Six months ago to the date, I started my secondment to the Joint Brussels Office of the UK Law Societies in Belgium. I was apprehensive about my decision to leave London, and the choice to go and work in a position that would not give me direct client-facing experience felt risky at my career stage. My aims were to develop my knowledge of EU law, understand the EU legislative process, and broaden my legal experience. Even as I boarded the Eurostar in St. Pancras with three suitcases and a bicycle in early Autumn though, I was still unsure if all these aims would be met.
September and October were beautiful months in Brussels, and the sun shone late into warm evenings. This made Place de Luxembourg next to the European Parliament the perfect place to go for drinks and meet some new people. Brussels had been a city that I had visited as a tourist and had not found to be extraordinary. What I discovered though was that away from the tourist hot-spots, Brussels is a city alive with culture, life, and every type of musical experience you could want from classical concerts in Flagey and the BOZAR to techno, electric and live percussion bands. Brussels is also filled to bursting with dynamic, interesting, politically-interested, competitive, highly educated individuals who are there to develop their careers and who are really engaged with the world around them, which I found both refreshing and exciting.
On arrival, I was given responsibility for Company Law, Financial Services, Intellectual Property and Taxation policy areas. In terms of law reform work, the office works with UK Committees of senior and specialised lawyers to provide insight, comments and amendments to legislative proposals made by the European Commission, which are subsequently worked on by the European Parliament (made up of the MEPs voted in by the European elections), and the European Council (made up of civil servants).
My first experience of law reform work occurred in my first couple of weeks, and provided a template for all work I consequently did on other files. The Commission has made a proposal to create a new Company form that would be called a ‘S.U.P’. Supervised by a Policy Advisor, and working with the Company Law Committee in the UK, I drafted a briefing document that reflected all the concerns that the Committee had with the proposal from a UK Solicitors perspective. Some of this involved me drafting proposed alternative wording for the legislation, which was very cool. Once the draft was approved by the Committee, a final document was published. This document then formed the basis of our lobbying. A week later, we met with the Chair of Internal Market Committee and UK MEP Vicky Ford’s Assistant to discuss the proposal. We explained the UK Solicitors perspective, which was my first experience of lobbying. As the proposal continued to be discussed in the European Parliament, I sent our brief to the MEPs involved with the matter, as well as to the UK Government department for Business, Innovation and Skills whose civil servants would be working on the matter in the European Council. This matter is still being discussed and I will continue to monitor it with interest when I am back in the UK.
The other major part of the trainee role is monitoring what is going on with respect to your policy areas. This is done on a daily basis by reading the news, but also by watching Committee meetings in Parliament when the proposal is being discussed, and by reading the documents that come out after Council meetings. By staying on top of this you are able to get a sense of the direction that the legislation might be moving in and the amendments that agreed texts from the European Parliament and Council might contain in the future. This is important because these separate texts will later form the basis of the final negotiations, or ‘trialogues’, that the three European institutions (Commission, Parliament and Council) will enter into in order to agree a final version of the legislation. This will be the legislative text that will then be directly be applicable to national legislation (if it is a Regulation), or will have to be implemented in national legislation (if it is a Directive), so it is really key to have got your view across before then.
An example of where I was involved in lobbying at the trialogue stage was during the final trialogues on the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive. UK Solicitors had been very concerned that the European Parliament had proposed the inclusion of a public register of the beneficial owners of trusts in their final agreed text (this was not in the Commission’s original proposal). The concern was that far from helping to prevent money laundering, this had the potential to make the beneficial owners of UK trusts the targets of criminal activity. The Joint Office felt that the inclusion was due to a misunderstanding of the way that trusts are used in the UK – i.e. as predominantly vehicles for private family financial arrangements. Timothy Kirkhope MEP asked for an explanatory memorandum about the UK trust system, as well as a comparative analysis with the Dutch system to be used as a negotiating instrument, which I was asked to prepare at speed. In the end we were pleased that a public register was not included in the final agreed draft legislation.
As I leave Brussels, I am able to say confidently that taking up this secondment was a good decision. I have achieved all of my objectives, and I have also grown in confidence. I know that I am able to pick up new concepts and ideas quickly, and that I am able to work on different files covering different areas of law simultaneously. For a number of months, I managed my policy files between two advisors, and I was able to take responsibility, coordinate work and identify priorities. I have developed my writing skills from having to write monthly articles for the Joint Offices’ monthly publication ‘The Brussels Agenda’. I have also developed my public speaking skills through being sent to Committee meetings in all my policy areas to provide EU Updates to the Committee. Finally, I have grown my networking abilities and my French language skills by attending the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe meetings regularly.
Ultimately, what I have learned is that sometimes taking career risks are a great thing. In Brussels I have stretched my own capacity, gained new working and life experiences, and developed my outlook and perspective in sometimes challenging, but most often, in inspiring ways. I have met incredible people who have enriched my life, and with every delicious cup of coffee I have drunk in new views and a whole range of life experiences that will stay with me over my lifetime. I have fallen in love with classical music and philharmonic orchestras, eaten far too much chocolate, and decided that I do like beer after all!
I expected Brussels to give me a few new skills and some additional knowledge, but what it has given me is the ability to trust and have confidence in myself that I know will prove useful as I return to complete my training contract in London and look forward to qualification in May.
Rachel Cooper, Trainee Solicitor