Simmons & Simmons has become the first firm to profit from the breakup of Ernst & Young's Belgian law firm Peeters Advocaten. Partner and head of finance France Wilmet, who has been with Peeters since its creation five years ago, is taking three lawyers to Simmons.
Wilmet, who is French and Belgian-qualified, expects to take the bulk of her clients across to Simmons, where she will focus on building links with Simmons' Paris office.
Wilmet told The Lawyer that her resignation three weeks ago served to speed up the demise of Peeters, but that Ernst & Young was already set on severing ties with the law firm. Legislation from the Belgian parliament in August 2002, due to come into force this October, includes a measure preventing accountancy firms from earning more fees from non-audit services, such as legal, than from auditing.
Wilmet said: "What we've seen here in my own firm is that the auditors no longer want to introduce lawyers to the clients because there may be a problem in the future. They want the client to choose them over the lawyers in the future."
Compounding this problem, Belgian bar rules prevent Peeters from rebranding as EY Law in line with the rest of the network. As a result, Ernst & Young has set up a new legal consulting practice in Belgium in place of Peeters. This will be able to adopt the new brand because its lawyers will cease to be registered with the Belgian bar. However, they will not be able to plead in court.
Between 10 and 15 of Peeters' 40 remaining lawyers are understood to be moving to the practice. However, none of Peeters' three partners will be joining.
Belgium accountancy-tied firms' battle with SEC goes on
Belgium may be latest graveyard for accountancy-tied law firms, but the crucial battle with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is still dragging on. KLegal, Landwell and, to a lesser extent, Ernst & Young's law firm EY Law are locked in crucial negotiations with the US regulator to determine exactly far how the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation will apply to legal services. The SEC provided detailed guidance on acting for audit and non-audit tax clients two weeks ago, but made no reference to lawyers. London sources say that the regulator is dragging its heels and causing uncertainty, which is contributing to the disintegration of some of the legal networks. One source described the SEC as "like UK civil servants to the power of infinity". The SEC issue is more pressing for KLegal and Landwell because EY Law has already publicly distanced itself from Ernst & Young's audit client base. However, one Belgian source said that EY Law's insistence on a single, strong European brand was the key factor as to why Peeter Advocaten lawyers have moved to Simmons & Simmons. According to KLegal sources, the network's Belgian firm Lontings & Partners has no changes planned, while Landwell's Belgian firm moved to distance itself from PricewaterhouseCoopers several months ago.