Allen & Overy partner departs to head up Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre

Joanne Lau appointed secretary general as incumbent returns to CMS as local managing partner
Sunset view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

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Allen & Overy (A&O) arbitration partner Joanne Lau has been appointed as the new secretary general of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC). 

Lau, a partner at A&O since 2021, will take up her post from the end of February after 11 years in practice at the UK Magic Circle firm, having trained and qualified in London and Hong Kong, where she is based.

She succeeds Mariel Dimsey, who is returning to CMS to become the local managing partner of its Hong Kong office after a relatively short stint of just 18 months, during which she oversaw the enthusiastic return of Hong Kong Arbitration Week in 2023, with higher levels of attendance than before the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Former justice secretary Rimsky Yuen SC, HKIAC’s co-chair, thanked Dimsey for her “commitment, dedication and contribution”, adding she would continue to support HKIAC in her new role. In welcoming Lau, he praised her experience and leadership: “I am confident HKIAC will continue to set new benchmarks for excellence and innovation.”

Fellow co-chair, David W. Rivkin, of Arbitration Chambers, said: “We received many strong applications to replace Mariel, but we were thrilled that Joanne expressed a desire to become our secretary-general. Her extensive experience leading a major international arbitration practice, close ties to the Hong Kong community, intellectual ability and language skills make her uniquely qualified to lead HKIAC.”

Like Dimsey, who was appointed to CMS’s partnership in 2019, Lau is a relatively new partner. However, she stands out as a Hong Kong native, who, crucially, is trilingual in English, Cantonese and Mandarin. Her previous roles at the HKIAC include serving as co-chair of its HK45 committee, which represents young arbitrators, and on its proceedings committee, steeping her in Hong Kong’s arbitration culture. 

The move comes ahead of A&O’s flagship merger with Shearman & Sterling, which is expected to go live in May, presenting her with a natural opportunity to seek the challenge of leading HKIAC. Like A&O, Shearman has a substantial Hong Kong presence.

Known for her expertise in international arbitration, Lau has experience in both commercial and investor-state arbitrations across various sectors and jurisdictions. That regional experience, however, speaks to a Hong Kong that increasingly promotes its links with mainland China to potential users through judicial cooperation agreements and closer relations with lawyers in the Greater Bay area, even as a number of Western law firms decouple from the Chinese market

However, Hong Kong also retains a global attraction, despite the upheaval caused by the imposition of stringent national security laws in 2020, not least to Russian clients seeking common law resolution of claims less justiciable in London and free from sanctions. Its traditional strengths centre on its enforcement-friendly regime for arbitration awards and a possession of a Court of Final Appeal that consists of retired international common law judges and the elite of Hong Kong’s judiciary.  

One of Lau’s early opportunities will be helping to oversee Hong Kong’s hosting of the 2024 International Council of Commercial Arbitration (ICCA) congress, a significant event for international commercial arbitrators that will seek to build on the successes of last year’s Edinburgh event, the first since the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

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