A View from Brussels

The Brussels legal services market has seen substantial changes in the last few years. Following the arrival of UK and US firms and the tidal wave of mergers and alliances, the law firms’ landscape in the capital of Europe is composed of two groups: the first comprises five large firms with more than 100 fee-earners and the second consists of smaller, almost exclusively niche firms. The top tier five larger firms are De Bandt Van Hecke Lagae Loesch (Linklaters & Alliance), Loeff Claeys Verbeke (now joining Allen & Overy), Stibbe Simont Monahan Duhot, Liedekerke Wolters Waelbroeck Kirkpatrick & Cerfontaine, and Bogaert & Vandemeulebroeke.

The driver for such change is the demand for worldwide legal capability and the exigency to provide fast solutions to complex business problems that require close links with every corner of the globe. The final result is the virtual disappearance of genuine Belgian law firms outside the niche practices, which find it difficult to provide the wide-ranging and high-level services demanded by multinational clients. Even in EC law, Belgian firms have long since lost the battle to their international counterparts.

Another aspect of this trend is the increasing demand for a multidisciplinary approach to the delivery of legal advice. This trend can be easily acknowledged by observing the light-speed growth experienced by Caestecker & Partners, which is related to the Andersen Legal network, in its expansion to 60 fee-earners in four years; and more dramatically by Bogaert & Vandemeulebroeke, a member of Landwell, the correspondent legal practices of PricewaterhouseCoopers, whose number of fee-earners has risen to 115 since its creation in 1997. The Belgian Landwell member is the fifth-largest law firm in the country and the growth rate of these two firms is well over 30 per cent. Another related feature is that traditional law firms no longer provide tax-consultation services, this field being practised almost exclusively by the big five consulting services and some niche law firms such as Loyens & Volkmaars, Sabon Van Heeswijck and Afschrift.

These developments have been favoured by some local bars, which have visibly supported the liberalisation of the old-fashioned rules. The opportunity to join international networks of lawyers, as a result of EU Directive 98/5/EU, has been a fundamental step triggered by the pressure of other countries, including France, The Netherlands and the UK, opening their doors to multidisciplinary practices. Bogaert & Vandemeulebroeke has benefited directly, joining the Landwell international network last July. KLegal is expected to take the next step in Belgium.

The increasing internationalisation and specialisation of the business services market, together with the competitiveness for attracting professionals who are up to such a challenge, has resulted in the recruitment of highly qualified lawyers with language skills becoming a tough and expensive challenge. In fact, the shortage of these professionals has forced a dramatic increase in salaries for such rare gems, as seen in the UK legal market. This is creating a new culture where training and development programmes are key elements in recruiting the best young lawyers.

The latest feature emerging slowly is the importance in law firms of marketing. This is another consequence of the change and competitiveness in the market. The challenge is not only to be a good law firm but to let the market know it and to communicate in the best possible way with the client base.

These are exciting times for Brussels’ legal services market. A sector which traditionally was static and even predictable is now bursting with frantic new developments each day. The most exciting part is that it is the client forcing the changes. Traditionally, the lawyer drove the relationship, but today the client is forcing the lawyer to respond as fast as possible to solve complicated cross-disciplinary and multinational problems.

Marc Vandemeulebroeke is managing partner of Bogaert & Vandemeulebroeke, the Belgian member of Landwell.