Abigail Hansen talks to UK lawyer Daniel Walker about his experience practising law on the other side of the Channel.
With his dry humour and boyish energy, Daniel Walker is anything but pompous, which makes him something of an iconoclast at the Paris bar.
This 35 year-old UK lawyer originally came to Paris in 1990, after two years at Penningtons in London, to spend a year “messing around” and studying sculpture. But he stayed, and instead sculpted a thriving niche practice, Walker & Associes, now recognised as one of the leaders in entertainment law in France.
Denying it was a conscious decision to practise in Paris, he describes a fateful meeting at a film festival in 1990 with Jacques-Georges Bitoun, a well-known film attorney in Paris. The meeting concluded with Walker asking Bitoun to get in contact if ever he needed anyone – he started working with Bitoun in December that year.
With minimal French, he mastered the language by “finding himself a French girlfriend”. His three years with Bitoun were essentially spent doing a lot of English language work, and he was able to take advantage of a transitional period when the profession was being fused from conseils juridiques and avocats to the single profession of avocat. He also sat exams for admittance to the Paris bar.
In 1993 he joined English lawyer David Lowe, moving from classic droit d'auteur and basic international co-production work, to a more financial-based training.
Walker says: “It was a follow-on from what I had been doing – representing French producers in their dealings outside France. The client's choice was limited, they either had to go to London or to Los Angeles.”
This 18-month period also allowed Walker to build up his client base, as there were few English-speaking French-qualified entertainment lawyers in France at that time. Walker says: “There was perhaps two of them. The leading niche firms in London and the US have never had offices here. One of the reasons is that it's an environment where it is difficult to come and build your firm.
“UK firms would find an existing French firm, move to a bigger office, pay a fortune equipping them, and then they'd sit there waiting for clients who didn't come. It's still the case. One of the reasons for that is the French are incredibly conservative in reacting to a new firm and they need a great deal longer before using an attorney than the English or Americans.”
Walker describes wooing clients as a long three-tier process. He says: “I was very specialised, so production companies would know exactly who I was. They would want to see me at certain events, they wanted to know who else I was working for. The second stage would be that they would give me work informally, they would not really 'instruct' me. The third stage was that suddenly there would be a crisis and they would call me. From then on I would be their regular lawyer. Even today I'm contacted by production companies I've known for six or seven years. If I was in my Anglo-Saxon mind-set I would have expected a call from them within three months. In France the time frame is completely extended. So the English firms that opened up offices would often close them at exactly the point where they might have started working.”
Walker then started considering branching out on his own. “When I left Bitoun I knew there was a real niche, but I was unsure whether clients would come in soon enough to ensure the overheads. The next 18 months gave me time to consolidate. I was convinced there was a real need for a firm that could service the French international needs. There was a complete absence of specialised lawyers based on their home turf. The French resented having to use American help, they always had a suspicion that they weren't really on the French side. And the UK side never really worked because the French and the English still have a love-hate relationship.”
This ambivalence has been one of the barriers Walker has faced since settling in France. “The English are seen as Europeans, but who have a special relationship with the Americans. They obviously share a language, and the French are not unreasonably…cautious. While there is a lot of trans-channel business, I think that the French are naturally protectionist. It's a very closed system here, and I think that extends to their legal advisers. I'm certain that it's important for my French clients that, notwithstanding the fact that I'm English, I'm based here and I've been here for a considerable period of time – it gives them the feeling that I'm on their side,” says Walker.
To the suggestion that there has been a process of educating his clients to a different style of doing business, he retorts: “I don't think I'd be so arrogant. There are certain ways that the French do business which are different. Those differences come about for a lot of reasons – there's a different system of law, their film industry is highly regulated, and that, together with the way French films are financed, determines the way they do business and the way they use their lawyers.
“The French and the English tend to go to the negotiating table with 'my way is better than yours'. In France, film is still an art form, whereas in the UK it's a commercial enterprise.”
Walker says that there are major differences in the way lawyers in France behave. “At the Paris bar there are far fewer lawyers than there are solicitors in London. Lawyers here sometimes treat themselves as diplomats. It's far rarer for a lawyer to seek the clients instructions on every issue – he takes himself very much for a principal rather than an agent of the client. I am still seen as a maverick for insisting on client's written instructions on important issues. It's a cultural thing.”
Even his billing methods are treated with some reserve. Walker says: “In my first firm there was a big matter. At the beginning with my good Anglo-Saxon training I said to my boss: 'We should really discuss fees and get that clear', and he said: 'Don't worry, I'll deal with it'. After nine months my boss said 'What's the situation with fees? It's outrageous we haven't billed them!' He asked me to bring all the files, he put them in a pile on his desk, lifted them up, weighed them, and said '200,000 F'. The client freaked out and they paid a quarter of it.”
Walker also attributes this to cultural differences. “Money in France is still a slightly dirty subject and no one really wants to discuss it. If we go back to the diplomat analogy, money is below them. I came from a place where it wasn't at all embarrassing to charge for your services, but the French don't like the taxi meter turning, it's a psychological thing,” he says.
Walker notes that there are certain advantages to being a foreigner in France. He says: “If there's a criticism to be made of French lawyers, I would say they are far too intellectual, they're often very clever, and will assess the problems from an intellectual and very Cartesian way, but then the client wants to know what they should do. That kind of practical advice is often missing, and it's where we're ahead of the game.”
Conceding that he has become far more French in his way of thinking through problems, he laughs when asked what part of the general culture he has woven into his professional life. “Long lunches,” he suggests. But then adds soberly: “The business is pretty competitive – there's a lot of work to do.”
As Walker developed his practice, he perceived a growing need to provide legal advice on what could be called the domestic French matters. In 1997, he went into partnership with Sophie Borowsky, a lawyer who had also been at Bitoun's firm. Borowsky has also started doing production work for US companies shooting films in France, which Walker sees as an expanding area.
He says: “There are huge cultural differences in the production process, and she is often able to resolve problems because she can tell the Americans that some things are so enshrined in the French way they simply can't be changed, and she can tell the French that at times they must allow a little flexibility so that financiers can feel comfortable.”
Walker is clear about his place within the rapid globalisation of the French legal market. “Everything is polarising. I think there will be the huge firms linked to the big six accountants. At the other end there'll be the boutique firms who decide to stay apart.
“French law firms are smaller primarily because you have to compare avocats to barristers, not solicitors. It's only recently they have started getting bigger. They are far more individual.”
Walker admits he has been approached by LA firms to become their correspondent office but says: “If I become the outpost for one LA firm, none of the other LA firms will give me any work.”
Asked if he would ever be a candidate for merger, he hesitates. “If a big firm was looking for an entertainment department, ready-made with a client following… I don't know,” he says.
Walker considers it legitimate for young practitioners to dream of working in Paris, particularly given the EU practising directive that will be effective in France in March. He says: “Certainly. Apply today! I think it's a fantastic place to be… I mean it's Paris! We're the centre of Europe and I think as things get more European, the UK is going to feel left out.
“I think that there will be more and more call for English-speaking lawyers in France, and the English will have the edge over the Americans because they're European.” He smiles mischievously. “Keep your eye on the back of this journal!”