The International Bar Association’s (IBA) top executives have sung the praises of their first annual conference in Korea, from 22-27 September at the COEX Convention & Exhibition Centre in Seoul.
The IBA conference is the premier conference for legal professionals worldwide to meet and network. It also serves to advance the development of law and its role in business and society.
“We are connecting with Asia more fully,” Tim Hughes, the IBA’s deputy executive director, told Asia Business Law Journal. “Some international law firms attending have never been here, to Seoul.”
Hughes said about 5,000 delegates attended the Seoul conference, “here in a heartland of cross-border law”.
“The good news is we are seeing a lot more delegates from the Asia-Pacific,” he said. “Of the 1,250 newcomers to our conference this year, most of them are from the APAC region. And it’s not just Eastern Asia. I’ve just come from a meeting with Uzbekistan delegates. This dialogue with Central Asia is laying a foundation for decades to come.”
Hughes said a packed programme for the week involved more than 200 sessions with everything from developments in the various practice areas to human rights issues and the rule of law, gender parity, persecution of the judiciary, the economics of justice etc., as well as a broad theme of “diversity and inclusion”.
“The main thing is we have 60 to 70 specialist committees,” he said. “No theme is excluded; If you’re in the tax committee then they decide on the agenda and the speakers. It’s the same with every specialist committee, the agendas are designed by cross-border specialists.”
Hughes said that often themes were developed with a wider focus on current issues and events. “It’s not just the commercial issues, our agenda in Seoul has featured human rights issues and so on. For example, the many refugees in the world are affecting economies seriously now. I met with Venezuelan lawyers here who say the country has lost four million people to other countries and they are expecting up to another four million in the next four years if things don’t change. There is a question of how neighbouring countries can cope and respond.
IBA executive director Mark Ellis said that over the years the IBA has expanded the annual conference’s purview of topics to be a more innovative and thought-provoking event with issues and topics outside of just lawyers’ main practice areas.
“Lawyers can break out of set agendas more to experience other topics,” Ellis told Asia Business Law Journal. “For example, we had two major North Korean defectors speaking at our conference, which invited the attendance of business lawyers to take a step back and think of other things impacting our profession.”
Hughes added that the IBA had always provided practical support for developing countries, but more and more it is seeing developed countries in retreat on rule of law issues, for example Hungary, Poland and Romania in Europe. “We are working with the EU Commission on rule of law programmes now.”
Ellis added: “It’s important for our profession to engage on these issues. We are all part of this profession and it is critical to fight for the rule of law. We must speak out and the IBA gives us that platform.”
Hughes said feedback at the conference included requests for better support for lawyers dealing with now-trending populist environments within nations, and the importance of law in holding governments to account.
“The decision in the UK [surrounding court rulings disallowing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to curtail parliamentary sessions] could not have occurred at a better time with our conference’s 5,000 attendees all eager to seek opinions from their peers,” said Ellis. “This enforces the role the profession plays in enforcing the rule of law.”
Hughes and Ellis both said the IBA was keen to have the Asia-Pacific voice become stronger within their association.
“Twenty years ago, US and European voices dominated this conference,” said Hughes, “but that is no longer true and APAC is the fastest growing region for us. We still have a journey to ensure all APAC centres have a voice, and that is our reason for being here.”
The IBA was established in 1947, and represents international legal practitioners, bar associations, law firms and law societies. The association says it “influences the development of international law reform and shapes the future of the legal profession throughout the world”. It boasts more than 80,000 individual lawyers and more than 190 bar associations and law societies spanning more than 170 countries.
The IBA organizes more than 50 specialist conferences globally each year as well as the annual conference, the largest gathering of international lawyers globally. Next year’s annual conference will be held in Miami.