Each year, over four Sundays, a group of children from underprivileged backgrounds take over NautaDutilh's Rotterdam office. Volunteers from NautaDutilh are on hand to teach the eager 10 to 14-year-olds about law. They are there as part of IMC Weekendschool, an initiative in which children spend their weekends learning about a range of topics including philosophy and medicine.
Mirjam von Meijenfeldt, an associate in NautaDutilh’s Administrative Law Department, is one of the associates who makes sure everything runs smoothly. "For me personally, it's very important to contribute to society. I learned about IMC Weekendschool through a colleague and realised it was the perfect project for me: it gives me the opportunity to share my area of expertise with children who otherwise might not have the chance."
On four Sundays each year, around 50 kids aged 10-14 from disadvantaged backgrounds take part in a crash course on law. They visit the university, a police station, our office and a courthouse where they even present legal arguments at a mock hearing.
"We show them that the law isn't black and white: sometimes it's a matter of discussion."
We begin the first week with a few workshops – led by lawyers, prosecutors and judges – on how the law works. We teach the children the basics by asking them questions. For example, we will describe a case and ask if this person should be punished. By doing so, we show them that the law isn't black and white: sometimes it's a matter of discussion. If a person commits a crime – but there are mitigating circumstances – he might not go to jail. The students come from backgrounds where the law and law enforcement aren't always viewed in a positive light, so we try to ensure they get a more nuanced view.
The second week, we visit a police station. We show them the cells, and they get to talk to police officers. This is one of the most exciting parts of the course for them.
"I love it when they get to call the ‘client’, who is played by one of us, to ask questions. They are always incredibly nervous."
The following Sunday, they visit our Rotterdam office and get to defend a client. We focus on a smaller criminal case, which is not what our firm typically does, but it's important that the case appeals to them. A burglary is obviously more fun than a cross-border merger. I love it when they get to call the ‘client’, who is played by one of us, to ask questions. They are always incredibly nervous.
It's very rewarding to see their curiosity. They ask a lot of questions, including funny ones such as whether it's legal to hit someone! Then they get to put on a robe and plead their case. It's hard for them as they’re often convinced that the client did it – but have to argue for their innocence. We purposely make the case ambiguous so they don't know whether the suspect is guilty or not. In doing so, we teach them that smoke doesn't automatically mean fire.
"On the final Sunday, we go to trial in a real courtroom. The kids get to play all the roles: lawyer, prosecutor, registrar, clerk…"
On the final Sunday, we go to trial in a real courtroom. The kids get to play all the roles: lawyer, prosecutor, registrar, clerk… This allows them to see how many different professions there are in the court system and to realise they don't necessarily have to go to university to have a career in the legal sector. That’s also why, when they visit our offices, we show them that our lawyers wouldn’t be able to do their work without the support of other professionals within the firm. We also have someone play the role of the accused. This is particularly exciting for them as they always think it's an actual suspect!
For me, the biggest surprise each year is to see how enthusiastic the children are. In fact, it’s almost impossible for them to contain their emotions. That’s a good thing, of course, but sometimes it can be quite hard to handle – and it keeps us busy. However, for me and my colleagues volunteering on Sundays, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience."