How did you get to where you are now?
I started with a law degree in Belgium and then I had the opportunity to attend Harvard Law School’s masters programme with a combined Fulbright and Boas scholarship. I then spent a year at Covington & Burling in Washington, DC in the Lawyer from Abroad [as it was then called] programme. That was a very enriching experience. After extensive travel in the US I went back to Belgium to continue in academia. I realised soon after my return that this was not my calling and so I took the Brussels bar exam and started a three-year traineeship with a local firm. A number of years later, Covington asked me to open an office in Brussels, which I did. I stayed there ever since.
How did you get into data privacy law?
I began focusing on litigation and competition law and only slowly moved into privacy after the 1995 Data Protection Directive, the predecessor to the GDPR, came out. Covington has always had a prominent presence in the regulatory field and so our focusing on privacy was no surprise. Many of our pharmaceutical clients were in need of counsel in that area, closely followed by our software clients, and that prompted us to develop this new practice group of which I became the co-chair. I started out combining privacy with competition law, but now I am full-time privacy.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced so far?
The biggest challenge I face nowadays is the increasing complexity of data privacy law. To be a good privacy lawyer, you need to keep abreast of new technologies and understand the industry in which your clients operate. Clients want practical advice. You can only provide that if you understand the client’s environment. A second challenge is globalisation, which requires companies and their lawyers to get out of their comfort zone and look at privacy laws in many other parts of the world. A challenge I faced in earlier years in my career was combining a family with three children with a busy career.
Have you faced disadvantages in your career due to being a woman?
No, not that I am aware of anyway. I cannot think of anything that I wanted to do but was not able to because of my gender. If anything, in earlier years, I found my gender to be an advantage since I often stood out as one of the few women in the room. Being a woman in privacy certainly is not an issue. A large percentage of privacy practitioners are women and so are some of the more well-known privacy regulators in key member states.
What advice would you give to female practitioners starting out in data privacy?
As young professionals or newcomers to the field, they should read and read and read. Just knowing the GDPR really is not sufficient. The answer to privacy-related issues very often is not black and white so it is important to widen your horizon by following blogs, position papers, and go off the beaten path.