William & Mary Law Review


Do arbitrators create precedent? The claim that they do not recurs throughout much of the arbitration literature. Instead, arbitration often is viewed as an ad hoc forum in which arbitrators do justice (at best) within the confines of particular cases. As an empirical matter, however, it is increasingly clear that, in some arbitration systems, arbitrators often cite to other arbitrators, claim to rely on past awards, and promote adjudicatory consistency as an important system norm. Much like courts, then, arbitrators can (but do not always) create precedent that guides future behavior and provides a language in which disputants, lawyers, and adjudicators can express and resolve grievances.

This Article provides a theoretical foundation for understanding the conditions under which precedent will (or will not) arise in arbitration. It identifies three considerations that may account for the development of precedent across a range of arbitration systems: (1) whether the system is structurally conducive to the creation of precedent; (2) whether arbitral precedent benefits the parties by filling gaps in (or displacing) state-supplied law; and (3) whether arbitrators are likely to be viewed as legitimate producers of law within the relevant context. After explaining the relevance of these considerations, the Article explores how they might apply in different arbitration contexts and sets forth a research agenda capable of shedding light on arbitration not only as a mechanism for resolving disputes, but also as a mechanism for generating robust systems of privately made law.