Alumna Natacha Harlequin: ‘When it really matters, I’m a lion’
She stands out for the moderate tone she takes in discussions on Dutch talk shows. Without judgement you can have an open conversation, criminal lawyer Natacha Harlequin learned in her student days in Leiden. ‘What I personally think of the alleged act doesn’t matter so much.’
Harlequin recently returned to Leiden after many years. She drove over the bridge at Molen De Valk, coincidentally at the same early hour as she used to go to her part-time job at the Diaconessenhuis hospital. She walked the old route again, over the Rapenburg canal to the Kippenhok, the female student house where she lived in her university days. ‘Except for a few cyclists, the streets were still empty. So peaceful. I realised this is where it all started.’
She already knew she wanted to be a lawyer when she was just 11 years old. She was watching a courtroom drama when her father remarked: ‘Everyone is against him, but who’s on his side?’ She resolved that she would be that person. Her determination to become a criminal lawyer was already evident in her first year at university. ‘With some subjects, I wondered: is this just about rote memorisation?’ She had to laugh about it afterwards. ‘I wanted criminal law and only that.’
Soon she asked if she could put together her own curriculum. She was allowed to after the first year, and she chose many extra subjects: criminology, pedagogy, psychology. She had a purposefulness that most of her peers did not. ‘I lived in a house with 23 girls, many of whom didn’t know what they wanted to do. They often switched degree programme or university.’ Harlequin wanted to experience everything about student life, she remembers. That included the initiation ceremonies at Minerva and life in a student house. ‘I really didn’t know anyone there at all, so I had to start from scratch.’
Immersing herself in an unfamiliar world taught her a lot, including the ability to deal with differences. ‘In my part-time job as a dietetic assistant, I saw how big differences can be, especially in situations where patients are very ill.’ What she thought about people didn’t matter so much, she noticed there. ‘Listen and don’t judge too quickly; then you get to know people much better.’ She also applies that principle to her clients. ‘You never know how you yourself would act in a certain situation. What I personally think of the act doesn’t matter.’ As a counsellor, she stands up for the individual and ‘chooses the position of the underdog.’ That is precisely what she believes is at the heart of the law.
Make or break
During her studies, Natacha met Bénédicte Ficq. ‘She gave a guest lecture about what was then still called the Leiden ballpoint pen murder, and I found her so inspiring.’ It led her to do an internship with the well-known lawyer. ‘When it comes to important job-related decisions, I can always speak to her.’ A second internship followed, with criminal lawyers Britta Böhler and Stijn Franken. ‘Normally you start with something small, like the theft of a lip gloss from HEMA. I took the opposite route.’ She worked on serious cases, such as political assassin Volkert van der G. and the wrongly convicted Lucia de B. After her studies, she gained experience in a criminal law practice with Piet Doedens. ‘You name it, it’s come up: from undercover officers, informants and serious drug cases, to disappearances and double murders.’
After a while, she was ready to set up her own practice. She did so in 2007 and now works alongside her husband Jacq Taekema, who’s well-known for major trials such as the Schiedam Park Murder. He is currently defending Giërmo B., who is accused of the murder of lawyer Derk Wiersum. Harlequin specialises in sexual offences and homicides, such as the ‘pressure cooker case’ and the murder of schoolgirl Humeyra, as well as fraud and money laundering. ‘In criminal law, it’s always make or break. You’re either inside or outside (prison, Ed.); there’s nothing in between.’
She’s never afraid in her work. ‘The moment you’re afraid of a client, that’s the first indication that you should go your separate ways. I’ve also had a client fall in love with me before. Then that’s the end. You can’t have that emotion when you’re preparing a criminal case. As a suspect, you know that the alleged offence is serious, and you might get a serious sentence. You shouldn’t be gazing at Harlequin with love in your eyes.’
Natacha Harlequin (1973) grew up in Delft. Her parents, a banker and a teacher, came to the Netherlands in their twenties. She studied law in Leiden and learned the criminal law profession at several large law firms. She and her husband run Taekema Harlequin Advocaten in The Hague. Harlequin is a frequent talk show guest and briefly had her own talk show, Dit vindt Nederland, on SBS6.
Respect from clients
Of her lecturers at Leiden Law School, she remembers one especially well: Monique de Deugd. ‘What a presence: cowboy boots, a long black coat, a great head of red hair. Sometimes she came to lectures on roller skates. She has an incredibly sparkling personality and was also a fantastic teacher. She taught the business of legal practice and urged us to experience for ourselves whether the soul of a law firm suits you. There’s an office for every personality, she kept telling us.’
Although her fellow students undoubtedly thought that Natacha would immediately go on to train as a judicial officer (RAIO), which would have put her on the path to becoming a judge or prosecutor, she made a different choice. ‘You first have to see and experience the practice; only then can you as a judge really understand and empathise with what it’s like to put up a defence. Some judges have no idea what it’s like to be on the other side. I can always immediately pick them out.’ She has always had doubts about switching to the other side. ‘Sometimes it also seems terribly boring to me, when I attend hearings where people are spouting total nonsense. You see judges nodding, even going along with it. They’re afraid of being challenged.’
She wouldn’t want to be that kind of judge, but she would like to be a judge who engages in conversation with the accused. In her experience, clients also have the most respect for those judges. If the judge says: ‘I’m thinking: what a ridiculous story. Do you understand why I think so?’ Harlequin: ‘Then the defendant knows: this judge has asked me to clarify, and I haven’t answered. I may be punished as a consequence.’
The more intense it gets in the courtroom, the calmer she becomes. Even at parties she doesn’t do most of the talking; she’s more of an observer. A role she also played at her student house. ‘I remember there was a discussion about a housemate who may have been anorexic. Lots of gossip, of course. Will she eat, will she vomit, will I have to clean that toilet? When they finally spoke to the woman herself, they did so as a big group. Of course, that wasn’t safe for her. I know I thought: I’m not getting involved in this.’ Later she did speak to the housemate. ‘But one on one at a very different moment. It was a different kind of conversation, the content of which also stays with me.’
‘Choose your battles’ is an important principle for Natacha Harlequin. ‘When it really matters, I’m a lion. Then we have to win. But that’s not always the case. If you mediate and look at things calmly, you’ll come a long way.’ At first, that was also the case in the racism discussion that erupted in the Netherlands after the death of George Floyd. ‘The emotions were too high for me too; I don’t think that’s a good time to start a conversation. I chose to let it sink in first.’
It was a comment from her son that made her decide to go to Hilversum (the home of Dutch TV, Ed.). ‘He said there were few black men and only a few black women on the news.’ She ended up on the editorial board of the talk show M, and she appeared onscreen as a criminal law expert a few times. She was then asked to express her views on racism. The fact that she eventually spoke on this issue has to do with the ‘unnecessarily unkind’ and ‘harsh’ way the debate was being conducted. She missed the nuance. ‘I wanted to show that you can also connect by listening to each other.’
Does this suit me?
She made an impression with the calm tone she used to talk to former footballer and sports presenter Johan Derksen at Veronica Inside after his discriminatory remarks about Dutch rapper Akwasi. ‘I didn’t know Derksen, but I understood that nobody wanted to sit around the table with him. Of course, you can’t do that. I didn’t go there to give him a hard time. There were no excuses to be made; I just wanted to have a conversation with him. Just have empathy, I told him. He could have walked away too, but he listened quietly to what I had to say.’
Despite these awkward moments, she rarely finds herself in situations she has misjudged. ‘I’m a thinker. This also includes anticipating: does this suit me? And if not, how do I create a situation that will be good for me mentally and physically?’ However, she realises that that trait can sometimes get in her way. ‘My kickboxing trainer regularly tells me: “Don’t think. There isn’t time for that. You’ll already have taken three blows to your head.”’
After her appearance on Veronica Inside, she briefly had her own talk show, Dit vindt Nederland. It was cancelled after a few weeks due to disappointing ratings. The criticism was harsh. There were remarks about her way of looking at things, which was said to be ‘passive aggressive.’ ‘I can’t do anything with that, and you can wonder whether such comments would have been made if I had blue eyes.’ For the time being, she ended her participation in the racism discussion with a contribution to Jeugdjournaal (a children’s news programme). ‘We can keep on talking about it. You need to see inclusiveness; then it becomes normal.’
Work always comes first
Based on her experiences in Hilversum, she is absolutely certain that she wants to continue with television. Appearing on talk shows and hosting one herself felt good. ‘I’d like to continue with this, in a format that suits me. One in which I can look for nuance. Obviously, there’s also a need for that in Hilversum. Step by step, I’m learning to become a better presenter and to make better TV appearances as a criminal law expert. Now I do that differently than I first did. Keep it short and sweet, be clearer, make your point and wrap up the conversation.’
Would she give up her dream job as a criminal lawyer to do that? ‘It’s been a long road to get where I am now. My studies, the things I did to get here, but also the things I left behind. The reason that I haven’t been in Leiden for so long, for example, is that work always comes first. I’ve never been able to attend a Kippenhok reunion. Being a criminal lawyer is in my blood; I won’t just let that go. To do that, something would really have to come along that I know I can’t turn down.’
Text: Saskia Klaassen
Photos: Frank Ruiter
This article was previously published in Leidraad, the magazine for alumni of Leiden University.