Cătălin S. Rusu is currently an Associate Professor of European Law at the Radboud University Nijmegen, where he lectures on EU (Economic) Law, EU Competition Law, and EU Internal Market Law, as well as a Visiting Professor of European Competition Law at ‘Babes-Bolyai’ University, Cluj-Napoca. Cătălin’s research focuses on the dynamic role that EU Competition Law and Policy play in the Internal Market project, the manner in which antitrust regulation adapts to the requirements of modern law-making, and the distinct approaches to Competition Law enforcement in different (European) jurisdictions. Cătălin has served as a Non-Governmental Advisor for the European Commission in the International Competition Network. He also regularly provides advice on matters of (EU) Competition Law as a court-appointed independent specialist.
Lawyr.it: First of all, we would like to thank you again for taking the time to sit with us. Our first question relates to your field of work. What sparked your interest in economic law?
C.R.: Thank you for the invitation. Lovely initiative you have got here and I am happy to contribute. Regarding economic law, my interest began to grow while studying European law in my first year of Bachelor's in Cluj-Napoca. I realised that European law is what I wanted to do, but I still had to go through three years of Romanian law and only then start specialising. The first step towards choosing this field was going abroad through an Erasmus scholarship in the Netherlands in my second year of studies. Then I came back to do a Master’s program in Utrecht and things started working out by themselves. Among all the branches of European law somehow the internal market law peaked my interest. There was a niche closely linked to internal market law, the competition law, which I found very intriguing. Then I had a very interesting course on corporate law taught by a professor who was the dean of the faculty at the time so I started thinking about doing something connected to this field of law in the future. A PhD opportunity came up with the same professor, but I signalled my interest towards competition law and he was okay with that. He brought in an economist as a second supervisor of the PhD project. So, I was a competition law PhD candidate supervised by a corporate law professor and an economics professor. In the end, it was not necessarily a rational choice made in my second or my third year of studies, but rather something that was built in time.
Lawyr.it: Given that you have graduated from Babes-Bolyai University in Romania, what were your reasons for choosing to work and live in the Netherlands? Is there something specific about this country and/or Radboud University?
C.R.: First of all, I wanted to study abroad, at least for a short period of time, as I believe it is important to gather experiences from different places. Then I came here and I liked it, because things just work naturally somehow. There is predictability and certainty, not only as far as academic work is concerned, but also as far as life in general is concerned. You have some sort of certitude that things will go in a direction and will not immediately change in a different one. The language was an important factor as well, because this is a country where everybody speaks English, and I think it has to do with the fact that Dutch people realise how difficult their language is and they very freely and happily speak English to everybody. Therefore, the adjustment period was very short and I did not experience any problems communicating with people.
After the PhD, came the job opportunity here, at Radboud University, and eventually, years after, I realised I was settled in a place which I liked and there was no reason to change anything about that. Regarding Radboud University, while I did my Master’s and PhD in Utrecht, I can say that there are no fundamental differences between these universities as far as academic standards are concerned. Whether you’re in Utrecht, or Nijmegen, or Amsterdam, etc. you will get a good education no matter what, and that is a very important aspect about the Netherlands.
Lawyr.it: Based on your experience in two different systems, would you say that there is a divide between the Eastern and Western approaches when it comes to higher education and if so, what would be the most important differences?
C.R.: I would not put it between the east and the west, because I have experienced only Romania, the Netherlands, and France, as far as education is concerned. I will stick to the first two countries, which are better known to me. From the students' perspective, I think here, they generally start studying earlier in the semester. Given the nature of the tutorials, they have to prepare well for them throughout the semester, they acquire and shape their knowledge earlier, before they get to the exam period and that is why it is not uncommon for Dutch students to have an exam today and another exam tomorrow; there is the assumption that they are prepared already. Whereas it is not generally the case in Romania, as far as I can tell from my past experience as a student there. Regarding the quality of discussions in class, I can compare what I teach at Master's level here and what I teach at Master’s level in Romania. And I have to say that the quality of the discussions does not differ. Interested and driven students are present in both systems, so I see no problem in terms of factors which determine the students’ motivation. I also do not teach differently in Romania. I apply the same techniques. I have the same approach. I try to encourage people to talk as much as possible and not be afraid of putting their ideas out there, whatever the idea is. I like an open classroom and free discussions. It is always nice to shut down the powerpoint slides every now and then because the discussion is going in a direction which is interesting and people may learn something. My take is that the only thing you can do is to give the students a sketch, a skeleton, and then they have to put the pieces together. There is more encouragement on behalf of the lecturers here for the students to speak up, even if the classroom is large and this is something that I did not experience as a student back in Romania. This came as a bit of a shock at the beginning, when I moved to the Netherlands. But again, there are different methods of teaching, different flavours if you will. So, I'm not saying this as criticism, I'm just observing it.
Lawyr.it: How does academia look like in the Netherlands?
C.R.: First of all, I think this is one of the best countries in Europe to do a PhD because, while there are different categories of PhD positions, the large majority of candidates are not labelled as students, they are part of staff, they are hired by the university with a salary and everything else the employee status entails, such as health insurance, social contributions, taxation; whereas in a significant part of other countries they are still treated as students. Another point would be if you do a PhD here, the large majority of the programmes put an emphasis on research and the PhD candidates have limited teaching obligations. I encourage my PhD colleagues not to run away from teaching duties, because that's an important part of an academic career; but they do a limited amount of teaching over here, whereas in other countries, in order to support yourself, you have to teach many hours in order to improve your income. And when you invest a lot of time in teaching, it is the research time you cut away from. So, then you either do not finish your PhD on time or there is the risk of the PhD not coming out as it is supposed to be and that is an issue. Research time is taken very seriously. In Dutch universities there is a clear division between the amount of time a candidate has to spend on research, teaching, and administrative tasks, which is clearly stated in the employment contract, and to a large extent that division is enforced.
Academia is a sector that is respected and treated accordingly. You don't need to also be a prosecutor, a lawyer, or a judge to make ends meet. Because of this, I would say it is very competitive. My own experience also supports this statement as I remember how fierce the competition was when I applied for my job or judging from the position of a staff member, seeing now how many applications we have for potential jobs; it only underlines how competitive the field is. Also, judging by the applications and CVs we receive, more often than not, the candidates are very qualified people who are fighting for entry level positions.
Lawyr.it: The Netherlands has a very high intake of international students. Aside from the fact that it is largely an English-speaking country, what does it provide for them in terms of opportunities and how do these students help shape the Dutch system?
C.R.: It’s good that you already mentioned the language point because that is a given. Everybody speaks English. Everybody teaches in English as well. Right now, our programs in European law are very attractive for Brazilians and Norwegians, for example. We have people from Asia as well, from all corners of the world. One of the most rewarding things is to teach a class where you have somebody from New Zealand, somebody from the States, Russia, Brazil, and all the European countries, everybody in the same room. You hear ideas and interpretations of certain legal concepts coming from other cultures and other jurisdictions. And I learn from it as well, every day while I’m in class, due to being exposed to so many cultures. From the perspective of an international student here, in the Netherlands, I can tell you that there is a social element to it as well. That is why I encourage people to come to class and to spend time at university. I have formed friendships that I am sure will last a lifetime because I was exposed to an international crowd, and now I can say that I have friends all over the world. You learn a lot from diversity, even if not necessarily for your degree, but socially you grow by being exposed to different ways of thinking. I think that is very important and international students provide that learning environment.
As far as job opportunities, Dutch law faculties have a good reputation with employers even outside of the Netherlands. So, if you go to a job interview at a law firm in Brussels, they will know about Dutch law schools. It is hard to think about opportunities immediately after university because the labour market doesn't look as it looked back in the day. So right now, I think a Master’s program is a must, an internship is a must, and then you can start thinking of jobs. Some people do internships during their studies as well. An important skill that you would get from a Dutch law faculty is very good structure, knowing how to formulate an argument, from beginning to end. Proper writing is again something important, which is why Dutch universities emphasise on it. Universities should indeed teach students how to write academic pieces or legal briefs. I feel that there are certain systems which lack this approach and I can tell that from my interactions with students from other countries and academic circles. It is clear that they are struggling with writing and the language is not necessarily the problem. This, I mean proper writing and a structured approach, is clearly something beneficial that the Netherlands has to offer.
Lawyr.it: What would be the skills students should develop if they want a satisfactory career in academia and how soon should they start focusing on those skills?
C.R.: The first thing I would say overlaps with my previous answer: students need to know how to properly write an academic piece. If you want to be in academia for the long run you necessarily need good research skills. So, a lot of investment has to be done from the beginning in order to learn how to research correctly: how to gather data, how to categorise it, how to code it etc. And everything needs to be done without cutting corners, as it is a very time-consuming process. When it comes to research, results are visible in time, so you have to be patient and persistent, continuously work on your skills and accept that, more often than not, things will not work out. Accept failure to some extent. That article you wrote, as amazing as you think it is, may not get published and you need to go back and work on it some more or sometimes even set it aside and focus on something else. This is what I mean by accepting failure.
Lawyr.it: You have worked as a non-governmental advisor for the European Commission. Could you describe your experience working for such an important institution?
C.R.: The work with the Commission was interesting and at the same time challenging to a certain extent, because it is an immense institution in itself, although it may feel that for competition, for example, it is only a handful of people that lead this particular discussion. The position was exactly like the title says, I was a non-governmental, non-politically involved, non-partisan advisor. Essentially, I attended phone conferences with them in which we discussed certain submissions that they were preparing for the International Competition Network. I was given their briefs to read, weigh in, and provide my opinion on the direction that they were going for. They are very friendly people, very forthcoming, and willing to listen. However, it was not spectacular, and I am not saying this in a bad way. It was as it is supposed to be, very straightforward, clear, nothing unexpected. But the topics discussed were interesting for me because they were very forward-looking. So that's one of the many things that I appreciate about the Directorate-General for Competition and the way they view competition developing in a broader context. The Commission is party of the International Competition Network and I think it has a very forward-looking approach as to how competition law should develop. And again, not spectacular because for me, things don't have to be spectacular. They have to be practical, certain, and effective. And that is exactly how they were.
Lawyr.it: What is your advice to students who want to work with European institutions?
C.R.: Firstly, don't be a eurosceptic. You need to truly believe in the European project and to be aware of the values that the European Union stands for, the shortcomings, just as much as the pluses and opportunities it offers. If you are a law student and you want to work for any of the European institutions, you need to take into account a bigger discussion which does not only apply to the EU institutions, but to finding a good job in general. Having a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree just doesn't cut it anymore. Think about it. How many students graduate every year? How many can the labour market absorb? While there is some filtering going on because some of the top students will get the better jobs and so on, there is still an excess of graduates on the market. So, as soon as possible, you have to do something extra, you need to engage in extracurricular activities, and identify early on which field you want to work in. If you want to work with European law, start looking into a European law moot court competition. Look for internships, for law firms which work with some sort of a European law dimension. You have all these students’ associations; get involved and do something extra which is meaningful and tells a nice story, so when you graduate and you want to get a job, your CV should tell a good story about you. Your profile should not be all over the place, it needs to show your specialisation. It is a cruel reality that you cannot do it all and if working for the EU institutions is your goal, which is a broad one by itself, start narrowing down your field, the Directorate-General which covers it for example, if it is the Commission you are going after, and coordinate all your efforts and your searches towards that direction.
Lawyr.it: Given that your previous answers covered a lot of professional advice, and our signature question at the end of each interview involves advice for law students in general, we would like to nuance the question. If you could give one personal advice to law students, what would it be?
C.R.: The more I engage with law, the more I think that proportionality and balance are key aspects. So, be balanced in everything that you do as a student. Study a couple of hours every day, early on, take it seriously, build you profile and your career. But don’t skip the parties, or that basketball match with friends, have those beers, while keeping in mind that balance is everything. But also, be aware that your twenties go really, really fast, so enjoy them, and everything else this world has to offer. I know I did. No, scratch that. I still do!
By Patricia Cîmpian
This material was published in Lawyr.it Vol. 6 Ed. 2, April 2019.