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Denis Van den Bulke (Vandenbulke): When law meets anthropology, language and social responsibility

Luxembourg law firm Vandenbulke managing partner Denis Van den Bulke discusses how his background in anthropology helps in understanding parties from different cultures, how language can shape people’s vision of the world, and why the legal profession has a duty to uphold substance and analysis in public debate.


In addition to your education in economics and law, you have a M.A in social and cultural anthropology. What influence has this had on your legal career?


Anthropology teaches you ‘social relativism’ – to understand other people and societies not through your own perception but their own cultural values and symbols. It compels you to scrutinise the rationality and merit of all an organisation’s social rules and to discover that no social rules are inappropriate or not useful; rather, they aim to promote harmonious and stable relationships within a community. Understanding this premise strengthens your analytical faculties and is a daily help in the legal profession when you set up a joint venture or negotiate a shareholders’ agreement and test whether the balance of the parties’ respective interests is efficient, well founded and rational.


During negotiation, by definition it’s necessary to reconcile parties with different views if their reasoning and reference values are contradictory. When you understand the client’s position and how each party is socially and culturally structured. it’s easier to reach a consensus and identify the deal-breaking issues. Every day we negotiate with different cultures in different languages, and sometimes parties are “lost in translation”. Thus, my background in anthropology helps me to detect the origin and causes of miscommunication, identify business patterns or social attitudes, and close deals successfully.

"During negotiation, by definition it’s necessary to reconcile parties with different views if their reasoning and reference values are contradictory."

How has this influenced your firm’s organisation and approach in the legal market?


I have been able to draw from my experience various basic principles of organisation of society that regulate groups efficiently, make them more stable, reduce internal conflict and creates better balanced social relationships. In establishing the firm, I pushed for horizontal rather than vertical management, encouraged working in clusters of competences and favoured osmosis and interaction between the complementary fields of finance, corporate and tax. In traditional firms, lawyers work in hermetic departments, fail to share their experience enough, and miss the opportunity to learn from each other.


Luxembourg is a multicultural centre that has lawyers from every continent. The success of a team depends on your ability to manage different approaches on the same floor. For example. some cultures – generally Germanic – are monochronic and prefer to do just one thing at a time, while polychronic cultures - typically Latin – like to do multiple things at the same time. If you lack this perception, you will never succeed in getting a German and an Italian lawyer to work together.


The country also has three distinct linguistic communities: French, German and Luxembourgish. You need to be aware that if a colleague has been educated in a different language, this translates not only into different language skills but into very different visions of the world, because each language itself conveys and structures a different perception of our environment and influences our attitudes. In such a working environment, you must therefore relax organisational rules and adapt them to each cultural profile. We are convinced that the quality of a law firm is measured not by its number of lawyers but by the quality of interaction between them.


What impact on the profession do you see from the evolution of society in Luxembourg, Europe and worldwide? 


An essential part of a law firm’s role is the handling and communication of information – an area that has undergone a cultural and technological revolution. In the past, communicating with clients meant traveling to meet them, drafting correspondence or sending faxes, and closings required your physical presence. Time was less hectic and deadlines less urgent  and central to professional life. Information was not easily accessible, and the key research tool was “a good library”. Digitalisation, e-mail, the internet and instant access to information have accelerated our working pace and commoditised a great deal of lawyers’ activity. Too many firms push paper and recycle deals, duplicate standardised templates with junior lawyers or focus only on accumulating billable hours.


Human beings have not fundamentally changed and still seek close personal interaction with their counsel. However, the speeding up of time runs counter to the essence of the profession, which demands time for thought, analysis and reflection. Our firm advocates a different approach: specialisation and the bridging of competences to provide holistic counsel, which should be remunerated according to complexity and quality, and not by the clock. Finally, it’s evident that in today’s global media image prevails over content, which has increasingly become impoverished and shallow. It is now time to restore substance and analysis to the public debate. With its mastery of logic and language, this presents the legal profession with a new and challenging social responsibility.

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