In April 2020, the 27th Annual Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot was concluded successfully – an outcome that only weeks before did not seem attainable in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.
Shortly after the necessary cancellation of the in-person oral hearings in Vienna at the end of March 2020, the Vienna Vis Moot Directors took the decision to conduct the oral part of the competition virtually – what at first seemed a “mission impossible” in the short period of time before the start of the competition.
Within only 6 weeks, this year’s Vienna Vis Moot became the center stage for putting digitalization and its potential use for virtual oral hearings in arbitration to the test by thousands of users.
Being the first event of its kind and size, the Virtual Vienna Vis Moot exposed not only the organisers to new challenges but also the students, arbitrators, coaches – and IT professionals. Over a period of six days, 560 hearings were conducted remotely, involving more than 3,500 participants from 85 countries. For a couple of days, the Vis Moot turned into what could be referred to as a “virtual hearing boot camp” or the largest worldwide “Virtual Hearing Centre”.
The Virtual Vienna Vis Moot gave the arbitration community the unique opportunity to test virtual hearings, which was for many of the arbitrators a totally new experience. What lessons could be learned? Most importantly, internet connections and bandwidth are differing in quality depending on where you are in the world. There are certainly some countries where the internet connections are not sufficiently reliable to easily replace an in-person hearing. The technical aspects challenged many of the participants. Getting a hearing up and running took more time than one would expect, in particular until everybody is settled and has sufficient audio and visual presence. Being well-acquainted with the communications system and having read the manual was important for smooth operations.
Each hearing was supported by a virtual room manager who was available to troubleshoot and provide guidance to participants on technical issues during the hearing. Overall, a majority of the hearings went very well with the technical support of the virtual room managers.
Dana MacGrath, ArbitralWomen President and Omni Bridgeway Investment Manager and Legal Counsel commented, “The hearing in which I served as arbitrator went very smoothly. While there were a few technical glitches at the start due to limited bandwidth of one of the arbitrators, once that was addressed with the assistance of the virtual room manager, the hearing went on without incident. The level of pleading was excellent, and shortly into the hearing I was barely aware that it was a virtual as opposed to in-person pleading. At the close of the hearing, the tribunal was able to deliberate in a private breakout room. Overall, it was very professional.”
Virtual hearings definitely require more prearrangements and preliminary deliberations of arbitrators and counsel than hearings in person. Simply because spontaneous interactions are limited including communications with colleagues, co-counsel or co-arbitrators. They also require a lot more concentration to monitor the screen with a lot of participants while still handling the substance of the dispute itself.
One of the most important aspects to keep in mind when taking virtual arbitration hearings into the “real world” is to ensure control over the different participants and their environments: With current systems, it is very hard to assess whether someone is getting unauthorized outside support or the hearing is recorded without permission.
The experience in the 27th Virtual Vienna Vis Moot showed that the technical developments are heading in the right direction and that the arbitration community is ready to take the next step toward virtual hearings as a real alternative to hearings in person. There is certainly still room for market improvements, especially in complex and document heavy arbitration, and not all online platforms provide the necessary features that are required for arbitration hearings.
The 27th Virtual Vienna Vis Moot has taken a first step to train thousands of participants in the conduct of virtual hearings and helped students to understand this as an option. What was greeted partly with scepticism and concern turned out to become a wonderful learning experience.
In terms of diversity, the trend of the last years continued and the Moot had a slight majority of 55% of all students that were female. This result fits seamlessly into the line of encouraging results that can be taken out of this exceptional Vienna Vis Moot year.
Submitted by ArbitralWomen Member Patrizia Netal, KNOETZL, Vis Moot Director