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Lawyer, partner and practice assistant: An interview with Joke Decabooter in the Nelissen Grade corner at De Valk college

Joke Decabooter joined Nelissen Grade in 2011 as a trainee lawyer and became a partner seven years later. She is the first female partner at the helm of the integrated Leuven law firm. Her area of expertise is personal and family law, and she translates theory into practice daily. Both at the firm and at the Leuven law faculty, where Joke has been a practice assistant at the Institute for Family and Juvenile Law for four years. How does being an assistant work? What insights does she want to give students? We spoke to Joke at the Nelissen Grade corner at De Valk college.

Hello, Joke! You started as a practice assistant in family law at KU Leuven in 2018. How did that ball start rolling for you?
'Nelissen Grade has been offering job shadowing as part of practical seminars for years. It is an important added value for law students, because observing a real consultation gives them a taste of legal practice during their studies. Inspired by this initiative, I applied to Professor Ingrid Boone, director of the Institute of Family and Juvenile Law. I started working as an assistant with a 10% appointment soon after.'

What does being an assistant entail?
'The duties of a practice assistant at the law school are very diverse and vary per institute. Professor Boone distributes the tasks; a responsible party is appointed for each course unit. I give a seminar, coordinate the viewing internships and supervise some students writing their dissertations. I am also involved in exam supervision, where I supervise one or two exams per semester.'

As a practice assistant, you immerse students in diverse aspects of family law. How are the topics determined?
'We have a lot of freedom in that regard. The topics are always tailored to the assistants' knowledge and practical experience. For example, we have a lawyer in our team who specialises in adoption, and a judge gave a seminar in previous years. I use my expertise as a starting point and devote myself to the seminar on divorce.'

How do you prepare?
'I always start with the law. What forms of divorce exist? What does the legal framework look like, and what are the conditions? Then I make the theory tangible with a practical case, often an anonymised file from the office. The students receive the case in advance, after which they each choose a role and explain their views.'

Is it refreshing to hear their views and reasoning?
'Absolutely! Divorces are a hyper-concrete matter, and you notice that students have many questions about the practical part. I share my experiences from the office and in court or bring along an official report describing–anonymously, of course–the facts of a divorce of irreparable disruption. That makes the theory less abstract.'

“Following a consultation, unravelling a divorce case, writing a conclusion—as a practice assistant, you introduce students to legal practice step by step.”

What gives you the most satisfaction as a practice assistant?
'Every seminar is different, of course, but I get a lot of energy from talking to a motivated group of students. The cooperation, genuine interest and surprising questions—the interaction is great and keeps me on my toes as a lawyer. I also find the one-to-one supervision of students writing their dissertations extremely interesting. I like to push students to do their best. Typos and simple language errors are an absolute no go for me, for example. I explain that this is unacceptable in practice, and that a conclusion filled with spelling mistakes doesn't come across as credible. I'm strict, but fair. (laughs)'

Finally, what would you like to pass on to future practice assistants?
'You have to have the will to teach students something. Patience is essential. Some things may be self-evident to you, but students don't have much contact with the practical side during their training. That is why we try to make the topics very broad and concrete, both in the topics we cover and in the assignments students are given. It is also nice to see students grow and progress while writing their dissertations, for example. Being able to motivate them to aim for a 16 instead of 11 and witnessing that progression close up gives a lot of energy.'

Thanks for the interview, Joke! Good luck this academic year!

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