What does it take to become a qualified Dutch lawyer?

Author: Dr William Guo, qualified Dutch lawyer (advocaat) and owner of Jing Law Firm
Publication date: 18 August 2021

Professional lawyers are indispensable in any country with a modern legal system. It is usually not easy to obtain a lawyer’s license in any Western country. If a candidate is not born and raised in the country where he/she aspires to practise law and if he/she is not a native speaker of the official language of that country, it is obviously even more challenging for such a candidate to become a qualified lawyer in that jurisdiction than for native candidates. 

As a qualified Dutch lawyer not born and raised in the Netherlands and a guest lecturer at the University of Amsterdam, I often get questions from international students studying law at Dutch universities regarding their career perspectives in the Netherlands. Is it possible for a foreign national to get admitted to the Netherlands Bar (Dutch term “Nederlandse Orde van Advocaten”) and if so, what does it take to become a qualified Dutch lawyer (Dutch term “advocaat”)? In this article I will briefly answer this question. The article will focus on the requirements for candidates from a country outside the European Union, the European Economic Area and other than Switzerland. 

Nationality is no obstacle

First of all, it is worth pointing out that nationality is not a criterion for admission to the Netherlands Bar. As long as one meets all the requirements as prescribed by the Dutch Act on Advocates (Dutch term “Advocatenwet”) and the relevant regulations (which apply equally to Dutch candidates), one can become a qualified Dutch lawyer even if he/she does not have the Dutch nationality. 

Except for those who have already obtained a lawyer’s license or academic law degrees in certain countries (another member state of the European Union, the European Economic Area and Switzerland), a foreign national generally needs to overcome four major challenges in order to become a fully qualified Dutch lawyer that may practise Dutch law independently:
1. obtaining Dutch law degrees;
2. becoming a trainee lawyer (Dutch term “advocaat-stagiair”);
3. completing lawyers’ vocational training (Dutch term “beroepsopleiding advocaten”); and
4. accumulating sufficient litigation experience.

1 Obtaining Dutch law degrees

A basic requirement for a candidate to become a qualified Dutch lawyer is to obtain at least a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in law at a Dutch university. The law degrees must be awarded by a Dutch university (Dutch term ”universiteit”) that offers legal education at an academic level (including the Open University that offers full distance learning Dutch law degree programmes), rather than by a Dutch university of applied sciences (Dutch term “hogeschool”).

In recent years, legal education at Dutch universities is becoming increasingly international. Many Dutch universities nowadays offer various master’s programmes in law that are taught in English. Such master’s programmes attract many international law students, as these programmes do not require the candidates to speak or read Dutch. 

In order to become a qualified Dutch lawyer, however, it is not sufficient to obtain a master’s degree in law by completing a master’s programme taught in English at a Dutch university. In addition to a master’s degree in law, a candidate must also complete a set of compulsory bachelor’s courses on Dutch law that are taught in Dutch. This means that mastering the Dutch language is a prerequisite for a foreign national to become a qualified Dutch lawyer, for otherwise it will not be possible to complete the compulsory Dutch law courses and to obtain a bachelor’s degree in law at a Dutch university. For this reason, international candidates may need to pass a Dutch language exam before they are allowed to attend a bachelor’s programme in law at a Dutch university. 

An international student following a master’s programme in law taught in English at a Dutch university usually has already obtained a bachelor’s degree in law or a similar law degree in his or her home country. Based on such prior legal education, an international student may be exempted from certain bachelor’s courses depending on the exemption policy of the Dutch university that he or she attends, which can accelerate the process to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Dutch law. Some Dutch universities recognise prior legal education in foreign countries more than others, so it is worth inquiring into and comparing the exemption policies of different Dutch universities before an international student chooses a Dutch university to pursue a bachelor’s degree in law.

2 Becoming a trainee lawyer

After obtaining the required Dutch law degrees, a candidate must become a trainee lawyer and go through a traineeship that typically lasts three years. A trainee lawyer is already a qualified Dutch lawyer admitted to the Netherlands Bar and may use the title “advocaat”. However, a trainee lawyer is not yet “fully” licensed in the sense that a trainee lawyer must practise law under supervision of a supervising principal (Dutch term “patroon”, being usually a Dutch lawyer with over seven years of practising experience).

In order to become a trainee lawyer, a candidate must – in addition to obtaining the required Dutch law degrees – satisfy two major conditions:
1. the candidate must obtain a certificate of good conduct (Dutch term “verklaring omtrent het gedrag”), which essentially means that the candidate must not have committed certain crimes that may call the integrity of the candidate into question; and
2. the candidate must either obtain a job offer from a Dutch law firm to work as a trainee lawyer at the firm or be approved by the Netherlands Bar to become a self-employed trainee lawyer (Dutch term “advocaat-stagiair-ondernemer” or “stagiair-ondernemer”), in both cases working under supervision of a supervising principal.

The vast majority of trainee lawyers are employed by a law firm rather than self-employed. This is mainly due to the reason that a self-employed trainee lawyer bears considerable business risks and must go through a relatively strict application procedure (including submitting a viable business plan, arranging for insurances etc.). 

Obtaining a job offer from a Dutch law firm (especially a reputable one) is not easy either. As many law students graduate each year from Dutch universities whereas the number of job vacancies for trainee lawyers at law firms is limited, it is very competitive to secure a job offer from a law firm. In addition to exam scores, Dutch law firms usually also attribute significant weight in the hiring process to a candidate’s internship and other relevant practical experience during or after the legal education, relevant extracurricular activities (e.g. active participation in student organisations) and overseas studying or work experience. If an international student studying law in the Netherlands has the ambition to become a qualified Dutch lawyer, it can be helpful to anticipate such hiring requirements generally adopted by Dutch law firms and to start building an attractive resumé from an early stage of one’s legal education (e.g. obtaining good exam scores, working as an intern at a law firm during one’s law study, participating actively in student organisations etc.).

3 Completing lawyers’ vocational training

An essential requirement for a trainee lawyer to become a fully licensed Dutch lawyer that may practise law independently is to follow and complete a lawyers’ vocational training programme. In March 2021, the Netherlands Bar introduced a new vocational training programme for trainee lawyers. Compared to the old one, the new curriculum focuses more on ethics, practical skills and the application of legal knowledge.

The curriculum of the new lawyers’ vocational training programme introduced in March 2021 consists mainly of courses on ethics for the legal profession, courses on legal knowledge and various skill trainings that are particularly relevant for the legal profession (such as presentation, negotiation, writing and contract drafting skills). In order to complete the lawyers’ vocational training programme, a trainee lawyer must not only follow all the required courses and attend all the required trainings, but also pass three exams: an exam on ethics for the legal profession that consists of multiple choice and open questions and two practice simulation exams, being a moot court exam and another practice simulation exam that consists of – for example – conducting negotiations or a witness hearing in a simulated legal case. It takes typically two years to complete the lawyers’ vocational training programme.

4 Accumulating sufficient litigation experience

Another important task for a trainee lawyer is to accumulate sufficient litigation experience. During the traineeship, a trainee lawyer must have drafted at least seven documents submitted in legal proceedings (Dutch term “processtukken”, such as summons and statements of defence) and must have attended at least five contentious legal proceedings as a lawyer (such as pleading in defence of a suspect during a court hearing in a criminal case or examining witnesses in court).

It is after successfully completing the lawyers’ vocational training programme and satisfying the litigation experience requirements that a trainee lawyer, if endorsed by his or her supervising principal and meeting all the other requirements, will be awarded a traineeship certificate (Dutch term “stageverklaring”) at the end of the traineeship. Only after obtaining a traineeship certificate is a Dutch lawyer allowed to practise law independently without the supervision of a supervising principal. 

The entire process from starting academic legal education to obtaining full qualification as an independent Dutch lawyer (i.e. being allowed to practise Dutch law independently without a supervising principal) typically takes at least seven years. Such a process may seem daunting, but where there is a will, there is a way. It is certainly not impossible for a foreign law student not born and raised in the Netherlands to become a fully qualified Dutch lawyer, as long as one is truly passionate about this profession and is willing to work hard and steadily towards that goal. 

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