After earning both his bachelor’s and master’s in law at Catholic University of Leuven, Wouter Vaassen joined Liedekerke Wolters Waelbroeck Kirkpatrick, one of Belgium’s largest firms, where he focused on regulatory and real estate law. In January 2014, a partner he worked with helped start a new law firm, Praetica, and offered Wouter a job there. Wouter had been planning to pursue an LL.M. in the U.S., and Praetica gave him a year’s leave of absence to earn his LL.M. at Vanderbilt and helped finance his degree.
Wouter’s practice at Praetica now focuses predominantly on environmental law, ranging from waste and soil pollution law to environmental and construction permits, but he also deals with product safety regulations governing food and explosives and criminal procedure. “About a third of the environmental cases I deal with have a criminal aspect,” he explained.
At Vanderbilt, he took International Environmental Law, Civil Procedure, Criminal Procedure and Evidence. “I loved the freedom we had to choose our own classes,” he said. “Besides the directly usable substantive knowledge I gained, I often think back to my classes on environmental and procedural law to compare how things are done in the U.S. versus in Belgium and Europe, and am able to draw arguments in favor of my clients based on that comparison.” He liked Vanderbilt’s emphasis on legal theory and methodology.
He also appreciated the faculty’s expertise in their subjects and their commitment to teaching—and the classroom focus on legal theory and methodology. “I had Professor (Nancy) King for Criminal Law, and she was great—very energetic and passionate about her subject,” he said. “Professor (Will) Martin, who taught International Environmental Law, was with the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) until he retired, and he had a wealth of practical knowledge.” Since returning to Brussels, Wouter has become a teaching assistant at the Catholic University of Leuven, where he now teaches Methodology of the Law.
As a lasting benefit of his Vanderbilt LL.M., Wouter formed strong relationships with his classmates. “The Vanderbilt LLM gives you a network of lawyers trained in different jurisdictions around the world, so you can always discuss with them on how they handle things in their jurisdiction,” he said. “I did this a lot with Philip Nagel, who is from Germany, and Eleonore Parsai, from France, when we were taking our Civil Procedure class with Professor Stack, and also outside of class with students from all over the world. The LL.M. provided me a lot of intellectual ammunition.”
Wouter moved to Nashville with his wife, who took a year off from her job as an elementary school teacher. “Cynthia [Coleman, the LL.M. Program Director] was a big help in helping us find a place to live, where to get our driver’s licenses,” he said. “And the LL.M. students became a very close knit group. Not a day would pass that we didn’t so something together—having lunch, going to bars or concerts, playing tennis, going to restaurants, inviting people over for dinner/drinks—and, of course, helping each other study!”
Wouter believes he got more out of his studies because he had three years of practice experience before he entered Vanderbilt’s LL.M. program. “Work experience helps you be more focused on what classes you want take and what areas of law you need to learn more about,” he said. “I also enjoyed having a year away from work to really think about what I wanted to do in life. The LL.M. helped me confirm that I wanted to practice law and focus on environmental and procedural (criminal) law.”