The Brussels experience

Potential trainee solicitors are frequently informed of the variety of work they will experience during their training contracts. This often means that approximately every six months trainees change departments within their firm, being allocated different types of work and encountering different types of lawyers, all within the fairly consistent sphere of private practice. Dig a little deeper into the opportunities on offer, however, and you can find several ways to spice up a traineeship. One such way is secondment.

The Law Societies’ Joint Brussels Office, which combines the law societies of England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, offers six-month secondment placements. Having been on secondment to the office since September 2005, I have discovered that such placements allow trainees to gain an insight into the workings of the EU that can sometimes seem a mystery back in the UK. Like many other trainees, I had not had much cause to re-examine my notes on the assorted EU institutions and their respective areas of competence before moving to Brussels. I was certainly guilty of tending to think of European law as being somehow separate from domestic law. One of the most valuable things I will take away from this experience is a deeper understanding of how European law influences UK law. Another is the knowledge of how proposals are pushed through Brussels’ legislative channels and who is responsible for nurturing the fledgling laws. EU institutions produce a sea of information and ideas on an almost daily basis. Knowing how and where that information is distributed is a timesaving trick all trainees should be taught.

A trainee out in the Brussels office will experience a diversity of work that is usually not possible during the course of one seat back home. A typical day might include writing an article for the Brussels Agenda, the monthly newsletter concerning the latest EU developments, or heading up to the European Parliament to observe a committee hearing in which members of the European Parliament (MEPs) debate the merits of proposed legislation. I have also been able to assist in the drafting of parliamentary briefs on a variety of subjects, which aim to alert MEPs to the views of the law societies on proposals which may have an impact upon lawyers.

One of the most interesting elements of swapping private practice for the public sector is the breadth of the legal areas I have been exposed to. I have worked on matters ranging from the proposed European Evidence Warrant to a new consumer credit directive, which, training in a large commercial firm, I would otherwise not have experienced. Alongside this, I have also been able to build upon my knowledge of subjects that particularly interest me, such as competition and IP law.

I have been especially fortunate to be in Brussels during the UK’s presidency of the EU. This has allowed me to follow issues deemed a priority by the UK Government, such as the counter-terrorism and data retention measures rushed through the European Parliament and Council following the July bombings in London. It has also meant that I have been in a position to observe some of the UK’s most prominent politicians involved in the dynamics of inter-institutional wrangling. It is not every day you get the chance to witness Charles Clarke, representing the EU presidency, weathering accusations of “bluster and threats” by a roomful of angry MEPs.

Belgium has long suffered from a thoroughly undeserved reputation for being bureaucratic and (literally) a bit flat. In fact, in this trainee’s opinion, you would be hard pushed to find a more relaxed, cosmopolitan and unpretentious place to reside. The beer isn’t bad either.

Kathryn Carlile, a second-year trainee at Allen & Overy, is currently on secondment to the Law Societies’ Joint Brussels Office