PUBLISHED:November 01, 2010

JD/LLM grads appear before International Court of Justice

Given its narrow jurisdiction — to settle legal disputes between states or render advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by the United Nations — it is not surprising that few lawyers can claim experience representing clients before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Two recent Duke Law graduates can now count themselves in that exclusive group: Coalter Lathrop ’06 and Michael Gilles ’10, who each received an LLM in international and comparative law along with their JD degrees, represented Costa Rica before the ICJ in mid October.  Lathrop, Costa Rica’s lead and sole outside counsel, led a team of Costa Rican attorneys, diplomats and technical advisors and was one of five members of the country’s legal team to make oral presentations to the court in support of its application to intervene in a maritime boundary dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia.

“Nicaragua is disputing sovereignty over several cays in the southwest Caribbean and also has asked the court to delimit its maritime boundary with Colombia in the area,” explained Lathrop.  “Costa Rica has no interest in the question of sovereignty but has a legal interest in exercising its sovereign rights and jurisdiction in areas of the Caribbean Sea that are in dispute between the parties. Our goal with the intervention is to inform the court of the extent of Costa Rica’s interests so the court’s delimitation decision doesn’t prejudice those interests.” 

An expert in ocean policy and international boundary issues, Lathrop founded his own consultancy, Sovereign Geographic, in 2000, first offering technical advice to governments around the world, and now offering legal representation, as well.  He was initially retained as counsel by Costa Rica in December 2009 as it considered intervening in the dispute between its neighbors, and was involved in each step of the application process.

Gilles first became involved in the case as a research assistant while he was a student in Lathrop’s International Environmental Law class at Duke, and continued working on it after graduation as a special adviser to the Costa Rican government.  He joined the U.S. Department of State as an attorney-adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser shortly after returning from The Hague.

A unique style of advocacy
Costa Rica’s application to intervene in Nicaragua v. Colombia had to pass political as well as legal muster before it got to the world court, noted Lathrop.

“It was not just a matter of writing a 10-page application to the ICJ, but a process of vetting strategy up through the government of Costa Rica and making sure everyone was comfortable with the positions we were taking from both a legal and political perspective,” he said.

Having served as a geographic analyst for Equatorial Guinea in its intervention in a case between Nigeria and Cameroon before he attended law school, Lathrop was familiar with ICJ courtroom procedure and advocacy.

“The ICJ may be the ‘coldest’ bench,” he said of the 15 -judge panel.  “There is no questioning from the bench.  You’re essentially delivering a speech that is footnoted and delivered to the court in advance of the actual presentation.”

Lathrop addressed Costa Rica’s interest of a legal nature that may be affected by the decision of the Court and how the parties’ claims might affect that interest during the first day of the four-day hearing.  Nicaragua and Colombia responded to Costa Rica’s submissions on the second day of the hearing, with Costa Rica offering a one-hour response on the third.  (Nicaragua and Colombia had the final say on day four.)

Gilles likened the response process to a 24-hour take-home exam.  “It was hard work and a long night, but it was exciting to be responding in real time and then having the work we had done immediately presented to the court the next day.”

In addition to refining the language of the written responses and supplying citations, Gilles helped the Costa Rican advocates, whose first language is Spanish, rehearse their delivery.  “My job had a large aspect of speechwriting to it — making sure that the argument was persuasive, and not just legally correct,” said Gilles, who as a student both competed and coached Duke’s ELSA WTO Moot Court teams, which competed internationally.

Putting their dual degrees to good use
Lathrop recalls writing his application to Duke Law during his first visit to the ICJ.

“It became pretty clear to me observing the process in Equatorial Guinea’s case that I didn’t want to be just ‘the map guy’ for the rest of my life,” he says, laughing.  “All the fun was being had by the lawyers up at the podium.”

He found what he was looking for, he said, at Duke, taking every course the Law School offered that related to international law, becoming a member of the inaugural class of the Guantanamo Defense Clinic, and developing several ad hoc seminars to meet his interests with the assistance of faculty.

“Not just having great courses on the regular curriculum, but also having the ability to develop ad hoc seminars with faculty members created limitless opportunities to pursue your intellectual curiosity,” he said. 
Gilles, who entered law school as a Latin American studies major with a strong interest in international relations and development said his Duke Law experience prepared him perfectly both for his dream job — working as an attorney for the State Department — and his ICJ experience.

“It was remarkable to me how many of the ideas we had discussed in my various international law classes, regarding treaty interpretation, for instance, were directly relevant to the case,” he noted.  His experience as an editor of the Duke Law Journal also helped, he said.  “I never would have felt so confident in helping draft the speeches with such a quick turnaround and doing the citations if I hadn’t had law journal experience.”

He is grateful to Lathrop for giving him a unique and useful opportunity so early in his career.  “To be behind the scenes and make a real contribution to this kind of litigation immediately upon graduating from law school and before I started my job at the State Department was an enriching experience and I think something I can use to differentiate myself in my career going forward.”

Lathrop returns the praise.  “Mike was very impressive.  He was excited about the topics, the subject matter of the case, he understood the issues involved, and understood the international legal system and the relevant law.  Those are things you can only get in a setting in which you had to study public international law, which is an LLM requirement.  Mike was appropriate with the client and he is an exceptional writer.  He proved himself beyond anyone’s expectations.”

Should the ICJ grant Costa Rica’s application to intervene in Nicaragua v. Colombia, the case will likely continue for another year and a half at least, said Lathrop, possibly offering an opportunity for another enterprising Duke Law student.

“I’ll be looking for the next Mike,” he said.