Bid for global domination

Nicole Maley examines the work of the Alliance of European Lawyers and its fresh approach to cross-border business

Royex House has long proven to be an influential address in the world of international law.

The high-rise eyrie, looking out over the City of London, was once the headquarters of Clifford Chance, the UK's top international firm.

But for the past year the building's 17th floor has housed the Alliance of European Lawyers, a six-member pan-European grouping of law firms.

Comprising top three business practices from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Sweden and Spain, the alliance was born almost five years ago out of an informal working relationship which existed on the Continent.

Members include newly-merged German practice Oppenhoff RNdler; Belgium's De Bandt, van Hecke & Lagae; De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek from the Netherlands; France's Jeantet & AssociCs; Spanish firm Ur degrees a & MenCndez and newcomer, Sweden's Lagerlif & Leman, which joined in 1993.

Since launching, the alliance – which totals 300 partners and practices in 10 countries across Europe – has established co-operative resource-sharing offices in London and New York and formed joint practice Boden De Bandt De Brauw Jeantet Lagerlif & Ur degrees a, in the European Union's administrative centre in Brussels. A partnership between the group and Czech lawyers forms Alliance Prague.

Using English as its working language, the Alliance is governed by a management committee which meets twice a year and includes two representatives from each firm. Administrative matters are handled by the alliance's independent secretary general Marc Bartels.

Ur degrees a & MenCndez partner Jorge Mart degrees , one of 16 lawyers based in the alliance's three-year-old London practice, says the grouping was formalised “to take advantage of the very good relationships that existed de facto among the members”.

He says the alliance's “one-stop shop” was established “to react to the global approach undertaken by US law firms”, and as a competitor to the massive multi-national partnerships which came to the fore during the 1980s boom years.

“This has been a success, without any hesitation,” says Mart degrees . “I think we have achieved everything we wanted to, but we still have the incentive to continue because we think we can achieve more.”

Lagerlif & Leman partner Per Runeland says the alliance has enabled its members to display their strengths on a worldwide scale, providing both existing and new clients with extensive resources for international business.

“The large Anglo-Saxon firms were trying to give the impression that they were the only ones to be doing international work,” says Runeland. “We have demonstrated through the Alliance that we have a lot of international clout. We had it before but this has made it more visible.”

The firms retain their domestic practices, advising on law in their home countries, while co-operating on cross border business from clients including banks, insurance companies and industry.

Representatives of the six members also form alliance-wide practice groups and regional desks in areas such as Italian and Far East law.

Mart degrees says alliance members are unsure of the profession's perception of the group but reactions vary between rival firms operating in the same jurisdictions as the alliance, and those outside its boundaries.

Meanwhile, lawyers working on the international scene are reluctant to comment on the Aliance's success, with many recognising the work of the collective's individual firms but few being familiar with the group.

“Obviously the members of the Alliance are very strong firms in their own jurisdictions,” says one solicitor. “But, we have not come across them very much as a group and they don't appear to be impacting on our practice here.

“I am aware that individually the firms do quite a lot of European work As a group I think they're making progress in non-competition areas, but it seems to me that they're not making use of the Alliance where competition work is concerned.”

Alliance members say an agreement made between the founding partners to exclude UK practices from the grouping will continue, and although the group provides advice in other Central and Eastern European countries including Poland, Russia and Hungary, no plans are currently being considered to admit additional firms.

“The alliance is not a closed circle,” says Mart degrees . “On the contrary, it has a more universal approach – the larger number of members that we have, the larger number of jurisdictions we will cover.

“But, at the moment, we are not looking into expanding any further. We are now in the process of consolidating the existing relationships between the six members.”

Openhoff RNdler partner Michael Lappe says although contacts between firms across the Channel are growing, the possibility of “exclusivity” between the six alliance firms and a UK practice will not be considered.

“The situation here is very similar to the one we have with the US,” says Lappe. “We have the policy of not going further into the UK than we have done so far.

“The alliance and its members have excellent contacts and referral relationships with a large number of UK and US firms and it would be economically and politically pointless to have one of those firms as a member.”

The firms admit some business was lost as a result of the formation of the alliance, with a few practices discontinuing referrals. However, all agree the losses are outweighed by the gains.

“In the beginning people may have thought that the alliance was just another international network,” says Lappe. “But it soon became clear that there was something new being created and developed which is clearly to be distinguished from a pure network or grouping.

“We have lost clients and we have lost referral work, but this was carefully weighed up and it was clearly decided that to create this international vehicle it was worth the losses.

“We consider it in the end as something which works pretty well because the number of clients that we have in those countries where we are present with joint operations has increased and we have broadened our activities.”