The CLP - interview series goes into the third round: After the expert round as well as the Legal Coaches it now primarily concerns special commitment inside and outside the lawyer occupation. Some of them have already been honored for this commitment with prizes; however, all colleagues in this circle are very successful in what they do. This may be due to the burning passion with which they are committed to their cause. Or thanks to their own personal recipe for success, which they reveal at the end of each session.
Dr. Somers, may we ask you to introduce yourself?
I am Nele Somers, a 36 year old Belgian attorney-at-law at the Antwerp bar.
In 2017, I obtained my PhD at the University of Antwerp. I write contributions for several scientific journals and books and frequently speak about a range of topics concerning both students and lawyers. In 2018, I founded ARTES, a niche law firm specializing in intellectual property, TMC, data protection and security (www.artes.law). With about 20,000 followers on Instagram and additional 10,000 followers on other social media platforms, I reach a large community.
I am married with two children: a girl (Ella Marie – 11y) and a boy (Rafaël – 8y). I live in Antwerp and besides working as a lawyer and running Artes, I work out every week with my personal trainer and close friend Melita. I try to go to all kinds of yoga lessons as often as possible (Ashtanga, Hatha, Yin and more) and in 2020 I went to India to learn more about the Ayurvedic lifestyle / the history of yoga.
In addition, I try to set up a little farm at our house: we own two male cats: a British Shorthair (Georges) and a crazy Bengal cat called Léo. We also keep 4 chickens: Loesje, Marie, Frida II and Manon.
ARTES was founded with a special purpose. After 10 years at the bar, I noticed that the career path for female lawyers still does not match that of male lawyers. The goal is to create a workplace where people share their expertise from a passion for the profession and as a basis for further personal development. At the same time we actively work on a positive corporate culture, building a diverse team with a strong team spirit and the sense of happiness of every lawyer and/or staff member that works at ARTES. The pursuit of equality, and this in every respect, is essential to this.
#1 What does “Role model for female lawyers” mean to you?
To me it means being yourself and being real. The professional environment in which we work is very "busy" and demanding in so many areas that it is still hard to make a difference.
In my opinion it is important not to just be an example 'as a lawyer'. I work as a lawyer, but I am more than that. I am a mother, wife, girlfriend, occasionally work as a model, speaker, writer,… We only live once. We don't have to spend all our time at the office. This is not what we remember when we are on our deathbed. It's the amount of people we've helped and the number of times we've laughed that counts. So I try as much as I can to be myself and lead by example. I train myself to go home on time, even if that is against my nature. Work-life balance is so important, even primordial, to be able to sustain this wonderful profession for as long as possible. To me, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is a woman I admire and to whom I am grateful for paving the path for so many of us female lawyers. However, we still have a very long way to go. The recent passing of Justice Ginsburg for instance, was openly seized upon by both male and female attorneys to make a choice for diversity. There is nevertheless still a lot of hypocrisy. The ones who are loudest are often men and women who they themselves have recently hindered women in their professional development. Time for change, but real change in the sense of: practice what you preach.
This generation is here now, time for change is now.
#2 Since when have you been personally committed to equal rights in the legal profession?
To be honest, not for very long. For a very long time I didn't even realize that there was oppression by people from a professional sector who obviously had an interest in it.
I even believed for a while that the glass ceiling did not exist.
How is that even possible? I kind of woke up in 2018, because the amount of work, the complexity etc. only increased, but there was no financial or appreciation in return. I realized that from my position it wouldn't be easy to find another workplace where ambition wouldn't be suppressed, let alone where it would be fun and where the true focus would be on content, not so much on money and power.
That's why I decided to create an environment myself, not only for myself, but especially for all those intelligent women (and men) who simply have a right to a better (professional) life. I sincerely hope that no woman will have to endure these struggles on her path, as I have known them.
That is just unhealthy, unfair and unnecessary. It's only when I realized, through my activity on social media and the stories I hear both from Belgian lawyers and in an international context, that I felt that I had to do something. At one point I thus realized that there was a need to create more awareness about equality for women in the legal profession.
After all, if the career ball slows down, it will eventually remain smaller than that of your male colleague who you easily outclassed at university. I would like to emphasize that of course I have no problem with men. The opposite is true. Women who focus too much on negativity around the differences that are indeed still there, will not be part of the ARTES operation either. I'm just saying it the way it is. I owe that to the next generation.
#3 How important are the media, press, radio and social media? And how important is the attention of the media for you as an entrepreneur and well known woman in business?
Media can help us to create a larger support base and is able to speed up certain things. I have undergone a number of #metoo's and when I gave an interview about it in a Belgian legal magazine and suggested that a confidential advisor be put into action at the Bar, the Antwerp Bar was the first to respond.
We have to assume that many people are directly involved, but that there is also a lot of resistance to change. However, every woman should be aware and should know that she is not alone. Small remarks, for example about what clothes you wear, the way you smile, the use of your voice and more, activities outside working hours and more, can have major consequences.
Another point of attention is that only men and women who are open for the message will hear it and realize that things have to change. Change does not just happen suddenly. It will take many years, but eventually we will get there. I only hope that we will get there sooner than in 300 years as they say…
#4 Who is your audience?
Everybody. I don't discriminate. ;) I don’t really like intellectual snobbery. I cherish the hope that I reach every woman: young and old, working and not working. The message I want to convey is that we should be 'free'. Free to choose whether we want to work or not, how much time we spend on it and what we look like, be it as a house mother, working woman or a combination of both.
I also want to reach men: they are raising the next generation and so there can only be real change if they also become receptive to the message. After all, it will soon also be their daughters and granddaughters who will end up in professional life. They will also want there to be no dependency on a man and that the working life of the person they love adds something to their personal happiness.
#5 Who supports you or with whom do you prefer to work together?
My husband has supported me since the first day of my career in the legal profession. That must have been in 2008. He has seen the obstacles I've had to overcome, the hours I spent working in the hope of being rewarded for it and at the cost of the beautiful moments with my beautiful children, the many disappointments.
Indeed, to start with, it still requires the right partner to support you in your personal and professional development.
In addition, I have a number of hyperintelligent girlfriends who act as a support system. My friends, my husband and my children support me unconditionally. We make it through the difficult moments with humor and putting things into perspective. It is ‘only work’, it is ‘only money’,…'. Nobody is really important in this life, so how important can a certain incident be?
#6 Your personal tip for success:
Act as a woman who is working as a lawyer. There is no need to cut your hair and to dress like a man wearing gray suits or even worse: to act like a man in meetings or in court. There is already more than enough of this color in the world…
Do the things you want to do yourself, and the things that suit you. For example, if you are passionate about fashion and you want to express it, then do this without fear of reprisal. Everyone should be able to be who she/he is: including female lawyers, this of course with respect for the deontological rules. However, these rules must be interpreted in the light of the spirit of times. The dignity of a lawyer cannot depend on the degree to which she acts like a wallflower. ;)