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25 June 2014
David Wood is a talented middle-ranking official at the European Union's Directorate General of Competition (DG Comp). He has spent most of his working life inside the civil service, but will now join the Brussels office of an arriviste US law firm.
So far, so dull. Wood is relatively anonymous outside the Brussels scene and phrases such as 'civil service' can be relied on to induce a coma in the UK legal community. Wood also harbours the love that dare not speak its name among UK lawyers - a genuine affection for the EU and its political institutions. But taking a better look, Wood has made history by joining Howrey Simon Arnold & White.
Brussels law firms are littered with ex-Commission officials, but Wood is the first lawyer to leave DG Comp for law firm partnership and he says that there are loads more where he came from. Lawyers who sleep with the enemy bring obvious talents when they return to their own side and create a culture of understanding that benefits everyone.
Most ex-Commission officials at law firms are at the end of their careers. Some prove expensive white elephants who have stepped off the Brussels gravy train and onto the law firm consultancy cake walk. But others, such as John Temple-Laing, who joined Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, and Claus Dieter Ehlermann, who went to Wilmer Cutler & Pickering, work out well. To be successful, they must prove that they are able to deal with private practice and that bane of all lawyers' lives - clients. Wood and Howrey's other high-profile hire, the former head of the crack cartels unit Julian Joshua, are unknown quantities because they have little experience of private practice.
Howrey has imported its philosophy from the US, where cross-fertilisation between the public and private sectors is endemic, but it was not just a question of a preference for the Stateside model. With a limited number of first-class private practice antitrust lawyers in Brussels, Howrey had to go off the beaten track to open a five-partner office from scratch. The men responsible for Howrey appointments - managing partner Bob Ruyak and former Norton Rose partner Trevor Soames - are no fools. They've taken a calculated risk to get the firm's innovative specialist antitrust practice off the ground.
In our own Member State, another virtual unknown is making the regulatory headlines. Former Cleary Gottlieb lawyer Simon Priddis was a brave appointment as the director of mergers at the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). Not only was he a mere associate when appointed, he is also just 30 years old. After a stint at the OFT, it's a safe bet that he'll go back into private practice - in just the sort of double cross-over that is commonplace in the US.
The problem in the EU is that the revolving door is blocked on the Commission's side because the body does not take in outsiders at anything other than the lowest level. Occasionally, very senior positions are advertised externally, but in reality they are filled with earmarked internal candidates. Under the current civil service rules it is very difficult for lawyers to leave the Commission for a few years and then return.
There are entrenched obstacles to reform. Vice-President of the Commission Neil Kinnock has been tasked with administrative reform, but DG Comp's lawyers are unlikely to be high on his agenda. Nothing happens quickly in Brussels. Unlikely as it sounds, Kinnocks' first brush with law firms is likely to be when he is presented with his own opportunity to become a trophy consultant.