Elise Groulx/ Leading the Way in Business and Human Rights Law

After a long career as a criminal defence lawyer in Montreal, Elise became well known internationally for her work at the United Nations to support the creation of the International Criminal Court. She now practices as an international human rights lawyer in Europe and the United States. She is recognized as an expert on issues of corporate liability in the international context and the wider field of Business and Human Rights. In 2012 she won the Tarnopolsky Human Rights Award of the International Commission of Jurists and CBA, and was honoured by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association for her career of human rights advocacy. She has also received awards and medals from the Quebec Bar, the Paris Bar and the University of Montreal law school, as well as the Champion of Justice Award from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL/USA) .

Elise Groulx was admitted to practice law in France and was sworn in at the Court of Appeal in Paris (July 3rd, 2013). She is now a licensed lawyer of the Paris Bar. Elise was also sworn in by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, First Judicial Department, as a Legal Consultant (January 7th, 2014). She holds a law degree from Université de Montréal and an LLM from the London School of Economics and Political Science and two post-graduate certificates from the law school of Université Panthéon Assas (Paris II). 


Let’s start with the basics. What are you doing now? In a sentence or so, describe your work/practice(s).


After pursuing post-graduate studies in Europe, I started practicing as a public defender.  I guess that is as close as I came to following a traditional path in the legal profession. At the criminal division of Legal Aid in Montreal, I learned the skills it takes to be a courtroom litigator and a criminal defence attorney. Afterwards, I pursued my career in private practice, also in criminal law, for several years and then became involved in the development of the international criminal tribunals (for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda). This work led me to become involved as an advocate for the international legal profession in the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), a permanent institution.  


While pursuing this international work I learned advocacy skills, negotiations techniques and public diplomacy. I also worked closely with civil society and a large coalition of about 2,000 NGOs supporting the creation of the ICC under the umbrella of the UN treaty system. My skills as a litigator were useful but they had to be adapted to this new environment. 

I am now working in a fast growing field called Business and Human Rights. My platforms are a boutique-consulting firm based in Washington, DC, and the prestigious Human Rights Chambers in London, Doughty Street Chambers where I was admitted as an Associate Tenant in 2014. Business and Human Rights is an emerging field of legal practice focused on advising corporations about how they can engage with stakeholders and respect international and local human rights standards. These norms are set out in national legislation and a variety of international soft law instruments and guidelines designed to promote Responsible Business Conduct.  One of the key areas of development is aligning the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (also known as the UNGPS) with UN programmes such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 


Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?


Yes.  I decided I wanted to be a criminal defence lawyer when I was 15. 

As mentioned earlier, I was a public defender for 10 years, then I pursued my career by developing my own practice in a boutique law firm but because I I had studied political science prior to going to law school and then studied abroad (human rights and comparative criminal law), I became fascinated in pursuing the marriage of law and politics. Hence, when the new international tribunals were being created in the 1990s, I immediately looked for ways to get involved.  To plunge in the international arena I needed a vehicle so I created two international NGOS. I first created of the International Criminal Defence Attorneys Association (ICDAA) that led me to establish the International Criminal Bar to ensure that the legal profession was recognized as the third pillar of Justice.  These vehicles enabled me to take part in the negotiations surrounding the creation of the international criminal court. I learned a new way to practice my trade and worked in public policy. I was involved in facilitating negotiations involving NGOs and States. It also forced me to think of the law in a different way and understand how policy and politics were so interconnected as the new international justice system is at heart very political. In that context I wanted to insure fair trial rights and due process, the only way to achieve justice. A strong and independent legal profession was the only way to get there in my opinion. I worked closely with bars associations, practising lawyers, NGOs, academics and different actors from around the world about these issues. It opened my perspective to a large span of new horizons. 


At what moment did you realize you wanted to take your legal education and career in your own direction? 


It happened gradually through my different legal experience.  I never wanted to stop being a litigator. I pursued both paths for a while but at some point to really advance my agenda I had to make a choice. While observing the development of the creation of the international criminal court which first objective was the end of impunity, I thought to myself “what is the next phase?”  My perspective, combining my knowledge of criminal law and NGOs and civil society thinking, led me to become convinced that demanding more accountability on the part of multinational corporations was going to be the next phase. 

 I used my platform as head of two NGOs to start giving a number of speeches on these issues. That’s how I created my space in this new field that eventually became known as “Business and Human Rights”. In March 2013 I helped organized an international conference on corporate accountability in conflict-affected areas; it was held in Paris. The French Government and the French Bars supported my initiative. The American Bar Association became closely involved. 

My focus was until 2010 on international criminal law and corporate liability in conflict affected areas. By 2010, I felt that international criminal law was too narrow an approach. It did not help to promote change because criminal law scares actors too much. I decided to expand my expertise and gradually started practicing as an international human rights lawyer looking at labour issues. Through my career I reinvented myself many times. You can reinvent yourself in law if you’re audacious and opt to be creative and innovative. This is much more possible today than when I started my career. There are so many ways to reinvent yourself.  So many challenges present themselves in today’s world the path is wide open for young people. 

What were the steps you took and opportunities you seized in order to get where you are?


I believe that I am an entrepreneur at heart and used those skills in the legal arena. I took a lot of initiatives to develop my space in the international arena. I had no alternative but to create my own NGOs to participate in the establishment of the international criminal court and find a cause, a mission that I was passionate about. I had to adapt my litigator advocacy skills, as they had to change when I entered the field of public diplomacy. Public diplomacy is not adversarial like litigation before a Court of law. I was kindly and not so kindly informed about that by UN diplomats when I first appeared on the scene of these international forums 


What makes your current practice “lawfully uncommon”?


I have been a pioneer in a lot of the initiatives I pursued. I don’t want to sound pretentious but rather encourage young lawyers to be creative and pursue their passions and their dreams. I created an NGO that didn’t exist and this led to the creation of another one that I also led.  Later I helped build an area of legal practice that has only been officially recognized in the last few years. As you believe you are moving forward, you always think that you have so many people enthusiastic about what you do you and that you are working as a team. But then you turn around and the path appears empty. They’re not really with you and you can’t do that work alone. You constantly have to find to gather a team of committed people to go forward. 


Is there anyone influential in your life that helped you realize your goals? Mentors or role models in the field that inspired you?


Not one person but many humanists not just for what they did or do but mostly how they do it, advancing the human cause in an inclusive way. It does not matter if these people are famous or not. People who do the extra thing to help others always inspire me.


Let me tell you an anecdote that you may like.

When I had the idea of advocating for the defence in the new international tribunals I was attending a conference in Belgium in July 1996.  Louise Arbour was just appointed chief prosecutor of the ICTY. I was very shocked to notice that the defence seemed to have been forgotten, not properly recognized and incorporated in the new legal instruments supporting the legal institutions that were being set up. The idea was basically to “prosecute persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law” (sic). The title of these courts (ICTY and ICTR…) casts a doubt on the place of the presumption of innocence from their inception. I told Louise Arbour that this system was being developing with a very weak defence pillar. She said to me, “You seem so passionate about it, maybe you should try do something about it”. I told her I would.  I had no network, no resources but since I told her I was going to try, I had to try. I certainly wanted to meet the challenge.  


What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?


I wanted to be a criminal lawyer so I was passionate about criminal law. I tried to excel in these topics and I really loved it. I loved the matter, the topic, and the intellectual challenge but also felt very attracted to putting this knowledge to practical application. I wanted to be a litigator and a court lawyer. I wanted to give the most vulnerable, the underdog a voice and some hope. 


What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?


I thought people were so conservative. I didn’t feel I belonged in the group. Overall, I felt people were too conformist, they appeared too much to act and react by the book and seemed narrow-minded, too often led by a desire to make money. They were not “contestataires”. I always was and have remained a rebel in many ways.  This certainly makes life more difficult and challenging but in this day and age I believe it is essential to test conventional wisdom. What made me snooze? Fiscal and corporate law, insurance law, which ironically, I am now learning a lot about in my business and human rights, practice. 


Were there challenges you faced in the transition from law school to the profession?


There were huge challenges when I changed careers because when you try to do something that’s not been done you’re basically creating a path. I was a mother of three young children and I was trying to build a career that became more and more international with very little institutional support.


Do you still see the law all around you?


I do but I see the law as a tool, not as an end. For me it’s a tool and it’s a very good one.  It enables institutions to achieve accountability. The law is very useful for that. It is also very good at framing issues in a practical and achievable way.

What advice would you give to a first-year law student?

Find your calling, your mission and be passionate in pursuing it. When you’re not passionate, you become bored. Everything you may become automatic. The motivation of always wanting to make more money is not a passion. One lawyer once told me, “You’re lucky, you found your passion. I went after money; I didn’t pursue my passion. Today I’m very rich but I don’t have a passion, I’m not sure what I’ve accomplished.” You have to be inspired by what you do and believe your are contributing to change that will enable a better world. You want to inspire people to give all they have to help improve the life of so many people that are in such terrible conditions.  This is what law and being a lawyer should serve. We need to find a way to work together, share and collaborate and exchange. In the last 20 years we have seen corporate profits soar and wages stagnate, that greed has given rise to unprecedented and unsustainable economic inequality. 


If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?

Probably work, I don’t think I’d do anything else. 

 Any regrets?

No I don’t have regrets. I assume everything I’ve done. There’s no way to go back anyway .I look and live in the present but I always look forward to tomorrow. That’ state of mind has not left me, which in a way is a blessing. 


For more information on Elise’s work, check out these links! 



“Modern Slavery in Our Lives”


 Elise’s website


Doughty Street Chambers’ s profile:


Forum on Business and Human Rights