Shelby Grubbs tours the site of what will become the International Arbitration Center at the new GSU Law School.
Shelby Grubbs tours the site of what will become the International Arbitration Center at the new GSU Law School. (John Disney/Daily Report)

Georgia State University College of Law has tapped Miller & Martin partner Shelby Grubbs to head its new International Arbitration Center, which is under construction. Grubbs’ recruitment is another step in the push by the city’s legal, business and political leaders to make Atlanta a hub for international arbitration.

Grubbs will be the center’s executive director when GSU Law’s $82.5 million building is completed next year. Until then, he is director of international initiatives for the law school’s Consortium for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution.

The consortium’s executive director, Doug Yarn, said it has hired Grubbs a year before the center opens because “we want to hit the ground running.”

“International disputes have a gestation period,” Yarn said. “People are making decisions now as to whether they are going to arbitrate and where they are going to do it—and we want to influence that thinking now.”

GSU Law has partnered with the Atlanta International Arbitration Society—ATLAS for short—to promote the arbitration center as a venue for companies engaged in cross-border business disputes.

Spearheaded by Arnall Golden Gregory managing partner Glenn Hendrix, a group of lawyers from large Atlanta firms organized ATLAS at the beginning of 2011 to promote Atlanta as an international arbitral seat. The nonprofit group will likely be housed at the International Arbitration Center, Yarn said.

Grubbs, who was one of the ATLAS founders, said he was charged last fall with preparing a partnership agreement between the group and GSU Law after writing a “blue sky” paper for ATLAS on how to make Atlanta a more frequently used venue for international commercial arbitrations.

“From brainstorming about that, I got interested in the position,” Grubbs said. “I’m at a place in my practice where I am able to jump out and do something that has been of huge interest to me for a long time.”

Grubbs, 64, has represented many international clients in U.S. disputes—mostly in litigation, he said, but also in arbitrations and mediations.

If there is an arbitration clause in a business contract, it typically specifies a location for the arbitration, so the challenge for Grubbs and ATLAS is to persuade in-house counsel to make Atlanta that location.

Respondents to a 2010 survey by White & Case said their top concern in choosing a seat for arbitration was the location’s formal legal regime, followed by the law governing the substance of the dispute, and then by convenience.

“From the perspective of a user of the system, we want certainty, transparency and expediency. Time is money,” Grubbs said.

Most cross-border arbitrations take place in a few world capitals. Grubbs said London and Paris are the most established arbitral seats. Stockholm, Hong Kong, Singapore and New York are also top venues, he said, and, more recently, Toronto, Sao Paolo, Dubai and Houston have become popular.

Grubbs said the International Arbitration Center and ATLAS plan to establish relationships with other cities that are arbitral seats and are already in exploratory talks with Toronto and Sao Paolo.

While Atlanta is an underdog on the international arbitration scene, ATLAS members effected a 2012 overhaul of the state’s arbitration law that Grubbs said makes Georgia “a very friendly venue” for foreign disputants.

The state legislature established a Georgia International Commercial Arbitration Code, with the stated purpose of encouraging cross-border arbitration in Georgia, facilitating prompt and efficient proceedings and enforcing the outcomes of such arbitration.

In another friendly move, the State Bar of Georgia has updated its rule on foreign practitioners to specify that foreign lawyers are welcome to handle international arbitrations here.

Explaining the choice of Grubbs, Yarn said he was looking for a senior in-house counsel or law firm partner to head the new arbitration center, not an academic.

“We wanted a practicing lawyer who has been recently active with the international bar,” he said. “This is not a tenure-track faculty position. Shelby has faculty-type status and he will be working with students but he’s not developing and teaching courses.”

Yarn declined to say who else applied for the post but said candidates included in-house counsel from Atlanta-based international companies and a retired GC from a major European corporation. “I had no idea who would apply and we had some fabulous candidates,” he said.

Grubbs said he first got interested in arbitration 35 years ago, as a young lawyer in Chattanooga who had just started a firm with two other lawyers. “We were pretty much convinced we were going to starve, and I was offered the opportunity to do some arbitrations through the American Arbitration Association,” he said.

Grubbs started doing arbitrations in Chattanooga and then Atlanta, he said, adding that one Atlanta case was a dispute over construction of the city’s new MARTA system.

That led him to start writing about alternative dispute resolution, which led to bar work. He chaired two Tennessee Supreme Court commissions on dispute resolution, and he has cochaired the American Bar Association litigation section’s ADR committee. He’s also chaired the litigation, arbitration and dispute resolution section for the World Law Group, of which Miller & Martin is a member.

Grubbs joined Miller & Martin, which is based in Chattanooga, in 1994 and then moved to Atlanta in 1998 to open an office for it here.

Yarn said Grubbs is well-known both in the local legal community and regionally, which was important. “We want to have a regional impact and we wanted someone who can navigate different legal communities domestically and internationally.”

Grubbs also can handle a start-up, Yarn said. “Shelby came to the table with a really solid and ambitious plan to get this off the ground. There are people we interviewed who would be wonderful if we had this all set up and going, but we didn’t know if they’d also be good at setting it up. Shelby convinced us that he was the person to get it going. Part of that is energy and part of it is vision.”

Yarn said Grubbs also has served on university boards, so he understands academia. Grubbs is on GSU Law’s Board of Visitors, the Dean’s Advisory Council for Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and the international business advisory board for the University of Alabama’s business school.

Because the International Arbitration Center is part of a public law school, Yarn said, it is different from other arbitral venues.

Arbitrations frequently use an arbitral institution, such as the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Court of Arbitration in Paris, but many also take place in a hotel conference room.

“There are these facilities all over the world where countries or cities are trying to get this business,” Yarn said. “There is some big money in it for those who are established at it. That’s not really our goal.”

In addition to putting Atlanta on the map, Yarn said he wants the International Arbitration Center to be a state hub for legal education on cross-border arbitration that benefits GSU Law students as well as the public. “Shelby is going to have a big role in figuring out how our program of instruction will dovetail with this public outreach,” he said.

That said, the new center will have state-of-the art technology, which Yarn and Grubbs said is a selling point.

“International arbitration is historically very low-tech,” Yarn said. By contrast, at the GSU Law facility a witness from Uzbekistan or an arbitrator from London will be able to participate via videoconference instead of coming to Atlanta.

“I would love for the center to be something of a laboratory for the use of technology in dispute resolution,” Grubbs added.

An arbitration center tied to a law school also offers the advantage of top-notch law librarians just one floor away, Yarn said. “The ICC’s facility in Paris is beautiful, but it cannot claim to provide an intellectual and scholarly home as well.”

Grubbs said that GSU “intends the center to be ecumenical,” and added that he is inviting professors from the four other Georgia law schools and some outside Georgia to join its advisory council.

Grubbs will also co-coach an arbitration moot team at the University of Georgia’s law school next year with Bo Rutledge, a UGA law professor who is an expert on international dispute resolution. UGA is the state’s only law school with such a team, Grubbs said, a distinction he hopes to change.