Karel Janssens is a partner at & De Bandt in Brussels, Belgium, which is one of the ILN’s newest member firms. In this episode, Lindsay and Karel discuss his passion for IP & IT law, its opportunities and challenges, and the case that has stuck with him.
You can listen to the podcast here, or we’ve provided a transcript of the highlights below.
Lindsay: Hello, and welcome to the Law Firm Intelligence Podcast. I am your host Lindsay Griffiths, Executive Director of the International Lawyers Network. And our guest this week is Karel Janssen of & De Bandt in Belgium. Karel, welcome. We’re really happy to have you with us this week.
Karel: Thank you very much, Lindsay.
Lindsay: So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and the firm and your practice?
Karel: All right, happy to. So I’m a partner in the Belgian law firm, & De Bandt. We are based in Brussels and we are a mid-sized firm of about 20 lawyers. We were founded in 2007 and so that’s our 15th anniversary this year that we’re celebrating. And as I said during the last ILN event, we’re really happy to have this coincide with joining the ILN network. So that really is a nice event for us, so we’re very happy.
As a firm, we mainly focus on European law. Well, first of all, because we all have a passion and a background in EU law, but also because we’re based in Brussels, which is where most of the European institutions are located as well. And so we mainly focus on the legal challenges that we see in the European economy today with the changing society. We see digital innovation that brings a lot of changes. There are new business models coming up. We have climate issues and energy transition.
So all this reflects in new legislation, new case law, and very interesting questions from clients. We really try to assist clients in tackling these issues. And so our practice areas are also related to these challenges. We focus on, for example, European competition law, state aid law, public procurement law, of course, IP/ IT, technology law, data protection, corporate law, and commercial law as well. All this is to help clients meet these challenges that are posed today.
I started in 2006. I started in a small niche firm in Brussels, also focused on IP/ IT, and then I moved to a US law firm, Crowell & Moring – I think they’re called Crowell these days – where I worked for 10 years. And then in 2017, I moved to & De Bandt where I joined the partnership in 2018. So heading the IP/IT department.
So IP is protecting our client’s intellectual property, going from copyrights to trademarks, trade names, trade secrets, and all that. All IT-related issues, cloud services, contracts, software contracts, disputes, online platform regulations, and data protection, which is more and more important over the few past years, both personal data and non-personal data. We see a lot of changes in the EU legislative field and case law.
That’s a brief summary of what I do and what the firm does.
Lindsay: That’s great. Thanks so much. And I think, especially for people outside of the EU, and I’m sure for your clients outside of the EU who are operating in the EU, personal data is a big challenge because I know in the US, we use personal data in a different way.
So what would you say is something that people misunderstand about your area of practice?
Karel: My area of practice, I don’t know, as a lawyer, that’s more easy. I think the image of a lawyer is different from what most people understand or have from it. There’s often a quite negative image of lawyers being only focused on money or going to court. But from my experience, that’s definitely not the case. And as a firm, we try to do differently as well.
We will always defend clients’ interests, but we also look at the matters from an objective point of view and try to see what a reasonable approach is. And always try, if there is a possibility to come to an agreement, to see if there is a possibility to settle outside of court, because court proceedings, well, that should always be the last resort. Also, we should also always try to avoid it. Not only because it’s a very costly process, but it’s also, well, it has a huge impact. And if possible, we always try to avoid that.
Another perhaps misunderstanding is that lawyers know everything about the law, all areas of the law. And I think that’s something from the old days where you had these lawyers that were, they knew family law, they knew company law, they knew something of everything, but that has changed because it’s much more specialized. And also in the areas where I work, IP/IT and data protection. I mean, that already is a very broad scope because you can do IP and focus on patents and only do patents. And even then there are many, many sub-areas where you can specialize in.
And so there are sometimes questions that are completely outside of my practice areas and clients assume that you know these, and of course, you have some notions. That’s sometimes difficult to explain, but that is one thing that our firm is really trying to do is to get very broad coverage. I mean new lawyers that join the firm will never work for one partner alone. They will always work for all the partners to make sure that everyone has these basic principles, these basic notions of all these different practice areas.
They will do a little bit of competition law. They will do company law and commercial law. They will do IP and data protection, and that’s really an added value, not only for the lawyer to be able to see things from a different angle, but also for our clients, which is what we always emphasize. We always try to sit down as a team and tackle issues from various approaches, from various points of view, and then see, okay, this is the most effective one, let’s go for this one or combine them.
We do it as well in proceedings where you can have, at first sight, a purely administrative dispute where you could say, okay, let’s go to the administrative course, but perhaps if you tackle it from another point of view, for example, data protection or trade practices, you can go to the civil courts and obtain a result much faster and much more beneficial to your clients. So, that’s the philosophy of the firm that you try to keep. And also that you try to teach to the lawyers that join the firm as young trainees.
Lindsay: As you say, the goal is whatever is the most beneficial to the client.
Karel: Of course. Yes.
Lindsay: So what would you say is your biggest challenge at the moment and how are you working to overcome that?
Karel: Well, the biggest challenge, as I said, well, is in IP/IT and data protection – it’s actually keeping up with all the changes. We’ve seen, well, it’s a very fast-moving sector of the law, I would say. There was a relative calm in 2010, and 2015, and then we’ve seen with the GDPR (the data protection regulation in 2018), the activity of the European legislature increased. There’s really momentum. We see both on the data side. So the GDPR, we also have the non-personal data sharing legislation that is now really coming up. We also see it in IP where we have the new copyright in the digital single market legislation where you see that legislation in 2002 is no longer up to date. You have all these changes online, and many more uses of copyright-protected works online. So it had to change. And this is reflected in new legislation.
We see the European legislature really tackling online platforms. So the big gatekeepers, the Googles of the world, we have the digital services, The Digital Markets Act. These are really two big Acts that are on these online platforms and their activities. It’s many more obligations for these platforms. And so that’s challenging keeping up with all these changes. Sometimes they also have to be implemented in the member states. That creates new challenges, but it’s also very enriching and very exciting because it leads to lots of opportunities to combine these or to reinvoke this new legislation. It creates a lot of interesting questions for clients. So that’s challenging, but also I would say one of the most rewarding aspects of my practice area, at least.
And while we tackle it by following it up closely, our IP/IT team is really monitoring all these events, all these developments. We draft alerts for our clients. We assist our clients with their ideas and update, okay, maybe you should change this or that. And if you get interesting questions from clients, we also assist them with that. So that’s how we try to… well, we keep on track, but that’s how we do it. So hopefully that’s an answer to your question.
Lindsay: Absolutely, and it certainly keeps the day-to-day interesting.
Karel: Yes, definitely. Yes. I can’t imagine, I mean, it should be nice as well, but I can’t imagine being in an area of law where you would still invoke or use a law of 1964 in all your cases, but I would expect that is not very common anymore. I think in all practice areas, things are moving. So there shouldn’t be an exception.
Lindsay: Right, things are updated. So what would you say is the biggest area that’s related to your practice that you’re curious about given that things are changing so rapidly, what’s keeping you most engaged in the practice?
We see the case law dealing with these questions and issuing interesting judgements and the interesting thing about that is that you have one, well, the GDPR, one legislative act, but it applies to a huge variety of companies going from, well, of course, the Googles and the Facebooks for which it was meant in the first place, but also to all other companies that process personal data, which frankly, all kinds of organizations do so that every organization has to comply.
And this leads to very interesting questions on how to combine or how to implement these obligations into each specific organization, but it also creates opportunities to invoke data protection principles, where you have two competitors with a dispute or one where a client says, okay, this competitor is not really following the rules. Okay, data protection is a new tool to attack this competitor. Of course, it existed before, but now it’s much more effective.
So it’s, well, a very effective tool to use in all kinds of proceedings. And, well, for example, we had a recent judgment from the European Court of Justice saying that, actually processing or asking on a forum, for example, the name of the partner of the data subject that would be processing sensitive data because on the basis of the name, you could deduce the sexual orientation and that sensitive data, which is, subject to much more strict obligations and creating much more problems. Of course, because, you can imagine that the number of times that this would apply in practice, and people and organizations have to ask the question, okay, if this is sensitive data, how can I proceed, and what do I have to do to comply?
So that’s just a small example, but you see that this question goes to the European Court of Justice, and with the ruling as a result and immediate effects for all kinds of organizations to try to implement that tool.
So, that’s very fascinating, I think.
Lindsay: It is very fascinating. You think about the impact that, as you said, that has on all kinds of organizations and what they then do in practice.
So what’s been the biggest surprise that you’ve had in the last few months about the practice of law?
Karel: I would say that we… well, there was one case where the result was surprising, but in a good… It was a difficult case in a trademark dispute, which at first sight it was very hopeless for our client. It was a difficult situation, but in the end, we won the case and we did it because first, we invoked an inadmissibility ground, which was accepted in the first instance. And then in appeal, we initiated a counterclaim actually against the other parties, all the trademarks, trying to annul the trademark so that all the rest would also fall away.
And while we did a good job because the court of appeal followed us, and that was a really good result because at first, it would seem hopeless, but well, it shows that if you look closely at things and say, okay, but they’re revoking an older trademark, but should that trademark be accepted in the first place? Which was not, or at least in our view and in the course view should not be the case. So the client was very happy. That’s just an example of a recent case where we were surprised, we were hoping for it, and we thought we had a good story, but it’s nice to hear that effectively the court is of the same view.
Lindsay: And I think that goes to your earlier point about looking at cases from all points of view and taking a creative solution that benefits the client.
Karel: Yes, indeed. It’s always trying to take a step back and see how you can approach a case either via different practice areas or different procedural manners. And so, well, that’s the baseline of our firm is agile and complexity. I would say the more complex the cases are, the more we would excel in finding a solution that helps a client.
Lindsay: That’s great. That’s great. So tell us something interesting about yourself that most people don’t know.
Karel: If I’m not practicing law, I first like to spend time with my family in the first place, because it’s a very demanding job, of course. In addition to that, I like to ride my motorcycle as much as possible. So enjoy the nature that we have close by. Germany is very nice to drive around. And in addition to that, I’m a huge barbecue fan. I’m a big Kamado Joe user. So I bought a Kamado Joe for my 40th birthday, it’s a ceramic barbecue that is meant to really bake things for four or five or even more hours.
So if any one of the ILN members is ever in Belgium, feel free, to contact me. I’ll give you a tour of Brussels and I’ll invite it to a nice brisket or a pulled pork barbecue. But I don’t know if I can match the US members because of course the level is very high over there.
Lindsay: We’ll have to test, we’ll have to have a barbecue taste test and find out who is better at barbecue.
Karel: All right.
Lindsay: We’ll ask, Scott when we see him, our Texas member, when we see him in Philadelphia in a few weeks.
Lindsay: So switching gears a little bit, who has been your biggest mentor or your career?
Karel: I don’t have one specific mentor. I had the chance to work and to still work with many brilliant people from all kinds of all nature. I mean, people who are very brilliant, meaning that their mind seems to work twice as fast as normal people. And they’re kind so encyclopedias of the law, I would say, but also lawyers that have other skills, more personal skills and really see, okay, that’s where the solution is.
They can really feel the client or the opposing party on a more personal level and are very good at bringing parties together where you say at first, okay, this is hopeless to have a… So it’s a combination actually from people who are very, very intelligent and other people who have other skills and really Excel in bringing people together. I’m very lucky. I feel very lucky to work with all these people.
And it again shows that everybody’s different. Everybody has his qualities, his talents and the thing is that you have to also with new lawyers, try to find these talents and prove them and make them aware of these talents. Of course, because that’s not always obvious to the person themselves. So that’s what we really try to do. And also, well, we try to focus on being a really people-friendly environment at the firm. So we focus on stress management, on spending time together in a less formal way, doing barbecues on weekends, just a chat in the kitchen, all these things to make sure that people really enjoy doing the work well. That’s something that we very much believe in. If you have pleasure in what you do, the result will be better as well. And you can have more quality in your work as well.
Lindsay: Absolutely. I completely agree with that. I think it makes a big difference in your quality of work as well as the longevity of your career.
Karel: Definitely. And, well, luckily there was much more focus on wellbeing these days I would say. When I started 20 years ago, it was less the case. And then I would assume that lawyers from the 90s or the 80s and 90s tell the same stories where it’s work, work, work, and you have to work during the weekends, and you have to work late at night. And of course, well it’s a demanding job and sometimes, well, you have to do it. It is part of the job, but it shouldn’t always be the case.
And I think there’s a shift in society, not only in the law practice but more generally in other sectors as well. Where you see, okay, let’s move back towards a more healthy balance, work-life balance because it avoids a lot of problems. I think that’s only a good thing. And you see it with clients as well. It doesn’t happen very often anymore that you have a client on Friday evening saying that they want something by Monday morning, which was very regular a few years ago, but now that’s less because they also understand, okay, people have lives as well, but still it remains a very demanding job. And then you have to be prepared to go all the way if necessary.
Lindsay: Of course, of course. But as you say, I think it is rare and also clients themselves want to have their weekends too.
So unless it truly is something that makes or breaks the business, they’re not going to push forward either.
Speaking of clients, tell me about a client who’s changed your practice.
Karel: I can’t think of one client that really changed my practice. I mean there as well you see a huge variety in clients, Belgian clients, European clients, international clients, small clients to big firms. But well, if there’s always one client that will always, I would always remember that a pro bono client that I did when I started my first year as a lawyer was an Afghan refugee that arrived in Brussels and asked for asylum in Belgium. And he had, well, he went through a lot. So there really was a case, but it was always a problem to make sure that the agency also accepted it and believed it, of course, because there were so many applications at the time.
But we went through the process and eventually he was accepted and he was given asylum in Belgium and he still is here in Belgium. And I was really, well, of course, I was very happy for him, but I was very impressed by the gratitude I got from him.
He came over to the firm unannounced, but he was very grateful. He had a gift for me, of course, which I had to accept, no possibility to refuse. And I mean, he always kept in touch. He started a business afterward in Brussels and that’s really nice. I mean, that’s not a huge win or something, but it had a huge impact on his life. And well, I can’t take all the credits because of course he went through a lot, but that showed that, okay, you can really have an impact as a lawyer on people’s lives. And that was very rewarding. So that’s something that I will always keep in mind throughout my further career as one of the best I would say.
Lindsay: That’s an incredible story. I think as you say, that’s when you recognize the impact that you can have as a lawyer.
Karel: Definitely. Yes.
Lindsay: That’s amazing. So what is the most important lesson that you’ve learned over your career?
Karel: I would say be prepared and keep calm. That’s maybe a very obvious and basic lesson that I’ve learned, but it has helped me along the way. I mean, you can prepare yourself to a certain extent because there are always surprises, but if you’re prepared, you can cope much better with this kind of surprise.
And, of course, if you have a client meeting, or a court procedure being prepared is key and it reduces your stress, of course, but it also makes you perform much better, anticipate questions, on reactions from the opposing party, and keep calm is something that well by nature, I’m a lot calm person I would say, but well it makes you so professional. If you can keep calm, even if the opposing party is going out of his head or I don’t know what kind of situations you may have, and that’s also appreciated by other parties who sometimes the opposing party afterward came, I appreciate that you remained calm, it’s very professional. And I think courts appreciate that as well. Just keep calm.
So, if there is an urgency, okay, you can’t move faster than you can, so keep calm, think, and see how you can solve the question as best as possible. That helps me, I would say, through my career.
Lindsay: That’s great. And one final question, what is something that you’re enjoying right now that has nothing to do with work or anything that’s going on in the world at the moment?
Karel: Well, in general, summertime, just summertime. It’s a nice period. Well, it’s a break. Still, there’s a lot of work, but it’s less stressful than usual. Court hearings are much less during this period. And that, well, it offers you the possibility to work on cases, to catch up on things and besides that to also end at a decent hour, have a meal with your family. That’s really nice. I mean, it’s a very brief period. I would say the end of July to the second, or third week of August. So it’s only three or four weeks, but you see it, I mean, this period offers you a bit to recharge your batteries for the end of August and the beginning of September. So, that’s really nice.
Lindsay: That’s great. Well, thank you very much. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us this week and thanks so much to all of our listeners. We’ll be back next week with another guest. And in the meantime, please take a moment to rate, review and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. And we will be back next week with another guest. And thanks so much.