Two Kiwis among top ten in the world for commercial mediation

by Sophie Schroder18 Aug 2014
Every year Who’s Who Legal produces a comprehensive list that recognises up to 300 of the world’s leading commercial mediators. This year, two Kiwi faces appeared in the top 10.

Geoff Sharp of Sharp Commercial Mediation in Wellington and Brick Court Chambers, and New Zealand born and bred Tony Willis also of Brick Court Chambers in London, have been heralded as two of the finest mediators on the planet.

Sharp told NZ Lawyer that he was “chuffed” to be in the top ten, especially considering the list is “well respected” in terms of rankings.

He and Willis sit alongside a number of the most high-profile mediators in the world, including Eric Green who was a mediator during the unbundling of Microsoft, and Bill Marsh, who facilitated the Anglican Church’s agreement to include women in the ranks of Bishop.

Sharp says that considering New Zealand’s small population, such a solid representation in the top 10 is hugely significant.

“I think we do mediation quite well and our general national psyche is well suited to it. Other jurisdictions do tend to like us over the Americans or the Brits because we’re the Switzerland of the Pacific, and people recognise that.”

Sharp was a partner at Bell Gully until the late 1990s, when he went to the bar with the intention of building a mediation practice.

He now has his own national practice here in New Zealand, and is a member of London’s Brick Court Chambers as a door tenant alongside fellow Kiwi and place-holder in the top 10, Willis, and four other mediators.

Four of this team of five made it onto the Who’s Who Legal mediation rankings.

Sharp says colleague Willis was born, bred and first practised in New Zealand, but since the 1970s he’s been living and working in London. He was a partner at Clifford Chance for 25 years before becoming a full time mediator.

Willis’ interest in mediation was sparked after he acted for the American banks during the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis, which has more recently been the subject of the Oscar-winning film Argo.

The diplomatic crisis between Iran and the US during Jimmy Carter’s presidency saw a group of Iranian students taking over the US Embassy in Iran and holding the staff hostage for just over a year and two months.

“Tony was employed as a middle person. He facilitated the money side of the hostage crisis,” says Sharp.

Sharp himself is no stranger to big cases.

More recently he’s acted for a client on a mediation who was an expert in marble and had previously been involved in the construction of Saddam Hussein’s palaces.

“Apparently these palaces were made with tons upon tons of marble,” he says. “I do quite a bit construction mediation. [My work in] the Middle East is mainly infrastructure such as high rises and airports.”

Sharp’s journey with mediation began in the early 1990s when he started to hear whispers about mediators coming out of America. He says the concept “just seemed to make sense”.

A group of the US mediators then arrived in New Zealand with the goal of training Kiwi lawyers interested in stepping into that space.

“I was always a bit concerned about the litigation process and the time and money. It seemed an absolutely common sense way to cut through that – not for all cases of course,” Sharp says. “It had a lot of credibility because the Americans were pretty serious about it.”

He’s now been practising as a mediator for more than a decade and as well as his practice here, he’s increasingly been doing work overseas in Asia and the Middle East, mainly for commercial disputes.

Here in New Zealand, he says the mediation market is “very” mature and most lawyers in the jurisdiction have a sound understanding of it – especially considering almost all cases that go to the High Court would be mediated.

“For a jurisdiction that in the civil area doesn’t have any mandated mediation, we use mediation in the way that it was designed – voluntarily…I think we’re a small legal community and it helps that counsel trust one another,” he says.

“There is the obvious detraction of cost. It’s about 10% of what litigation might cost, and it’s very efficient with a good success rate. Most people would say civil voluntary mediation has an 80-85% success rate.”