Margarita Peristeraki, Référendaire at the Court of First Instance in Luxembourg

BL: What were your main tasks as a référendaire?

MP: Law clerks in the Courts of the European Communities (commonly referred to by their French name, “référendaires”), are assigned cases that are allocated to their respective Judges. Their principal task consists of treating these cases on substance, the procedural aspects being covered by registry administrators. This requires them to undertake a considerable amount of legal research, analyzing laws and jurisprudence. Once the written procedure in any given case is closed, référendaires are required to draft a preliminary report which contains the applicable legal framework, the facts of the case, the arguments put forward by the parties and their respective pleas in law, as well as an assessment for the Judge.  The assessment is supposed to examine and lay out all the possible “solutions” to the case in question. Preliminary reports are thoroughly discussed with the Judge before becoming final. Besides such reports, which remain internal and are meant to assist Judges in hearings, référendaires are typically charged with other duties such as drafting the public reports for the hearings (which are distributed to the audience), keeping notes in hearings, drafting judgments and also drafting internal notes on procedure at the request of the Judge.

BL: What would a typical working day look like?

MP: Although not practiced by all cabinets, usually the day would begin with a kick-off meeting between the Judge and his/her référendaires in the early morning, where the pending cases and tasks of the day would be discussed. The day starts rather early (usually at 9 a.m., but sometimes as early as 8), especially when a référendaire’s case is being heard as they may need to be at work earlier to meet with their Judge, and in any case need to be in the hearing room before it begins (either 9 a.m. or 9.30, depending on the schedule). Throughout the hearings, they keep notes and can even pass remarks to their Judge on the bench via the ushers (commonly referred to as “huissiers”). They do not participate in the Judges’ deliberations that take place immediately after the hearing, but are usually instructed by the Judge to draft the judgment upon his/her return to the cabinet. This will be submitted to the chamber for further discussion following the Judge’s review. Hearings may continue after lunch time and in complex cases can take more than a day to be completed.

Work typically breaks for lunch at 1 p.m. Most of the Court’s staff has lunch in the canteen, which is also a place to meet colleagues. The work picks up again around an hour later and tends to continue until the late afternoon (most référendaires have left by 8 p.m., but urgent internal deadlines can sometimes require them to be called to work later).

BL: What were the three best and three worst aspects of your job?

MP: Three best

1. The opportunity to work with the highest judicial body in the European Union, which is both exciting and intimidating. This allows one to meet very high profile individuals in the judicial world. It was particularly valuable to be able to interact with the Judges, all of whom are highly respected individuals in their Member States and from whom a lot can be learned.

2. The multicultural aspect of the job, as one gets to meet representatives (Judges, référendaires, translators, supporting staff) from all 27 Member States. It groups together professionals that originate from diverse legal systems and cultures, making for a unique environment. This can easily be observed by sitting in the Court room through a hearing, where the plaintiff, defendant, and Judges may all be using different languages. A Tower of Babel of sorts.  

3. The fact that the job is purely legal, at times even academic, which allows one to improve his/her legal reasoning immensely. The job focuses on the substance of a case, the legal framework, the case law and aims to arrive at optimal and fair solutions without taking sides. This differs greatly from legal practice, where the defense of client interests is paramount regardless of where one stands on the issues at hand. 

Three worst

1. If I had to find bad aspects, I would say that the lack of on-the-job training is a slight drawback. Référendaires are required to adapt to the house style, their Judge’s drafting style and the Court’s working methods by themselves, which can be quite time-consuming. When I was there, one’s on-the-job development depended greatly on the other référendaires in the cabinet, as well as on those Judges who were willing to devote the time to train their cabinet members. When I started working for the Court, there was a very helpful lecture on both the workings of the Court and the treatment of cases, which was put together by the President’s Cabinet. Thinking back now, the Court could consider introducing more substantive training sessions for newcomers. This would help référendaires be more efficient in adapting to their new duties.

2. The lack of contact with the outside world. The work of a référendaire is rather solitary and much quieter than that of legal practice, which can sometimes be a shock for people that are used to working in a law firm.  Référendaires tend to work on their own and seldom interact with anyone other than their respective Judges. This is a personal choice… either you love it or you hate it!

3. The lack of specialization. At the CFI, one simply deals with the cases that fall under the Court’s competence, irrespective of the topic in question.  This raises difficulties for both the référendaires and the Court. It has been suggested that creating task forces or specialized chambers within the Court could help give value to référendaires’ specific skills.  In 2004, the EU Civil Service Tribunal was established to deal specifically with the bulk of staff cases. This was a very important step but to some people more need to be taken.

BL: How does life in Luxembourg compare to life in Brussels?

MP: Most référendaires who “land” in Luxembourg feel that they are in exile. However, I really enjoyed living there. Although choices are somewhat limited in terms of cultural events or shopping, Luxembourg offers enough in order to have a good standard of living. Life was very simple and easy, especially when one considers that the distances one has to cover to move around are very small when compared to big cities. This improves the (underestimated) social side of things as meeting up with friends is made far more convenient. Essentially, it is a matter of taste: Luxembourg comes with the pros and cons of a small city. I also thought that Luxembourg is in a league of its own when it comes to restaurants.

Although there are many social gatherings between référendaires, it is not uncommon for them to commute to Brussels on the weekends as this is where most people came from (professionally) and they return to touch base with their friends.  Traveling elsewhere was also easy, as Luxembourg airport is similar to Brussels in that it has many affordable and quick connections.

Overall, I believe my time in Luxembourg was invaluable. It completely changed my way of thinking and provided me with insight on the workings of all the EU institutions (not only the Court).  I liked every aspect of it and would definitively do it again.

BL: Good luck and thank you for your time.

Other features dealing with related issues:

Robert Klotz, Partner at Hunton & Williams

Antonio Capobianco, Principal Administrator at OECD in Paris