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Second(ed) thoughts on way to Brussels

1 March 02

A trainee’s experience of a six month secondment to the Brussels office of the UK Law Societies

This month, the European pages carry the thoughts of Susan McKiernan, who spent six months of her traineeship seconded to the Society’s Brussels Office. The office represents all three of the UK’s Law Societies, monitors developments in EU law and promotes Scottish solicitors and Scots law in Europe. The office takes a trainee on secondment every six months. Susan McKiernan was a trainee with Dundas & Wilson and it was with that firm’s permission that she undertook her secondment. Since qualifying she has been working for Masons in Glasgow specialising in IT and intellectual property law.

Brussels may not be the first place many people would think of to move to, but when given a chance to spend six months in a city whose revered symbol is a fountain of a wee boy having a pee, in a country which has an office for promoting the art of serving beer, you know it’s going to be an interesting experience, if nothing else.

As it happens, it turned out to be a good experience in many respects. From March until September 2001 not only was I fortunate enough to be seconded on behalf of the Law Society of Scotland to the UK Law Societies’ joint office in Brussels, but the time also counted for the final six months of my legal traineeship.

Brussels itself is a city of contradictions. For example, Belgians are supposedly xenophobic, yet every nationality imaginable manages to co-exist in Brussels; mussels (not of the Van Damme variety) are a Belgian speciality despite the fact that the country only has about 67 kilometres of shoreline and the mussels are more likely to have come from a neighbouring country’s fishing quota; and for a city which has an image of being the dull political capital of Europe, the nightlife and vibrancy of the city is far from grey. One rumour which does seem to be true is the city’s enthusiasm to embrace all things European and the start of the Belgian Presidency of the EU was marked by amazing celebrations; it is also the only European city where I have witnessed Eurovision drag cabaret.

But on to more serious matters, and the real reason for my being in Brussels – the Law Societies’ Office in Brussels takes on a trainee every six months to assist in carrying out its many functions, not least of which is producing the monthly publication, the Brussels Agenda. The Brussels Agenda reports on law reform and professional practice issues in the EU and has a wide distribution list, including UK and overseas lawyers, MEPs, the European institutions, and the UK permanent representation to the EU. As well as researching and writing articles for the Brussels Agenda, one of my on-going tasks was to handle enquiries from UK lawyers, officials of the Law Societies, and the public on a wide range of European issues. These could vary from intellectual property to employment and human rights, and there were often questions on EC legislative procedures. This facility is available to all solicitors, is free and gives direct access to resources and contacts which the majority of Scottish law firms will not have.

Over and above producing the Brussels Agenda, the office’s main tasks include preparing a bi-annual report for the Law Society of Scotland on EU legislative developments, and monitoring and reporting on proposed EC legislation for regular updates. It also has links with other European Bars and puts together a three monthly report for a Dutch Bar. In addition to assisting on these, a large proportion of my time was involved in researching European issues, which would involve attending European Parliamentary Committee meetings and dealing with officials at the various European institutions. Often I was required to produce memoranda on issues which were discussed at the meetings and these were distributed to the relevant Committees and law reform groups within the Law Societies.

For a solicitor, I think there is great benefit not only in spending time in another country but also somewhere other than in a law firm. In a legal practice, the focus is obviously on clients, their business, and how the law impacts on them. Working for the Law Society gave me an idea of the issues which affect the legal profession, rather than just the clients.

One of the main attractions of the secondment to the office is the great working environment. The office has a small staff, headed up by June O’Keeffe and assisted by Che Odlum, and the premises are shared with the German Federal Bar. This meant experiencing a different working culture where even the photocopier communicates in three languages, and was an opportunity to extend language skills without ever needing the word for “football”. Although “team spirit” and “team player” are worn terms bandied about for recruitment purposes, out there it really has to count for something. I was lucky to have worked with such a supportive and encouraging team, willing to listen to ideas and to let you be pro-active. As well as feeling that I had actually made a valuable contribution during my time there, I was given more responsibilities than would have been possible as a trainee with a firm back in Scotland. Having that responsibility and a degree of autonomy can only encourage a trainee to have more confidence in their abilities. And who wouldn’t get a bit of a kick out of going from being just a trainee in a firm of 250 odd lawyers one week, to attending the European Court of Justice’s Annual Review event as a representative of the UK Law Societies the next?

My particular area of interest is Information Technology and Intellectual Property law, and I was able to follow relative issues as they were being debated, for example, the draft Directive on the Processing of Personal Data and Protection of Privacy, the Community Patent and the Convention on Cybercrime, which will prove relevant to my work now. I also had the opportunity to attend seminars and workshops on different areas of law and European politics, which has given me a greater awareness of the European dimension to issues which may be of importance to clients. Whether you believe in the merits of being a part of the European Union or not, it is now inescapable and we are all affected by decisions being made in Brussels on a daily basis. Attending the Parliament also shows the role Brits play in European decision and policy making. For a nation of reputed Eurosceptics, we are well represented in Europe by a number of active and vocal MEPs, such as Professor Neil MacCormick and Diana Wallis, who are held in high regard.

A great deal can be gained from the secondment which can be applied to working life back home. I have been able to build up a number of contacts, through people within the Law Societies, the European institutions and people I met at numerous events and seminars. One of the greatest benefits has been seeing the working of the Institutions first hand, particularly how the lobbying process operates and the most effective stage at which to make representations on draft legislation. Aside from the contacts, the experience and the knowledge gained, the time in Brussels has made me aware of the extensive opportunities which exist for Scottish lawyers abroad, especially within the European Union.

As a parting shot, thanks goes out to Ryanair for introducing its frequent Prestwick – Charleroi flights whilst I was there and enabling me to introduce a good many others to the joys of a fantastic city where “24 hours city” really does mean that you can have a sit down meal at 4.00 a.m.  And did I mention the beer…?

The Brussels Office produces a number of information notes, for example, on access to EU funding and careers for young lawyers, as well as updates on EU law. These and the Brussels Agenda, as well as further information on secondments and the application process, can be obtained from Sarah Fleming at the Society

Please note that trainees can only be seconded to the Brussels Office with the explicit consent of their training firm/organisation.