitrator. How do academia and practice benefit from each other in your work?
Unlike other fields of law, international arbitration reflects a strong blend of academic and practical considerations, regardless of whether you are researching issues as a practitioner or academic. This is useful as an academic because you always have something to research, and useful as a practitioner because you (usually) have some academic work on which to rely.
What made you choose a career in international law?
I have always been interested in other cultures, so was drawn to private international law, and international commercial arbitration in particular, because of the comparative elements. While I enjoy the international travel, I also enjoy researching different legal and social cultures from the comfort of my own office.
Many young scholars and PhD students ask themselves if they should pursue a career in academia. Do you have any advice on how to answer this question?
Academia is wonderful for those who enjoy working independently and who have an interest in writing and scholarship. If you’re the type of person who prefers to work in groups or who needs external deadlines in order to start (or finish!) a project, then academia may not be for you. There are some opportunities for projects with co-authors, but you will need to complete some solo projects in order to progress in your career.
One of my friends from law school has a good piece of advice – you should not think of academia as a career in teaching so much as a career in writing. Those people who like to teach but do not like to write might want to consider working as an adjunct rather than full-time academia. Having said that, there are some universities that are starting to offer teaching-track positions rather than the traditional research-teaching positions.
You have done a lot of work in commercial mediation as well. What role will amicable settlement such as mediation play in the future?
A lot will depend on whether mediators actually obtain good mediation skills or whether they simply try to force through settlements as an ego-driven exercise. Mediation is a difficult skill to learn and is not for everyone. Someone can be a great arbitrator and a horrible mediator. Furthermore, mediators can be good in some settings but not in others. Thus, many domestic mediators who have developed their skills in family law settings are very simply not well-suited to international commercial mediations.
Similarly, practitioners need to appreciate how to conduct themselves in a cooperative rather than adversarial manner if the full benefits of mediation are to be obtained. To do so, they will need to overcome the fears and biases that arise whenever change is contemplated. In many ways, junior practitioners are in the best position to benefit from mediation, since they are open to learning new skills and finding new ways to benefit clients.
The Singapore Convention on Mediation is intended to assist with the international enforceability of settlement agreements resulting from mediation. You played an important role in the process of bringing this convention to life. Can you tell us a bit about that process?
In 2014, I conducted a dispute system design analysis that called for creation of a new convention addressing the enforcement of mediation agreements and settlement agreements so as to level the playing field between international commercial arbitration and international commercial mediation (S.I. Strong, “Beyond International Commercial Arbitration? The Promise of International Commercial Mediation,” 45 Washington University Journal of Law & Policy 11 (2014)). I presented that research to the U.S. Department of State in a public meeting of the State Department’s Advisory Committee on Private International Law, and the idea caught the eye of an attorney-adviser named Tim Schnabel. I helped Tim as he convened a working group and drafted a proposal from the U.S. Government that was presented to UNCITRAL for consideration. UNCITRAL decided to pursue the project, and I assisted by acting as a non-governmental observer, attending meetings and presenting empirical research concerning international commercial mediation (subsequently published as S.I. Strong, “Realizing Rationality: An Empirical Assessment of International Commercial Mediation,” 73 Washington and Lee Law Review 1973 (2016)). The Singapore Convention on Mediation was opened for signature in late 2019 and has now gone into effect with 55 signatories and eight states parties – a remarkable feat!
Much of your work is published under “S. I. Strong”. What made you choose to publish under your initials?
Two reasons. First, my first name is spelled very unusually (thanks, Mom!), which means it is constantly being misspelled. Since academics rely on citation counts to further their career, I wanted to avoid that. Second, studies at the time I was starting my career showed that articles authored by “Stephanie Smith” were perceived much more negatively than articles authored by “Stephen Smith”. Articles authored by “S. Smith” fell in the middle. I felt that publishing under my initials would avoid some of the unconscious biases that exist in academia.
You have worked in the US, UK, and now in Australia. How has moving around the globe affected your professional and personal life?
I always suggest that anyone wanting a career in international law should try to live, work and study in at least one other jurisdiction, since you never know what you don’t know about your home legal system (and cultural values) until you spend time elsewhere. Having law degrees from the US and the UK and having practiced as a lawyer in both jurisdictions (as well as acting as an academic in both countries) has given me a great perspective on the various possibilities in international commercial dispute resolution, and my recent move to Australia has just broadened that perspective even further.
In all of these places women are still underrepresented in legal academia. Did you experience any differences concerning gender equality between these countries?
I find gender issues to be about the same in the three countries I know best (US, UK and Australia), meaning that there are things that are positive and things that are not. I always start out by saying that my best mentors and champions – in both academia and practice – have been men, and problems are the exception rather than the rule. In fact, I find some of the most discriminatory experiences to be funny rather than difficult.
For example, I always tell my students about the guy who refused to talk to me at a conference – possibly because my nametag read “Stacie Strong” – until I went up to give my panel presentation, and then he realized I was “S.I. Strong”. He was incredibly keen to chat after that, but I wasn’t having any of it. It’s like seeing people who are rude to wait staff – anyone who treats people differently depending on perceived status is just not worth my time.
The even funnier one was at another conference where I was sitting between an American colleague and a new colleague from a European nation during lunch. The topic was class arbitration, which was what I was going to discuss on my panel later that afternoon. The European kept referring all his questions to the American man, and I kept chiming in with points supplementing the American’s comments. Finally, the European turned to me and told me to be quiet, he was trying to find out about class arbitration. By that time, I’d written something like five to six articles on large-scale arbitration around the world and was the acknowledged world expert on the topic. The American and I exchanged glances, and the American then said, “She’s writing the book on class arbitration.” (S.I. Strong, Class, Mass, and Collective Arbitration in National and International Law, Oxford University Press (2013)). What was even funnier was that the European didn’t care. The man at the table was still the expert.
You work in both arbitration and mediation. The cliché is that all genders are more represented in the field of mediation than arbitration. How do you feel about this?
I don’t think that’s true at all, at least not in international commercial mediation. Men dominate international commercial dispute resolution, with only a few exceptions. This is part of the reason why I want to make sure that my role in developing the Singapore Convention on Mediation is not forgotten – women need to be acknowledged for their contributions to international law. Amusingly, there have been several male academics who needed to be convinced that I was the instigator of the convention – in their writings and presentations, they seemed to believe they were the earliest academics on the project. To quote Taylor Swift at the 2016 Grammy Awards: “I want to say to all the young women out there: There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame. But if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you will know that it was you and the people who love you who put you there. And that will be the greatest feeling in the world. Thank you for this moment."
What steps should universities and other institutions take to one day achieve gender equality?
Realize that women often have full time jobs outside the paid job, caring for family members (both children and elderly parents). At the University of Sydney, they ask about these matters during the promotion process, which I think is great. Furthermore, we have lots of women at the entry level, but relatively few at the senior level – what is happening during people’s careers to put them off and make them leave? It’s not just family issues. It’s often other visible and invisible barriers, like the failure to give women credit for their accomplishments. I have a colleague in the US – a single woman, so no family issues that could allegedly be stopping her – and her dean refuses to acknowledge all the awards and accomplishments she earns for herself and her law school. It’s mind boggling.
Though gender issues are concerning, the even bigger issue, especially for international law, is racial and ethnic equality. Public international law is doing slightly better than private international law, but both suffer from a significant lack of diverse perspectives. We need to do more to get people started on the ladder and then keep them there.
If you could give one career advice to your younger self, what would it be?
I actually think my younger self did okay! I lived the dream of getting a PhD from Cambridge, working as a don at Oxford, and practicing in places like New York and London. A lot of it was luck, but it was also the willingness to take the unusual path, especially involving moving to another country. That’s always my advice to young students – be willing to take the risk and go through the doors that open to you. They generally won’t open more than once.
Which female lawyer would you like to nominate as a role model for breaking.through?
It’s impossible to name just one. Carolyn Lamm and Lucy Reed are both rock stars in international commercial dispute resolution, as is Edna Sussman, who is a top-notch international commercial mediator as well as arbitrator. Aside from their professional expertise, all three of these women are wonderful people who give back to their communities and mentor the younger generation.
Thank you very much for this interview!
Sydney / Berlin, 25. October 2022. S. I. Strong answered the questions in writing. The questions were drafted by Anna Isfort.
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