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Emily Hay

Emily Hay über Australien und Belgien (engl.)


"Try to be open to everything that comes your way."

Emily Hay, Associate at Hanotiau & van den Berg in Brussels, about her experience in providing legal aid to refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt, about diversity in Belgium and about parental leave in Australia.

Emily, before you came to work in the field of international commercial and investment treaty arbitration at Hanotiau & van den Berg in Brussels, you interned at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, AMERA International (Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance) and Human Rights Watch. Was this path planned from the beginning?

I would be lying if I said yes! My interest in international law was sparked during law school, and the plan only went so far as to pursue work in that field. That led me first to refugee law, later to data protection and privacy law, diplomatic law, and eventually to international arbitration. I prefer to follow opportunities that present themselves, rather than lock myself into a set path.

Can you describe your typical work day at Hanotiau & van den Berg? Which aspect of your work do you like most?

A typical day disappears very quickly at Hanotiau & van den Berg. Keeping tabs on where various cases are situated procedurally involves lots of emails, meetings and phone calls. At the same time, you have to make room for more meticulous work which requires far more time and sharp focus. It is challenging to switch between the two speeds, but I love that I have to use all my legal thinking on a regular basis. Perhaps most importantly, I enjoy the fun, smart and open-minded people that I work with and meet in this field.

You spent two years in Egypt providing legal aid to refugees and asylum seekers. How has this experience influenced you?


My time in Egypt has left me with an appreciation for the human side of the law, and the invaluable role of legal aid. You are helping people to know and access their rights, and the results can be lifechanging for them and for their families. It was very humbling, and working with so many inspiring clients and colleagues has left me with a sense of perspective that I hope to never lose.

You studied in Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands and have worked in Egypt and Belgium. Did any cultural differences stand out for you while living, learning and working in these different countries?

The cultural differences between Australia and Europe are subtle, but maybe for that reason they can catch you off guard. In Belgium you find a cheeky irony and an astounding tolerance for upturned cobblestones on the footpath, cobblestones that in Australia would be surrounded by five signs and a cordon. I must say that I really enjoy the warmth and directness of the Danes and the Dutch, once you break the ice - literally! Egyptians are also really special, very intense and engaging, a lot of fun to be with.

Did you ever feel like you were being treated differently in comparison to your male colleagues? If so, would you argue that one reason lies within the above mentioned cultural differences?

While I know that many women have had a different experience, I have been extremely lucky to work in organisations and firms led by enlightened men and women, regardless of cultural differences. I have never felt that I have been denied an opportunity on the basis of my gender. On the other hand, statistics in the legal profession and in international arbitration specifically speak for themselves: there is still plenty of work to be done. Thankfully, there are many initiatives underway and I believe that change is picking up speed.

Diversity is a big issue in Germany at the moment. How would you describe diversity developments in Belgium?

In terms of gender diversity, according to the 2017 statistics for CEPANI, the Belgian arbitration institution, 18% of the arbitrators appointed last year were women, half of which were nominated by CEPANI and the other half by the parties. As I said, there is still work to be done, and that applies also to other forms of diversity that are not yet getting the same level of attention.

You are a buddy in the Young ICCA Mentoring Programme. Did you have a mentor yourself? Do you have a role model?

I have the privilege of working closely with Professor Albert Jan van den Berg, who is incredibly supportive, and is a daily inspiration for his unstoppable energy, intellectual curiosity and sharp judgment. Another mentor and role model is Niuscha Bassiri, who manages to combine a killer legal instinct with being one of the most sincerely caring people I know.

As a buddy in Young ICCA Mentoring Programme you are in contact with many young professionals. Where do you see the biggest challenges for young practitioners?

The biggest challenge for young practitioners in arbitration is to break into a very competitive field. Luck can play a role, but most people have to distinguish themselves in one way or another, whether that is by their academic background, language skills, or relevant professional experience. It makes things tough, but hopefully the high quality of practitioners will only increase the level of our profession.

You have a 5-month old son. Was and is the question of how to combine family and work life an issue for you?

Combining work and family life is very much a live issue for me. We are only a few months in at this point, so we are still finding our way. I imagine there will be some juggling involved, and lots to learn, but I don't mind a healthy amount of chaos.

You have just come back from parental leave. Which factors influenced your decision on when to go and how long to stay on parental leave?

My decision of when to go on leave was made by my son, when he arrived 3 weeks early, so I was in the office the same day I went into labour. I decided to take four months of leave because that's close to what most women in Belgium take, and because it felt like a good balance for me between making the most of those precious first months and staying switched on professionally. At work they were very supportive of my choice, which was important. Luckily, my partner is able to stay at home with our son for a few more months, on unpaid leave. I think that having the opportunity for both partners to take parental leave is invaluable. Not only do you both have the chance to establish a special bond with your child, but you discover and learn everything together. This gives you both a very strong investment in the process, from the most mundane to the most thrilling aspects of baby life!

Belgium and Australia have different approaches in supporting parents after their child is born. One example is the standard amount of parental leave granted by law. While maternity leave in Australia is paid at minimum wage for up to 18 weeks, but often taken unpaid for up to a year, parents in Belgium generally return to work after no more than three or four months. What other differences affect parents? Would you give one of these systems more credit than the other?

Yes, Belgium and Australia have quite different cultures when it comes to maternity leave. While the official entitlements may not seem very different, it is much more common in Australia to take a whole year off, either by using other accrued leave or by taking unpaid leave. Australians often raise an eyebrow when they hear about the Belgian system where babies go to the crèche when they are a few months old. On the other hand, in Belgium women have a more limited interruption to their career, and there is affordable childcare available to support the retun to work. I personally find the Belgian system a bit rushed, but it's still much better than what you will find in many other places.

In your opinion, what changes will be necessary for mothers to be able to find an ideal balance between their careers and their families?

It's difficult to know what the magic solution is, and the ideal balance will be different for every family. I think helpful steps are being taken in many places to give more flexible work arrangements and different kinds of partly paid parental leave. Another measure that could have a powerful impact would be to have compulsory paternity leave. This could go some way towards equalising the pressure of having children on women's careers. It may also help liberate both men and women from outdated ideas about the proper role for a "mother" and a "father".

Do you have any advice for younger practitioners seeking to work in Belgium?

Try to meet with people you may be interested in working for. Even if there is no opportunity available, it will give you a sense of the workplace and give them a sense of you. You may be surprised how generous people can be with their time, and then when an opportunity comes up you are more than just an email in their inbox. It doesn't guarantee you a job, but it helps put you on the list of potentials, which is already challenging enough. Things don't always go as planned, but try to be open to everything that comes your way.

Which female lawyer should be nominated as a role model for breaking.through? Why?

I actually hesitate to nominate a role model that is a public figure. Often public figures have had to make unknown sacrifices to get there, so while they may be admirably single-minded and determined, they may not have much variety or balance in their lives. For me the real role models are the lawyers who may not be in the public eye, but excel in their profession while leading rich and meaningful lives, also outside the office. Having said that, I do admire Chief Justice Susan Kiefel, who since 2017 is the first female Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia. While her achievement speaks for itself, her story is all the more extraordinary because she left school at the age of 15, and completed her secondary schooling and law degree part-time while working as a secretary.

Thank you so much for this interview!

Brussels, 3 June 2018. Emily Hay answered the questions in writing. The questions were drafted by Sita Rau.

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