Niels De Waele wins Outstanding Contribution Award
03 June 2021
In our first ever global PBCI awards, Niels has won the overall Outstanding Contribution Award, receiving the most nominations of any individual.
What first motivated you to become involved in PBCI work?
I started volunteering when I was fairly young, helping to fundraise at school and participating in community investment programmes. The interest and commitment has stayed with me ever since. Essentially, I believe pro bono work is an intrinsic part of being a lawyer. We’re in a privileged position to help people – to open doors, to provide access to legal advice even when people can’t afford it. When you look at the communities around you and see the inequalities that exist, I think if you have a sense of justice, pro bono work is a natural thing to do.
What issues do you care most about?
Lots! One of the biggest challenges we need to address is the environment. We’ve worked with the Jane Goodall Institute in Belgium for several years, providing legal advice and supporting a big reforestation programme in Belgium and Africa, but it’s an area in which we must continue to invest. I also believe strongly in trying to break the cycles of poverty children are born into. It’s something our Global Charity Partnerships have been effective at raising awareness of, particularly in parts of the world we don’t often see, like refugee camps in Jordan or orphanages in India and Nepal.
But what impacts me most is closest to home – the levels of deprivation around us and the lost opportunities. For example, we’ve been working with Toekomstatelierdel’avenir (TADA), a weekend school in Brussels, for nearly ten years to help address inequality in education.
Niels de Waele, Senior Associate, Antwerp
TADA targets children living in challenging circumstances, mostly very low-income households, and provides supplementary schooling and practical insights into careers. Law is the focus of classes for one month each year, so different legal professionals come in to talk about what they do.
I must say, teaching 10-13 year-olds is harder than it sounds – they ask very direct questions! But the school achieves amazing results – these children come in on Saturdays and study harder than all their peers in a language that’s usually not spoken at home. The alumni are remarkable – they’re speaking several languages and are full of self-confidence and determination. It shows that everyone deserves the encouragement to find their talents and use them to their maximum ability.
We’re going to be joined by our first legal intern from TADA once we’re back in the office, which is an exciting step in our relationship.
You’ve worked on a wide range of projects – how do you choose what to spend your time on?
Coordinating our PBCI programme means I get an overview of a lot of projects, which I love, but I’ve learnt that I can’t become involved with everything! Instead my focus is on bringing more people in and making sure we have a range of opportunities that reflect the issues people care about.
In that regard, one of the things we’ve tried to do over the past year is respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, we provided IP advice on whether personal protective equipment could be reverse-engineered – i.e. made by duplicating existing designs – to help address a scarcity of equipment for healthcare staff early on.
We’ve also seen local charities really struggling, so have provided extra financial support. One nice example was funding a charity that offers shelter to runaways and unaccompanied migrant children to create outside spaces for them during lockdown. We’ve also funded a foundation supporting the hard-hit live music industry, which we’ve missed a lot in our daily lives.
What are your plans for developing the programme in Belgium?
When setting our PBCI priorities for Belgium, one of the things we most want to achieve is a diverse portfolio of opportunities that is inclusive of everybody in our offices. Sustainability is a good example of something we know people care about, another is social and digital mobility. We’re working with an organisation, Close the Gap, which applies the WorldLoop model when collecting old ICT equipment from businesses, repurposing it for use in developing countries and in local Belgian projects, thereby promoting digital inclusion and reducing hazardous waste at the same time.
I’m also looking for more ways that we can tackle poverty and inequality in our communities, which have become so much worse during the pandemic. I want to develop relationships with organisations making an impact in this area and find opportunities for our people to use their skills to address this.
On a personal level, I want to get more involved with coaching to help people out of the isolation created by poverty.
This ties in with the social mobility theme of our next Global Charity Partnership, so I’m looking forward to seeing the shortlist of charities and thinking of ideas for how to support whichever is chosen.
What do you get most from doing PBCI work?
I get to escape the ‘ivory tower’. I love my job as a finance lawyer, but pro bono adds an entirely different perspective to my life and work. I meet so many people, I hear their inspiring stories about what motivated them to get involved and their dedication to fight for causes close to their hearts. I have such different interactions and conversations – it opens up your mind. Most importantly, I see on a daily basis how every one of us can have an impact when we take action.
I also get to work with people across A&O that I just wouldn’t meet otherwise – you hear new ideas and join dynamic teams. It brings another dimension to your career.
What does winning this award mean to you?
It’s an incentive for me to do more! It’s also great recognition – but more than for me personally, it is recognition for A&O’s PBCI work in Belgium and across the firm as a whole.
What I would like more than anything is for this recognition to motivate others to get involved and join the amazing group of A&O people who do this work. It is most definitely a team effort – not the work of one person!
Niels de Waele, Senior Associate, Antwerp