Celebrating Professor Sir Elihu Lauterpacht CBE QC LLD, 13 July1928–8 February 2017: When Death Becomes Really Personal

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I had just returned from work on 9 February when I received a text message from my good friend and colleague Jean d’Aspremont. He asked if I had heard the “sad news about Eli Lauterpacht”. Jean did not need to be explicit. I knew that Eli had been ill for some time. I knew that Jean was telling me that Eli had died. I disregarded my plans for dinner and poured myself a serious whisky to start to toast Eli, and to recall my fond memories of him–the man, the mentor, the teacher. Because Eli was a man who deserves to be toasted. A man to be celebrated for so many reasons. A man well worth remembering, professionally and personally, but above all else with affection.

But let us start with the basic professional biography: the only child of Rachel and Hersch Lauterpacht, he was born in London in 1928. Educated at various private schools in the UK and USA, he became a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1945, initially reading history before switching to law, completing the undergraduate law tripos in 1949, and then the postgraduate LLB and his bar exams in 1950, when he was also awarded the Whewell Scholarship. He was called to the bar in Gray’s Inn in 1950, where he became a bencher in 1983. He was awarded a CBE in1989, and knighted in 1998. Despite the demands of his busy practice, he retained a serious foot in academia. He initially taught part-time at both the LSE and Cambridge, but in 1953 he returned to Cambridge to lecture in law. He was appointed as Reader in 1981, established the Research Centre in International Law in 1983, which he directed until 1995, and became a Honorary Professor in 1994. These are brief bones of a busy life lived long and well. The Cambridge Eminent Scholars Archive contains a more detailed biography, transcripts of interviews with Eli, as well as photographs and the video of a lecture, International Law: Reflections and Recollections, which he delivered in 2012 at the Research Centre, which by then had been renamed the Lauterpacht Research Centre in honour of both Eli and his father.

The father and son were very different lawyers: while both were manifestly talented, Eli maintained a much closer focus on practice and advocacy in the application of international law in contrast to his father’s more academic and conceptual concerns. This is not to deny that Eli has left a lasting academic legacy: from a classic early work on munitions de guerre (32 British Yearbook 218 (1955-56)), through perceptive lectures in 1976 at the Hague Academy on international organisations whose title, “The Development of the Law of International Organisations By International Courts”, echoed that of one of his father’s most influential monographs, to analyses of international arbitration later in his career. But these only scratch the surface of his contribution to scholarship. In, I think, the early 1990s, he founded the Grotius Press which specialised in the publication of prestigious works in international law: the press and its catalogue were subsequently acquired by Cambridge University Press. For decades, since 1961, he was the editor of International Law Reports, subsequently sharing this task with Christopher Greenwood; they were later joined by Karen Lee as co-editor. Eli also edited his father’s collected papers, bringing together his published articles as well as some unpublished work into a five volume collection.   This was rather a protracted process: the first four volumes appeared between 1970 and 1978. Then there was an interregnum, as the final and fifth volume was eventually published only in 2004. All the time he was my doctoral supervisor, and for many years thereafter, he kept on telling me that he had to finish editing the final volume on disputes, war, and neutrality, and he did so in the end, despite the exigencies of his extensive practice. Another prolonged project, which was very dear to his heart, was the biography of his father, again plotted and talked about for years, and finally published in 2010. Eli adored his father, and this is apparent in the biography: it is a work of filial piety. While honestly recounting his father’s life and achievements factually, I think that Eli lacked the detachment necessary to give a rounded assessment of his contribution to the discipline. But who should criticise the remembrances of a loving son? It was Eli being Eli, the man who was so devoted to his family: his wife Catherine, his parents, his children and, in more recent years, his grandchildren.

I first met Eli when I went to Cambridge to study for my master’s degree. My undergraduate degree was from Edinburgh, where I had specialised in international law and legal philosophy. My professor of jurisprudence, Neil MacCormick, had eased me out of further studies in Edinburgh, saying that I should go elsewhere to be exposed to different opinions. I suspect that having taught me for three years, Neil wanted to see the back of me. My professor of international law, Iain MacGibbon, directed me to Cambridge. Iain had been one of Hersch Lauterpacht’s doctoral students in the 1950s, a time when doctoral students in law were few and far between, and I went with Iain’s injunction “to say ‘hello’ to Eli from me”. I finally did so at the Christmas party Eli and Catherine held at their house that first year I spent in Cambridge. And Eli being Eli, we all drank champagne. Lots of champagne. Eli loved living well: in later years he would encourage me to help him break his diet, which I knew would get me into trouble with Catherine if she ever found out, but I could never refuse Eli. It often involved chocolate in one form or another.

Eli was an engaging teacher; his advocacy skills were well in evidence and he could enthral a class. His legal practice bled into his teaching: every so often he would tell what me and my pals called “Eli’s war stories”—reflective accounts of cases in which he had appeared as counsel. These brought life and immediacy to doctrinal analysis, but also raised questions about the nature of international litigation that I decided I wanted to pursue.

I was a very lucky young man. After my masters degree, Eli became one of my PhD supervisors, and Philip Allott the other. That was an unusual arrangement at that time when there was usually only one supervisor, but my research was bridging between the practice of the International Court and theories of legal reasoning and so, I suspect, it was thought that I needed a practitioner and a theorist to keep me in hand. I could not have hoped for better supervisors.

Eli never gave me anything but good advice throughout my PhD studies—one of the first things he said to me was that I had to read every case the Permanent and International Court had decided, recalling that when he was younger, he had pulled out a card table and done so himself. That must have been early in his career, as all my supervisions with Eli were held at his home, in his study which was an annex to his house. A spacious and comfortable study, filled floor to ceiling with books and papers, which I coveted then, and still do. At times, however, I think that the course of my research perplexed Eli to some extent. At one point, he asked me if I wanted to be a lawyer or a logician, which mystified me, because I thought he had asked me if I wanted to be a lawyer or a magician. At times my hearing is not so good.

I also remember that during one meeting, just after I had started working with him on my PhD, that a device started ringing in a room outside his study. “Iain”, he said, “Iain, come and see this”. It was an early fax machine—“Look, I am being sent a document from New York”. He said that with wonder in his eyes and, to be honest, I was pretty impressed myself. It was a while ago, long long before the internet and email.

Eli was a committed teacher: he did not see teaching as a distraction from, or impediment to, other work. He relished it as complementary and worthwhile in its own right. Once, miming withdrawing a sabre from its sheath, he told me always to remember that teaching keeps your mind sharp. He enjoyed the company of youth. In 2011, 20 Essex Street Chambers and the British Institute of International and Comparative Law combined forces to hold a seminar celebrating Eli’s 60 years in international law (here and video). I left that seminar late that night, saying good night to Eli who was still holding court, surrounded by a gaggle of young lawyers. They were all laughing and hanging on his every word. It was a characteristic scene. A picture of Eli’s generosity and openness to lawyers at the start of their careers, effortlessly carried off with the assurance and enjoyment of the affable and gregarious man that he was.

I have been privileged because my PhD supervisors, Eli and Philip, and I, have maintained an amicable relationship through so many years. And now one of them is gone. A light, a guiding shining light, has gone out in my life.

Editor’s Note: Readers can also find obituaries of Sir Eli Lauterpacht in the Independent  and in the Guardian, written by Sir Daniel Bethlehem KCMG QC and Professor Philippe Sands QC respectively.

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Mary Ellen O'Connell says

February 14, 2017

Dear Iain, Thank you for this reflection. Your experience was similar for many of us--another marvel about Eli. You and I were in the same master's class in Cambridge, but then I returned to the United States. Yet, every time I returned to Cambridge I felt just as at home in his study as you--and just as envious.

On 8 February, I recounted one of Eli's many "war" stories for my own students of International Dispute Resolution--the one about the fat pencil at the heart of the Taba Dispute. They heard a good deal about Eli, too. Those are my war stories.

You, I, and so many others owe him so much. We will miss him dearly.

To Eli!

Iain Scobbie says

February 14, 2017

Thanks Mary Ellen. There are so many stories about Eli, and you are so right: so many of us owe him a great deal.

ivan berkowitz says

February 14, 2017

Iain, I too was supervised by Eli for my doctorate in the early 70s.He was the ideal mentor, spending countless hours on the phone from Canberra and other foreign locales making sure that both in content and style I met the exacting standards he set for my dissertation. I now gaze in wonder how I was able to satisfy him as others fell short in adhering to his strict but very caring demands. I now recognize all too clearly that the battle towards an Eli-approved work product, was not just a practical but a metaphysical one. To be in his study listening to his effortlessly expressed intelligence, was to be in a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasure.We, his students, must now be content with celebrating the collection of memories of this giant in his field and use it as inspiration to shape a better environment for the practice of international law.