For Gary Born, widely considered the world’s top authority on international arbitration and litigation, one of the most interesting things about being a lawyer is “that you can do good in addition to doing well.”
And that holds true for attorneys in every arena, small and large, from those who represent a tenant being kicked out of her apartment in Detroit to attorneys defending a nation in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in the Netherlands.
“There’s a long tradition in the legal profession of lawyers doing pro bono service and things for their community, in part because they do well from their community,” Born said during an interview a few hours before he was a featured speaker and received an honorary doctor of laws degree at Wayne State University Law School’s 2012 Commencement Ceremony May 14 at the Max M. Fisher Music Center in Detroit.
“If you’re engaged in international practice, the way you can give back is by trying to resolve messy and thorny international problems. If you’re in domestic practice, one can give back just as well. When a landlord-tenant lawyer does pro bono work to keep someone from being evicted, in perhaps a corny sort of way (to say it), it brings peace and makes the world a better place.”
Born grew up on a military base in Germany. He also lived in France for a while.
“I was an outsider in a couple of ways —obviously being an American in Europe and also because my parents were civilians in a military setting,” he said. “Part of growing up was dealing with people and problems of multiple cultures in Europe. I guess I always felt comfortable personally being abroad, and, rightly or wrongly, that I had something special to add by growing up in an international environment.”
He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1981, and went on to clerk for Judge Henry Friendly on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and then for U.S. Supreme Court Judge William Rehnquist. Then he sought (and gained) work with international law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in London. He’s been there ever since.
But there’s been nothing static about Born’s career.
One of his favorite cases was a 1987arbitration where he and attorney Lloyd Cutler represented Greenpeace. The environmental group was seeking redress from France, whose agents sabotaged and sunk the trawler Rainbow Warrior in 1985 to prevent Greenpeace from protesting against French nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific. A Greenpeace photographer was killed in the action.
An international tribune in Geneva, Switzerland, rendered an award for Greenpeace, ordering France to pay the group $8.1 million.
“It produced an award that did justice in the sense of compensating Greenpeace and its members,” Born said. “I was and still am proud of that result.”
Since then, he has represented hundreds of multinational corporate clients in major commercial arbitrations, including some of the largest such cases in the world, and has been awarded and honored over and over. He’s taught courses on international arbitration and public international law at universities all over the world, and has written extensively on international litigation. Indeed, his books are considered standard references on the topic.
But his cases don’t always involve commerce. In 2009, Born represented the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement vs. the Republic of Sudan in an arbitration at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The case involved an ethnic boundary dispute over oil-rich lands in the African nation where the two sides had been in conflict for decades. They agreed to go to binding arbitration in an effort to keep a tenuous peace deal from falling apart.
As a result of the complicated arbitration, new borders were drawn.
The people of southern Sudan, those Born represented in the dispute, went on to form an independent nation (South Sudan) in 2011, but today the border disputes and conflicts continue in an apparent thwarting of the arbitration agreement.
“It’s disappointing to see both sides arbitrate an issue at some length and for a tribunal to make an award, and then for one side not to honor its commitment,” Born said. “I think it’s fair to say that the north has not represented the arbitral award. Obviously, there are two sides to everything, but in this instance, it is very disappointing.”
One doesn’t see that happen very often in international law, he added. Commercial and investment arbitration is subject to “a strong enforcement mechanism.” For political entities, that enforcement mechanism doesn’t exist to the same extent, but most nations are loathe to be seen as not honoring their international commitments, lest the rest of the world refuse to deal with them.
“That said, I think it’s fair to say that what happened in the Abyei (region of Sudan) case is an exception,” Born said.
He advises law students and young lawyers to work hard, no matter what branch of law they’re considering.
His own hard work keeps him busily traveling the globe — and sometimes yawning.
“One doesn’t always get to sleep as much as would be nice,” Born said with a laugh.