Law graduate Irina Ghazarian convinces international insurer to change tack
After her law degree, Irina Ghazarian (28) started working at Zurich Insurance PLC, an international insurance company. ‘Why do we outsource cases that are going to court?’ she asked. She is now the first attorney to work there.
Ghazarian comes from The Hague and decided to study law in Leiden without even considering a different degree or city. ‘My mother told me that my aunt took me to court as a pre-schooler and I loved it there. Perhaps that’s it.’ And she knew that if you want to study law, Leiden is the place to be. What appealed to her most about studying law was how the legal system works. ‘I find it really interesting. With loads of things I would wonder: how does that work from a legal viewpoint?’
Ghazarian began her degree at Leiden University after completing senior general secondary education (havo) and a propaedeuse in Socio-Legal Services at Inholland University of Applied Sciences. She rounded off her studies with a Master’s in Employment Law.
Ghazarian took a second master’s degree, in Liability and Insurance in Rotterdam (more about this later). Then, in 2018, she was hired as a claims handler by the Hague office of Zurich, an international business-to-business insurance company. It was a challenging job where she often dealt single-handedly with large, complex cases. But if these ended up in court, she had to pass them on to someone else, which she thought was a shame. Ghazarian: ‘Insurers don’t often have in-company attorneys. I thought that was weird. The handlers know the file like the back of their hand and they know business owner, but it then goes to an external attorney who first has to get up to speed on the case. I couldn’t understand it. Outsourcing costs money too.’
‘I argued the case for the concept of an in-house attorney to the CEO for the Benelux, who was also the director of the Hague office, and said I wanted to be the first. one’ The CEO ultimately agreed and Ghazarian was all set to start the professional training when she came up against a problem: the strict requirements of the Netherlands Bar. Trainee attorneys must have a supervising attorney within their own company, which was precisely what Zurich didn’t have… Luckily Ghazarian was able to come up with a solution: a colleague who had worked there as an attorney in the past offered to be sworn in again so that he could be her internal supervisor. The Netherlands Bar agreed. Ghazarian is almost halfway through her three-year programme, and hopes she won’t be the only one to do so. ‘I want to expand the concept at Zurich because I can only see advantages to having in-house attorneys.’
The young lawyer has a CV with a high wow factor. She always had part-time jobs as a student. She started out in the catering industry, but most of her jobs were in the legal sector. The ambitious student worked as a file handler at various law firms, which helped her link theory and practice.
During her Master’s in Employment Law and based on her experience at the law firms, Ghazarian began to feel that what she was learning was all very well, but employment law wasn’t for her after all. Then she came across liability law in one of her jobs and it was love at first sight. Hence the second master’s in Liability and Insurance.
Legal advice in The Hague
‘I’m not one to sit around doing nothing,’ says Ghazarian. ‘I always want to have something to do. You could say that I find studying easy and am good at getting to the point.’ Alongside her work and study, she and a few likeminded others set up a free legal advice office in Schilderswijk in The Hague. ‘There was already one in The Hague, but then in the centre,’ she explains. ‘We thought the office should be closest to the people who needed it most.’ Unfortunately, it proved difficult to provide continuity and the office had to close after four years. ‘It was a real shame,’ says Ghazarian. ‘But we couldn’t keep it up once we’d all got jobs.’
Irina Ghazarian’s parents come from Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan that was in the news once again when the Azerbaijanis (re)captured part of the enclave in 2020 and displaced the Armenians living there. With its predominantly Armenian population, Nagorno-Karabach is seeking recognition as Armenian territory. The conflict has raged for decades. The Armenians have the support of Russia and the Azerbaijanis the support of Turkey, although neither country has actively intervened in the fight. A peace deal was brokered at the end of last year, which the Russians will monitor for five years. Irina was five when her parents moved to the Netherlands. Most of her family live in Armenia, but they feel great solidarity with the displaced people from the enclave.
Insurance companies often don’t have the best of reputations with consumers: they may be good at collecting premiums, but when it comes to paying out it’s a different story. Ghazarian: ‘I’m not familiar with the consumer market, except for the cliché of expensive sunglasses being stolen on holiday… Commercial insurers have to win their clients’ confidence. Now you mention it, at Zurich I felt from the beginning that it treats it’s cases with integrity. I don’t think I’d have felt at home there otherwise.’
Independent and responsible
‘What did I learn in Leiden? How to be independent, take the initiative and take responsibility. How to be disciplined, make choices and live with the consequences. That’s how I was brought up and that’s how I still operate. I didn’t join a student society but I was sociable, so made a lot of friends. I surrounded myself with other students who, like me, took their studies seriously.’ There are a few things that she would have done differently in hindsight, like living in a student house and spending a semester abroad. ‘I graduated on schedule, but it might have been worth a delay in my studies. But then again, I already did so much alongside my studies… It just didn’t happen.’ Ghazarian does have some experience abroad though: she taught English in Vietnam for a month in 2017, at primary schools and to individual pupils.
Evenings spend studying
Zurich is paying for the tough attorney training and Ghazarian is allowed to attend the compulsory training days in her boss’s time. But she has to study in her own time, which means she is often found at her books in the evening. ‘It can be difficult if exams and work deadlines coincide, but I want to carry on developing and learning.’
Although it might seem that all Ghazarian does is work, she definitely enjoys her free time too. She’s an adrenaline junkie, seeking a kick, a literal one in the case of kickboxing, or a figurative one in the case of paragliding, parachuting and riding a motorbike. So far she has only rented a motorbike, but she says she’s going to buy one soon.
And then there’s her cat Don Mika. ‘My colleagues talk about their children and I talk about Don Mika. He’s my baby anyway, more or less.’
Text: Corine Hendriks