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GC Magazine



London-based Dutch lawyer Jan-Willem Jonker has worked for organisations as varied as the
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity. He chats
to GC about regeneration, fundraising, and Peter Pan.

G C     I N T E R V I E W

Great Ormond Street Hospital Charity Logo



photo of jan-willem jonker

CW:Tell me about the two organisations you work for and how they interlink?

Jan-Willem Jonker (JWJ): Great Ormond Street Hospital [GOSH] and Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity are independent organisations, but they work very closely together. At the charity we deal with lots of things the hospital cannot fund on its own. There are many pressures on NHS budgets and the very specialist work we do at Great Ormond Street Hospital to treat the country’s most poorly children and support their families is expensive. We need to redevelop two thirds of the older hospital buildings, we need to fund life-saving research and we need to make sure that the children being cared for benefit from the best equipment and facilities possible.

We also provide accommodation for parents. The hospital cares for children from all over the UK,. These children are often very ill, needing long term care, and some are in-patients for months.

CW: Did you always want to be a lawyer?

JWJ: No, I originally wanted to study biology, but I got cold feet. I studied law as a way of postponing the decision. I didn’t really enjoy it and I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to do it. I worked at a bank but that didn’t appeal either, so I gave law a go, then started to enjoy it.

I trained in a small firm in Amsterdam, which was very principled and taught me that being a lawyer wasn’t a trade but a profession. It taught me not to take a case if I didn’t think the client was sincere. The work was litigation-based and so I went to court. In Holland, lawyers take a case from start to finish. I really enjoyed that. I worked on a mixture of cases, including landlord/tenant disputes, employment, criminal, divorce – it was broad training, which is good. I think that is the best way to learn the trade; specialisation is bad for you. You need to try to find out what you like and learn broadly from it.

CW: You then moved to the UK where you worked for Trowers & Hamlins. Why did you leave the Netherlands?

JWJ: Love. I followed my wife to London and we decided to get married. London seemed like an exciting adventure. I did a lot of employment law in Amsterdam and I continued to do it at Trowers.

I then moved to a different department, which provided charity law and governance advice to social landlords and advised on mergers of housing associations. Trowers is the number one firm in the housing sector. I was there for eight years.

CW: How did you find the switch from Amsterdam to London?

JWJ: It wasn’t the legal system so much, because Amsterdam and London are similar societies, with similar solutions, but the switch from a small firm to a city firm like Trowers was very, very different. There was marketing talk and, overall, a much bigger set-up. I found it exciting to see how a city firm functions.

CW: What made you decide to go in-house?

JWJ: I wasn’t really enjoying private practice in the long term. Specialising wasn’t much fun; it is the same trick over and over again. Once you have done a deal for the client, you are asked to do the same thing for another client, over and over. I did not want to do this until I retired. So my decision to go in-house was very much caused by wanting to do different and broader things. And in-house has really delivered that for me – I have done things I would never have imagined I was going to do. Changing the diet of what you are doing is good for you, and change is exciting.

CW: You have worked for different public bodies. Was that a conscious decision you took to work for public bodies rather than corporate?

JWJ: Yes and no. My main driver for staying in that sector is, if you have expertise there then it is easier to make the switch. I joined this charity because they were in the process of converting into a charitable company to take it outside of the NHS, and I had done the exact procedure before, so I could hit the ground running. But ultimately, I wouldn’t say I would always work in the public sector; I would enjoy working in the private sector too, because there are interesting things in it that I would like to do. Just because it is the not-for-profit sector, it isn’t all fluffy work. For example, I worked on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park [after the London 2012 Olympic Games] which is not-for-profit, but it is also a very commercial organisation, because it has to become self-sufficient. The people involved in redeveloping the park mainly came from a commercial background.

Here, although we are a charity, we operate in a business-like manner. We are here to raise funds, there are targets to meet, so it has to be run like a business. Lots of our senior management come from the private sector; my line manager used to be managing director at Merrill Lynch. He doesn’t change just because he now works for a charity. He has the same ethos and approach and he brings it here. It is important not to overestimate the difference between the sectors.

CW: Could you tell me about your role at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park?

JWJ: It was a very broad role. We had a general counsel who was very busy running the procedure to let the stadium to West Ham United [a UK football club], and I stepped up to deputy some of the more senior legal work. I had a focus on regeneration which came from my former social housing practice. I renegotiated the facilities management contract for the park to reduce its costs.

I negotiated the contract for the Rugby World Cup to go in the Olympic Stadium, which was good fun. I also advised on public procurement, which is quite a thorny legal area.

CW: What is your favourite element of the work you do for the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s charity?

JWJ: Ultimately you are benefitting people in need, not just making money for shareholders. We are based very close to the hospital and I can see exactly how my work is making a difference on the ground.

My role is to manage legal spend and drive costs down. It is just me at the moment and we have no plans to grow. We are fortunate because Macfarlanes provides us with a lot of pro bono advice on day-to-day fundraising work. Macfarlanes is very generous but we can’t over-ask. Big projects, like our current development of a research facility could never be done pro bono. So we have to get outside help and try to do more ourselves to send less out to our lawyers. We have to make sure that our money is spent wisely.

CW: What current projects are you enjoying most?

JWJ: I am involved in a change to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. JM Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan, donated the copyright of the book to the hospital in the 1920s. In the UK, the copyright expired in the ‘80s. At the time this happened, Lord Callaghan [a former British Prime Minister) motioned to change the UK law to give GOSH the rights to Peter Pan in perpetuity. And that is what happened: our charity continues to receive sizeable royalties from Peter Pan. We can’t, however, stop people from publishing because it is not a full copyright.

But now that we are a different legal entity after we incorporated, we had to change the Act so that the money goes to the new entity. We are working with Wendy Morton MP who introduced a Private Members’ Bill in Parliament and this has now been enacted and has just received Royal assent. Working on an Act from start to finish, briefing MPs, Peers and the Department of Health on the Bill, and attending debates has been a fascinating process. I had a great deal of satisfaction seeing our Bill become law and hearing how quotes from your briefings make their way into speeches in Parliament.

Another thing we are spending a lot of time on is privacy and data protection. As a fundraising organisation, we hold a lot of personal data from supporters and we contact them regularly to update them about our work and our fundraising campaigns. We need to make sure that we act in accordance with good practice at all times. Our reputation and ethos are very important to us, so we need to make sure that we only contact people with their full consent and that we do not approach them too often or in a way they would not appreciate.

CW: What are your career highlights?

JWJ: Negotiating the Rugby World Cup contracts for one. Also, the change in the Act of Parliament is the Holy Grail for a lawyer – to get your words enshrined in an Act and your briefings quoted in the mother of all Parliaments.

CW: What does it take to be a good leader in an in-house legal department?

JWJ: I think being inspirational and involved is crucial. When I look back at my own line managers, the worst ones weren’t taking much interest in what I was doing day to day. My current line manager is great – we meet regularly and I get feedback and the freedom to do what I think is right. We have a rapport. Lots of line managers only really engage with their staff when something goes wrong. I think it is important to keep a constant dialogue. In private practice, lots of line management is done via stats – how many billable hours are you doing, how many cases are you working on etc, but this is very one-sided. It is better to help your team develop and nurture them.

CW: What are your interests outside of work?

JWJ: I have a twelve-year-old daughter, and so I do not have that much time to myself! I started playing hockey four years ago and I really enjoy it. I also enjoy learning new things, such as a recent jazz appreciation course I did, as well as teaching myself to code, which has been tricky but interesting.

CW: What would be if you weren’t a lawyer?

JWJ: If I wasn’t a lawyer, I would love to be an entrepreneur. I might be bad at it though, because lawyers are trained to look at worst-case scenarios, so the mind-set is very hard to shift into becoming a risk-taker, selling the positive side, and not warning about the things that could go wrong!