Alumni Spotlight: Rupert Elderkin (2001-2006; Brussels)

April 5, 2023

Cleary Gottlieb alumni often reflect upon their time at the firm with fondness and gratitude.

Rupert Elderkin (2001-2006; Brussels), Senior Trial Attorney at the United Nations International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT), shares some of his thoughts below.

When were you at Cleary, what group were you in and why did you choose Cleary?

I was on the competition law team in the Brussels office. I also got to see the Washington, D.C. office while working on a couple of projects. I studied law following undergraduate studies, including politics and economics, so the competition law practice seemed like a natural fit. Cleary’s reputation made it stand out from other firms.

What skills did you learn or experiences did you have at Cleary that have served you well?

Learning to work with a team was the biggest thing. I trained as a barrister in England, which can be a more solitary way of lawyering compared to firm work. The Brussels office was far more multicultural than the English bar in the 2000s, which made for an easy transition into the United Nations system.

Though I now practice international criminal law rather than competition law, the rigor of the legal work at Cleary and its culture of honesty and clarity was a great grounding.

After Cleary you went to the UN, worked in academia, investigated and prosecuted crimes in Kosovo, and now serve as Senior Trial Attorney for United Nations International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals: 

What did/do you enjoy most about each of these roles?

I trained as a litigator, so moving from advisory work to trial work at the UN’s Yugoslavia Tribunal in The Hague was exciting. I was fortunate to join the UN Office of the Prosecutor when major trials were underway, notably concerning the Srebrenica genocide. To play a part in bringing the leading perpetrators to justice and to work with some incredible human beings who survived was a great privilege.

As a practitioner of International Criminal Law, my impression was that there were more people studying the discipline than actually practicing it. A stint at the Harvard Kennedy School allowed me to share experiences with experts in related fields, which gave me the opportunity to contextualize my prosecution work in the human rights and international justice landscape.

Working in Kosovo was fascinating and challenging, investigating historical allegations against leading figures from the country’s independence movement.

Finally, in my present role, I am leading a team prosecuting crimes from the Rwandan genocide, building on my own experiences to empower and develop the skills of a team of wonderful colleagues.

What’s the biggest misconception about your job?

That “The Hague” is one big judicial institution. The city has been home over the years to the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the Special Court for Lebanon, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, and the International Criminal Court. All have had their own jurisdictions, though there is a common ecosystem of expertise.

If you can share, what legal issues do you often need to consider?

Substantive questions concerning the elements of the core international crimes – genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Does a particular set of facts map across to a chargeable crime? Questions of liability for actors remote from the crime-base – superior responsibility, joint enterprise, etc. And of course, the procedural questions common to all complex litigation – preserving the rights of the accused and fulfilling obligations to disclose materials from usually vast evidence collections.

What has surprised you?

The resilience of survivors and the clarity with which many of them can recall the worst experiences of their lives. During the course of my work, I have been fortunate to get to know many people whose strength and courage have humbled me.

Do you have any favorite memories from your time at Cleary?

There used to be epic Christmas parties hosted in the Brussels office cafeteria. All would start calmly with carol singing in the afternoon, but after I had gone up to finish some work and returned a few hours later, the space had been cleared and colleagues were dancing on the tables. There were also memorable ski-trips to Chamonix – a tradition that I hope continues today!

What advice do you have for a young Cleary associate who may want to pursue a similar career path? 

Every experience is an opportunity to learn. The least glamorous tasks (document review, especially) are fundamental. Having the experience of doing the front-line work gives you the knowledge to design and manage the process as your career progresses.

Many younger lawyers seek to enter my field by pursuing specialized master’s degrees. That’s one way to go, but the most successful junior lawyers I have encountered aren’t the ones with newly-acquired theoretical knowledge; they are those who I can trust to make reasoned decisions to solve practical problems without the need for me to intervene.

What advice would you offer any young associate that you wish someone had offered you?

Never forget that you’ve only got one life. Whatever you’re doing, enjoy it. 

You currently live in Tanzania, and previously lived in The Hague, Belgium, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the United States. What’s something this experience has taught you? 

Meeting people who have lived different lives from one’s own is the best part of exploring the world.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about yet that you would want to share with the Cleary community?

You don’t need to change your career path to contribute to international justice. For example, there have been many pro bono projects over the years that law firms and individual lawyers have undertaken that have contributed to the successful investigation and prosecution of the most serious crimes. There are many organizations that you can support with legal expertise, time, or donations.

Learn more about Cleary’s global alumni network here.