Introduction to HKU Law Series (III) Professor Ali’s Sharing

Prof. Shahla Ali is a Professor and Associate Dean (International) of the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong and Director of the LLM in Arbitration and Dispute Resolution. Her research focuses on governance, development and cross-border dispute resolution issues in the Asia-Pacific region.  She is also a bilingual arbitrator (English/Chinese) at CIETAC, HKIAC, KCAB and SIAC.

Prof. Ali is actively involved in the reform of regional and global dispute resolution mechanisms, having worked with USAID, IFC/World Bank and the United Nations on access to justice, peace process negotiation training, financial dispute resolution and land use conflict resolution. She has served on the World Bank/IFC Mediation Register, the Academic Committee of the Institute for Transnational Arbitration, UNCITRAL Working Group II and the International Bar Association’s Investor-State Mediation Rules Drafting Committee. In Hong Kong, she was a member of the Hong Kong Department of Justice’s Mediation Regulatory Framework Subcommittee, the Hong Kong Financial Dispute Resolution Committee, the Women’s International Arbitration Committee of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre and the Executive Committee of the Asia Pacific Mediation Forum. Professor Shahla Ali’s work highlights the role of decentralization, legal coordination and regional diversity in the design of cross-border dispute resolution systems. Her most recent publications include Forming Transnational Dispute Settlement Norms (Edward Elgar, 2021), Court Mediation Reform: Efficiency, Confidence and Perceptions of Justice (Edward Elgar, 2018), Governing Disasters (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Consumer Financial Dispute Resolution in a Comparative Context: Principles, Systems and Practice (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Resolving Disputes in the Asia Pacific: International Mediation and Arbitration in East Asia and the West (Routledge 2010).  Prof. Ali’s research informs legal developments in the Asia-Pacific region and contributes to interdisciplinary research on comparative dispute resolution mechanisms.

Before joining HKU, Prof. Shahla Ali worked as a lawyer at Baker & McKenzie’s International Trade Group. She holds a BA in International Relations and Chinese from Stanford University, and a Ph.D. in Law and Social Policy from the University of California, Berkeley. She has held visiting scholar positions at the National University of Singapore, New York University, UCLA, Renmin University, Duke University, UC Berkeley and Stanford University. Prof. Shahla Ali is more than happy to supervise postgraduate students in the areas of comparative dispute resolution, law and development, international arbitration, investor-state dispute resolution, and natural resource governance.

This article is based on Professor Shahla Ali’s interview in February 2022, in which she shared her academic research, life experience and advice for scholars. Please click on the video in the article to watch the full interview.

Early on in life, Professor Ali was encouraged by the idea that the Earth is itself one country and mankind its citizens. Naturally, Hong Kong’s unique position as a bridge between East and West shows how such an idea might manifest itself. HKU is one of the most diverse faculties in the world and has been ranked “most international” by Times Higher Education. With over 120 global partnerships in research, HKU is uniquely positioned to contribute on an international scale.

Professor Ali believes that the youth have a vital role to play in the advancement of civilization. In line with this belief, she stresses that universities must take on the responsibility of unleashing the constructive potential of their students. She finds students at HKU to be highly engaged, hardworking and bright, an attitude that is reflected in the contributions HKU students have made to society, from the creation of a web tool to facilitate fairer tenancy agreements to providing legal aid services to those in need.

Professor Ali told us that seeing students use their skills to contribute to social well being has been the most rewarding experience of her career. Over the years, HKU law students have gone on to work at a range of NGOs and UN organisations, applying their knowledge to help solve the many problems facing our world. On top of that, Professor Ali has seen how resilient students have been during the Covid-19 pandemic and how students have adapted in the face of unprecedented challenges.

When Professor Ali gets some time out of her busy schedule, she likes to go for early morning bike rides around Hong Kong, taking in the sights and sounds just before the city comes to life. She also organises youth classes within her neighbourhood which are aimed at fostering intrinsic values such as generosity and justice. She regards these classes as a reflection of the idea that each person “is a mine rich in gems of inestimable value.”.

Professor Ali has had previous experience in legal practice, having worked at Baker and McKenzie for a number of years. Although she works as a professor now, she considers both professions to be equally rewarding as each field tackles its unique set of problems.

We asked Professor Ali to share with us how she balances her time among her wide range of professional interests. She explained how she dedicates a specific allotment of time to research each morning so she has enough time for her other duties. On top of that, Professor Ali stressed to us the importance of having a good team of student research assistants as well as being highly motivated to tackle the questions which interest her.

As Professor Ali has in recent years participated in the “Women in Arbitration” initiative launched by HKIAC, we asked her to tell us about the challenges female legal professionals face and how these challenges might be overcome. She highlighted to us that women in all sectors and countries struggle even as societies try to apply the principle of equality.  Throughout history, women’s opportunities have been starkly limited, with women often having been treated as tradable commodities. Despite greater access to education for all, society continues to suffer from thousands of years worth of assumptions about women.

This struggle has helped her reflect on her own understanding of equality and question her own assumptions. She shared with us an insight about humanity being described as a bird with two wings, one being women and the other man, and that until both are equally developed is it possible for the bird to fly. Similarly,  until equality is realized, humanity cannot properly advance. However, she believes the faculty understands the importance of equality and commends the Dean’s focus in this area.

Professor Ali told us that one of her favourite books is the Book of Certitude by Baha’u’llah which addresses the question of the search for truth and the barriers that we might face in the process. 

When we asked Professor Ali about how she came to pursue her chosen field, arbitration and dispute resolution, she told us about how she encountered the idea that disunity is the cause of disintegration and conversely that unity is the cause of life and progress, an idea which is reflected everywhere in nature. From this she became interested in learning more about diverse systems of dispute resolution. She was naturally drawn to the greater China region given China’s long history of thinking about such questions. Prof. Ali also shared with us a quote from Baha’u’llah which inspired her interest in understanding how groups of people come to joint decisions, “no man can attain his true station except through his justice. No power can exist except through unity. No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation.”

Professor Ali has had a wealth of experience working as an arbitrator in several arbitral institutions including CIETAC, HKIAC, KCAB and SIAC. We asked her to share her insights about the differences and similarities between these institutions. She highlighted that while there is a growing similarity between the major arbitral institutions, each institution provides distinct practices that are worth paying attention to and learning from. In her project, “Resolving Disputes in the Asia Pacific Region”, she found that the flexibility of the UN model law structure has facilitated a growing similarity in substantive law among these diverse arbitral institutions which allows countries to opt in and out of various provisions based on regional circumstances.  Regarding specific arbitral institutions, she finds that CIETAC offers a streamlined and cost-effective approach, while HKIAC offers unique tools for complex multi party cases.

Professor Ali shared with us her experience visiting the Shenzhen Court of International Arbitration, which left an impression on her. One staff member pointed in two directions – one to Macau and the other to Hong Kong – with both routes visible from its office windows, a reflection of the area that the institution serves. She also told us about the opportunities that Hong Kong lawyers will have to work in the Greater Bay Area under the GBA lawyers qualification exam administered by the Ministry of Justice. Mediators and arbitrators can also qualify by meeting the qualification requirements of the various arbitral institutions, usually after undergoing some practical case experience.

We asked Professor Ali to share with us her advice for both prospective and current students. She told us that students should think about what motivates them and how they can be of benefit to society. Professor Ali also stressed the importance for PhD students to share their findings through publications and conference papers and to reach out to scholars they admire for collaboration opportunities wherever possible.

Professor Ali encourages those who are interested in the LLM in Arbitration and Dispute Resolution to find out more from our website at

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