A View lfrom Brussels
17 April 2000
They say that when it rains in Paris, it drizzles in Brussels. The impact that international legal firms (in particular Anglo-Saxon firms) has had on the Parisian legal market may well be spreading to Brussels. Over the past two to three years there have been radical changes in the profile of many of Paris' long-established domestic names.
The recent merger of US firm Coudert Brothers with Belgian firm Coppens van Ommeslaghe & Faures and the prospective merger of Linklaters with De Bandt van Hecke Lagae & Loesch within the auspices of the Linklaters network, are examples of a process of internationalisation that at first sight looks likely to radically alter the shape of the Belgian domestic legal market.
The domestic firms that have made the transition to a more international environment point to the limited size and potential of the true domestic market. And above all, they highlight the difficulties of recruiting quality personnel in a highly competitive job market where international and domestic firms compete for the same people.
It is too early to say whether other domestic Belgian practices will seek international partners.
If the Paris experience really can be applied to Brussels, there must be a risk that international salaries and prospects will serve to tempt some of the stars away from the top domestic firms while recruitment will remain an enduring problem at the lower end.
In all this, it may well be correct to say that one must either be big and international or small and perfectly formed - the danger lying in the amorphous mass in the middle.
One thing does seem clear. If international partners are to be sought, the days of the strategic alliance seem to be numbered, the clearer preference being for an outright merger.
At the opposite end of the size spectrum, even the small are getting bigger.
Stanbrook and Hooper has doubled its fee earner base and offers clear evidence that there is scope in the Brussels market for a boutique approach covering competition, trade and Belgian law.
However, the one observation that has been made is that, in the days of larger transactions, in particular in relation to mergers, there is a need, even for the boutique, to have a larger critical mass if clients are to be comfortable that the resources match the work opportunity.
The embattled Romano Prodi has recently offered access to his incoming and outgoing mail as part of a wider initiative for greater institutional openness.
Hearing this, one is reminded of the process in competition law cases of being given access to the commission's supporting evidence - the 'file' as it is known. There is, as under Prodi's scheme, a list of all of the details that the file contains.
The president's list of mail, as is so often the case in competition proceedings, is anodyne in its descriptions with the result that it is near impossible to tell whether an item of mail might be of interest or not.
Sight of a letter can only be had upon written application and even then will be subject to claims of confidentiality. One suspects that this will not, by some margin, do much to silence the president's critics.
From the epicentre of European competition law, one can only muse that the Brussels legal market must surely be safe from the type of regulatory scrutiny now promised for the legal market in the City of London.
It would be difficult to devise a more fiercely competitive market for legal services. Most top European and US firms are represented.
The recruitment market has never been more difficult. A vast panoply of European and US lawyers offering radically differing styles, approaches and costs are all fighting it out. Surely, the very model of a legal market.
Julian Ellison is the resident partner of Ashurst Morris Crisp in Brussels.