In the early 2000s, Niels van der Laan (39) wrote a series of articles for Observant. The highlight was a major feature article in our 2003 Christmas issue – based on his own research among 104 students and complete with a series of interviews – on UM students’ dreams for the future. As it turned out, Van der Laan reported, the size of their future bank accounts didn’t particularly matter to the students. “Above all, they want a nice partner – someone to marry and have children with.”
He clearly had a talent for writing: he chose every word with care, was driven, a perfectionist, full of ideas, and possessed boundless energy. But a career as a journalist was never in the cards for this law student. He had his sights set on a future in the legal profession as a criminal barrister. “I was always stubborn, good at language, enjoyed American legal dramas like Matlock and couldn’t stand injustice. In secondary school, I’d get into discussions with the vice principal of my secondary school if he said something wasn’t allowed and I didn’t understand why. With me, you have to present arguments”, he tells us via Skype.
It’s early August. He’s at home in Amsterdam; he’s in the city for two days to attend a few meetings at law firm De Roos en Pen, where he started working as an intern at 24 and has been a partner since he was 29. His girlfriend and their three young children (4, 3 and seven months old) are still holidaying in the north of the Netherlands.
In a 2004 interview in Observant, he said he wanted to become the best lawyer in the Netherlands. He chuckles; he remembers saying it. “That was my motivation from day one in law school and in my career. Did I become the best lawyer in the Netherlands? I probably didn’t. There’s not one best lawyer. Each case requires different qualities. I can’t complain, though; I’m quite satisfied. It’s a strange feeling for someone who always wants more and better.
“I’m always working – 50 hours per week at the office since I had children, but 24 hours per day in my mind. Whether I’m taking a shower or at the playground with my kids, I’m thinking about legal briefs, strategic choices in a case… It’s part of what makes me a good lawyer. I’m very involved. At the same time, it’s mentally draining. My clients are in very serious trouble. Most of them are suspected of fraud – tax fraud, money laundering, forgery, environmental crimes, corruption – and have to take on the government. I’m their lifeline, their rock. It’s intense. For the past two years, I’ve represented the president of the Central Bank of Curaçao. He was suspected of tax fraud amounting to about five million euros. In my view, it was a case of political persecution. The Public Prosecution Service wanted him gone and they were looking for a stick to beat him with. He was eventually acquitted, on appeal as well. We were victorious on all fronts – the charges made no sense whatsoever. But he did lose his job and the public still thinks ‘no smoke without fire’. It’ll forever be a stain on his reputation. When a client of mine gets acquitted, I feel elated for two seconds. After that, I’m mostly sad it had to come to that. This injustice makes it hard for me.”
White picket fence
Like his fellow students in 2003, Van der Laan dreamt of the white-picket-fence life. “I always wanted children. I worked as a summer camp counsellor between the ages of thirteen and thirty. I think children are very interesting. The way they think is so different to the way adults think.” It took him a while (“I wasn’t very successful with girls, I was too insecure”) to find the one. “She worked at our firm for a year as part of her training. I was her boss and I soon became interested in her. At first I thought it’d be just a fling, but she became the love of my life. It was complex to me at first, the combination of work and personal life, but she was immediately able to separate the two. She understands me; she can handle my high highs and low lows. She takes my depressive tendencies seriously, takes my hand and pulls me back up. In many ways, she’s much more balanced than I am.”
They have three children together: two girls, one boy “I always wanted three children. It’s a fun dynamic, they keep having to form alliances.”
So, he has what he dreamt of when he was a student. “Yes, but I’m not enjoying it enough yet. I get in my own way.” The tendency to do too much is “the story of my life”, he says. In addition to navigating work and family, there’s building a new house in Amsterdam, organising their 2020 wedding in Las Vegas (“a crazy plan we conceived of six years ago. We’re having sixty guests”), his father’s health problems, and, yes, this series of interviews for Observant. His idea, by the way.
“The articles give me positive energy”, he explains. But not enjoying life enough is something to take seriously. “This summer, we decided we’re going on a round-the-world trip with the kids five years from now. I really regret not going backpacking when I was younger. This plan means I’m willing to postpone my ambitions.”
During our conversation, we stumble upon a painful memory from his student days. “In my first year, I pledged a fraternity. I won’t mention its name – I don’t want to flog a dead horse. I became very close with the other two pledges and I thought I got on really well with the rest of the chapter. One week before the end of the three-month pledging period, they told me I was rejected by the fraternity. I was severely depressed for a year. It ruined my first year as a student. You can’t do this to people, it has such a profound impact. And although it’s been years, I’d still like to discuss this with the then board. It remains a painful memory. The fraternity chapter in question has a tradition related to a specific time of day. Every time I happen to catch the clock at that time, which is at least once a week, I’m reminded of it.”
Read here the first article