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Sofie Demeyer

Former winners testify: why entering our thesis prize is so interesting

The thesis prize was created in 2007. We talk to 3 former winners, they tell what it meant to them to win the prize.

Jasper De fauw won the award in 2009.

Jasper De fauw graduated as a law student at UGent in 2009 with a master's thesis on: "The free movement of lawyers within the European Community. How free is this?" It earned him a fine 17/20. Since 2010, Jasper De fauw has been a lawyer specialising in European law, competition law and dispute resolution and so we naturally address him in this interview as master (abbreviated mr.) De fauw.

Winner in 2018: Joke De Paepe

Joke De Paepe graduated from Ghent University with the master's thesis "Recovery of undisputed money debts. Critical analysis of the new IOS procedure and a look at the first practical experiences." Joke De Paepe is part of her brother and father's law firm in Deinze. We therefore also address her as mr De Paepe.

Tim Opgenhaffen is still proud of winning the award in 2014.

It is immediately obvious when you google Tim Opgenhaffen. His biography at the Institute of Social Law (KU Leuven) explicitly mentions that he won our thesis prize in 2014. That year, he graduated as a law student in Leuven with a thesis on: "The search and professional secrecy of the doctor and lawyer revisited. A test of Belgian law against the European Convention on Human Rights and the values underlying professional secrecy and truth-telling." Tim Opgenhaffen has taught at several universities in recent years but since this academic year he has been teaching half-time at the VUB and half-time at KU Leuven. At the VUB, Professor Opgenhaffen teaches health and personal law, at KU Leuven social law and social security.

How do you look back on winning the thesis award?

Mr De fauw: I remember that my supervisor alerted me to the existence of that prize and encouraged me to submit my master's thesis. My supervisor was Professor Inge Govaere who teaches European at Ghent University.

Mr De Paepe: I still have very fond memories of it. At the time, I deliberately chose the topic "Recovery of undisputed monetary debts" because at the time it was a new procedure about which not much had been written yet. Moreover, I already knew then that I would have to deal with it a lot in my later career as a lawyer. My supervisors (nvdr: Prof Piet Taelman and Prof Karen Broeckx, both professor of civil procedural law at UGent) gave me an 18/20 for it and Prof Taelman advised me to participate in the thesis prize. Without his encouragement, I might not have dared to submit my master's thesis.

Prof Opgenhaffen: I am still proud that I won that prize because it was an important step for me at the time between the research work for my thesis and my later doctoral research. I got an 18 for my thesis, which I was already very happy about, but when I heard that I also won the thesis prize for it, I saw it as an extra recognition that the research I had done as a student was also socially relevant. I saw it as a reward for all the work I had put in, it was the first time I experienced how nice it is when people read and appreciate what you have written.

Did the OVB student award help you further your career?

Mr De fauw: I still remember the evening of the award ceremony, that was then still at De Warande in Brussels, I came into contact with a lot of lawyers there who were particularly interested in the subject of my master's thesis, five people gave me their business cards asking if I could forward them my master's thesis. At that time, I was looking for an internship and some lawyers suggested that I should definitely apply to them.

I had mentioned on my CV that I had won the prize, and it is always nice when your CV stands out from the crowd because of high marks or such a prize. At every job interview there would be a question about the prize.
Jasper De fauw, lawyer

I didn't end up knocking on the door of any of those firms but the fact that I had won an award from the lawyers' professional body did help me apply. As a result, they immediately suspected that you at least have a good pen and can already deliver solid legal work. Being a lawyer is more than having a good pen, but it is still an important asset. Moreover, I was looking for a firm that focused on European law and it helped, of course, that the topic of my master's thesis was on European law.

Mr De Paepe: That award really helped me build my career. I consciously chose to write a master's thesis on "Recovery of uncontested money debts" because I already knew then that I would enter the law firm of my father and brother. Indeed, they focus on the collection of undisputed invoices between companies. Even now, I am still regularly invited to speak about collecting uncontested debts. Those invitations are still a consequence of that thesis prize and the fact that I wrote other in-depth publications on that topic because of that prize.

Professor Opgenhaffen: 'It also gave my career a boost, through the research work for my master's thesis I established that I enjoyed doing research and that I enjoyed at least as much establishing that other people found the result of my research worth reading.

The fact that I had won an award for my research work simultaneously paved the way for my later career as a doctoral researcher because the award immediately opened doors for project funding for my next research project(s). It eventually even led to me becoming a professor.

What did you do with the cash prize?

Mr De fauw: In that year, I was still enjoying my last summer with three months of free time. I suspect I used part of it for a trip and saved up the rest to pay for other fun things. The prize money was 2,500 euros, completely tax-free. In those days, that was considerably more than what you normally earned from a summer job. It was, and still is, quite an attractive amount.

Mr De Paepe: At the reception, after the award ceremony, many people asked me what I would do with the money. They advised me to do something nice with it like buy a jewel, for example.

With the 2,500 euros I won, I bought a lounge set for my garden. Every time I sit in that lounge set now, I think to myself, "I owe this comfortable moment to my thesis."
Joke De Paepe, lawyer

Prof Opgenhaffen: I did what almost any student would do with a cash prize: go on a trip! I had toiled for months on that thesis, I felt I deserved a reward for it, and I spent some of the money on a tour of the interior of Spain. Today, at 35, I would probably rather invest that sum of money in future research (laughs).

How did friends, acquaintances, family react when it was announced that you had won the prize?

Mr De fauw: Everyone was extremely enthusiastic, I remember. Social media also existed back then, I had immediately shared the press release via Facebook and then of course the congratulations poured in. Of course I also informed my supervisor, who was also very enthusiastic, and congratulations even came from the dean of the Faculty of Law at UGent. He immediately asked me to write a short summary of my master's thesis for the university website with a link to the full text of the master's thesis. By the way, it is still freely available on the UGent website. I recently met a colleague who told me: "We recently had a case about free movement of lawyers and I benefited very much from your master's thesis."

Mr De Paepe: My father and my brother were particularly proud of me; as lawyers, they obviously felt even more committed to an award given by their own professional body. My supervisors were also particularly pleased and, as I briefly mentioned above, we immediately had the idea to knit a sequel to my thesis. Together with Tijl De Jaeger (nvdr: substitute public prosecutor at the public prosecutor's office in East Flanders, affiliated with the Institute for Procedural Law at UGent and a former lawyer), I wrote another article on the recovery of undisputed monetary debts with findings from my thesis that were supported by new figures. It eventually even led to a book in 2019, publisher Wolters-Kluwer had learned that I had won the prize with my master's thesis and their interest was piqued. At the time, I firmly intended to keep updating my publication but, to be honest, since I started as a lawyer, it didn't happen.

Professor Opgenhaffen: With me too, everyone reacted enthusiastically: my parents, my girlfriend (now my wife) and most of all: my supervisor (nvdr: Prof. Dr. Johan Put, ordinary professor at the Faculty of Law of KU Leuven, associated with the Institute of Social Law and the Leuven Institute of Criminology). By the way, my supervisor accompanied me to the award ceremony at the Colonial Palace in Tervuren. For me, that was an excellent networking opportunity there.

At the reception after the award ceremony, I met people whom I ran into again later and to whom I could then say, "Do you remember? We met at the New Year reception of the, I received the thesis award there then." They usually remembered my name then, well, I have an infrequent surname (laughs). That networking back then was really nice.
Tim Opgenhaffen, lecturer VUB and KU Leuven

What is your advice to students who have just written a master's thesis now?

The 3 former thesis winners immediately replied: if your master's thesis is about the legal profession or justice, submit it like hell to participate in the thesis prize. These are their arguments to convince you:

Mr De fauw: You have a chance to win a nice cash prize and, especially if you want to become a lawyer, it is interesting because at the reception after the award ceremony you will be in contact with a lot of lawyers while, at the same time, you will also become known within the professional organisation of the legal profession.

Mr De Paepe: It then not only earns you a nice sum of money, but you also make so many contacts at the award ceremony. For example, during my professional training exam as a first-year trainee, there was someone from our professional body who addressed me with: "You won our thesis prize, didn't you? I recognise your name." Fine, right?

Professor Opgenhaffen: I myself learned about the thesis prize because the law faculty in Leuven distributed information about several interesting prizes. Now that I am a professor myself, I have also created a list with information about all kinds of prizes and I will always encourage a good student to submit a paper or a master's thesis for prizes. I have always done that myself and as a result I have won several awards later on. What do you lose by submitting your work? Nothing, right?

What are you waiting for? Submit your thesis now!

Who were the most recent winners?

Press release

Chiara Kerckhof wins prestigious thesis award

Chiara Kerckhof obtained 18 out of 20 for her master's thesis "Truth finding in civil procedure. The duty of truth and completeness on behalf of litigants".

Read more

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