Q & A: An Interview with Katie Gonzalez, Championing Women's Leadership in International Arbitration

Posted on: Tue, 03/19/2024

By: Kendal Enz

In continuing recognition of International Women's Day earlier this month, the AAA is proud to spotlight Katie Gonzalez, a distinguished advocate in international arbitration and a pivotal figure within the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution® (AAA-ICDR®). Gonzalez, whose career has spanned various geographies with a focus on Latin America, operates as a senior associate at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP. Gonzalez also serves on the AAA-ICDR Publications Committee and the Executive Board of ICDR Young & International, which provides networking opportunities to alternative dispute resolution (ADR) practitioners under 40. She speaks on panels regarding her practice, particularly on sovereign representation, oil and gas disputes, and corruption issues. I spoke with Gonzalez via video about her journey into ADR, the importance of International Women's Day, and how diversity enhances the effectiveness and fairness of dispute resolution.

Can you start by sharing your journey into ADR and what inspired you to pursue a career in this field?

Based on my academic background and experience working for an NGO abroad, I always knew that I wanted my career to be international. That's partly why I gravitated toward Cleary Gottlieb. As a summer associate at the firm, I explored various practice areas but was drawn to the international aspects. My passion for international arbitration truly ignited during a four-week stint at the firm's Paris office. The inherent complexity of cross-border disputes fascinated me. When I was able to give part of our opening argument at an arbitration hearing as a second-year associate, I was hooked on the practice and knew that I wanted to pursue this as a career.

Could you talk about your mentors and role models in ADR and what you've learned from them?

I've been fortunate to have numerous mentors, many of whom came to me by working at Cleary. I've had the privilege of working alongside lawyers at our firm, such as Jeff Rosenthal, Ari MacKinnon, Chris Moore and Laurie Achtouk-Spivak. They not only have careers I admire but have also shown me firsthand how a good lawyer can lead a team, effectively manage, and ensure that junior lawyers and team members receive valuable developmental opportunities.

Additionally, I've found mentors through arbitration organizations in New York and elsewhere. For example, participating in the ArbitralWomen Mentorship Programme connected me with Yasmine Lahlou of Chaffetz Lindsay, who provided advice on advocating for myself and my career and making long-term decisions about my path.

As the secretary to the International Commercial Disputes Committee of the New York City Bar Association, I've worked closely with the committee chair, Stephanie Cohen, an independent arbitrator. Through watching her manage and steer various projects, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be an effective leader, even in predominantly male environments.

Reflecting on your career, what do you consider your most significant achievements?

While I realize I’m still early in my career, I'm genuinely proud of the work I've done so far. Representing clients and achieving victories in cases as a part of a number of teams has been incredibly rewarding. One significant milestone was my role with the Organizing Committee of New York Arbitration Week in 2020. I served as one of the secretaries for the committee, which was composed of leading arbitration practitioners from around New York City and elsewhere. This was during a global pandemic—a time marked by uncertainty and the peak of Zoom fatigue. Assisting in creating engaging programs that fostered community and promoted New York as a forum for arbitration and substantive law in various commercial contracts was challenging but rewarding. It allowed me to work closely with people from different areas of the arbitration world and create something valuable for the arbitration community.

What is the significance of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month to you professionally?

One of the key strengths of International Women's Day is that it offers a chance for not just women but everyone in the community to reflect on our progress and assess our accomplishments in achieving gender parity in our practices. It also encourages discussions on critical issues like the intersection between gender and racial equality in our work. This provides an excellent opportunity for us to engage in meaningful conversations and serves as a reminder to commend the efforts and progress made by women and others in the field.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman in ADR, and if so, how have you navigated these challenges?

Perceiving certain opportunities as closed or unattainable, perhaps due to factors such as gender, background or seniority level, can be challenging. Overcoming these perceptions might involve proceeding confidently, drawing inspiration from others and fighting for a seat at the table. Advocating for myself, making myself heard in various spaces, and speaking confidently have been key strategies for me to access these opportunities and shape my career.

How does diversity, particularly gender diversity, impact the effectiveness and fairness of the dispute resolution process?

Diversity—gender as well as other factors—is a crucial component of a well-functioning dispute resolution system; the more diversity we have in terms of ideas, backgrounds and perspectives, the more favorable the outcomes for the client. It's essential to foster creativity and leverage different experiences, especially in handling complex cases.

I understand you speak multiple languages. Have these skills have enhanced your ability to mediate and arbitrate in international contexts?

Language is incredibly important in our work, and having language skills can be particularly useful. I often discuss with JD and LLM candidates seeking career advice that while having specific language skills may not be a prerequisite for practicing in international arbitration in general, communicating with clients in their native language or having cultural competency is crucial. This competency is vital for effectively fulfilling the counsel role, not just in providing advice but also in empathizing with clients and communicating in a clear and understandable way to them.

What advice would you give young women aspiring to pursue ADR careers?

Discovering a community is a critical component of building a successful ADR career. I’ve had the benefit of practicing in New York, where I've found the arbitration community to be exceptionally welcoming. Its small size fosters a more enjoyable practice environment where many practitioners know each other. Engaging with this community, whether by joining organizations or becoming more involved in community forums or networking events, is important. Building close relationships and learning from the practices of others can significantly enhance your experiences and skill sets. Junior practitioner groups, in particular, can be incredibly empowering, especially for less experienced lawyers, by offering safe spaces to network, learn and build relationships. Being part of ICDR Young & International, for example, has been foundation to my own career by allowing me to engage with practitioners worldwide and significantly broaden my perspectives on the practice.

What changes or developments do you hope to see in ADR concerning gender equality and women's participation?

I've appreciated seeing many positive changes over the last few years and am looking forward to being a part of that continued progress. There are many excellent initiatives, such as the Equal Representation in Arbitration Pledge and the more recent emphasis on equal representation among expert witnesses. These efforts are crucial for expanding awareness about the importance of gender parity in arbitration and demonstrating how diversity can enhance both the work product and the process. I'm optimistic about seeing partnerships between groups focused on gender equality and those like Racial Equality for Arbitration Lawyers (Real), which concentrate on racial equality. Such collaborations can help elevate those who have yet to be at the forefront of arbitration, thereby improving the practice as a whole.