International eye: Europe

Donna Sawyer on the month in Brussels

VWEW splits over business strategy

Brussels-based lawyers have been suffering from a collective case of itchy feet, with a number of firms undergoing changes.

It kicked off with a bang in January when historic Brussels law firm VWEW saw all but one member of its competition and EU practice quit to form a new, independent law firm named Contrast.

The boutique firm, which specialises in competition and business law, has three partners and four associates.

But business law partner Bart Bellen tells The Lawyer that he expects the firm to double in size during the next three years.

“We’re a growing firm,” he says. “We understand that, in this market, we have to grow, but that’s more likely to be through hiring lawyers than by merging with another firm. We’ve had approaches [to merge], but we wanted to remain independent.”

Contrast has a flat management structure, with the three founding partners – Bart Bellen, Frank Wijckmans and Filip Tuytschaever – responsible for all the major business decisions.

Bellen says the former VWEW competition team decided to break away and form a new firm due to conflicting views regarding business strategy. “VWEW is very traditional,” he explains. “We decided that we wanted to be more modern as a firm and more proactive in our approach to securing work.”

The competition and EU team’s departure from VWEW left the firm with 15 lawyers, including four partners.

VWEW senior partner Piet Everaert says the split, which left its competition practice with just one partner, was caused by “differing views on how to further develop the business”. He says that the firm was hoping to build up its competition and EU practice over the course of the coming months.

“We have two associates joining us soon and we hope to build the practice up to what it used to be,” Everaert explains. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but we don’t expect it will take too long.”

Prior to founding Contrast, Wijckmans established VWEW in 1993 after leaving Van Bael & Bellis.

While there are still a handful of independent law firms such as Contrast and VWEW operating in Brussels, they are a dying breed.

A number of these types of law firm have been drowned out by a wave of US firms expanding operations in Brussels as part of a push to become transatlantic and cash in on the M&A boom in Europe.

Local competition lawyers, particularly those from UK firms, have been under siege from a number of US firms aggressively looking to headhunt specialists in the field.

Lovells loses competition head to Hogan

As first reported on (21 December 2005), prominent competition lawyer John Pheasant quit Lovells to join Hogan & Hartson‘s London and Brussels offices as co-chair of the EU competition group.

Pheasant, the former head of Lovells’ competition, EU and trade practice, is co-chair of the International Bar Association’s antitrust committee’s working group on private enforcement of competition law claims.

Pheasant says: “With the increasingly transatlantic nature of business today, clients need a law firm with strong global competition capabilities.”

Since his departure, Lovells competition lawyer Susan Bright has been appointed global head of competition and EU law.

Hunton ramps up with Freshfields capture

More recently, Hunton & Williams has also been in an expansionist mood, snaring two new partners for its Brussels office, as first reported on (10 March).

Michael Rosenthal, a former associate from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, has joined the firm as a competition partner.

John Martin has rejoined Hunton as a competition partner after serving as a senior trial counsel at the US Federal Trade Commission and as a lecturer in the field of competition law at the University of Toulouse in France. He was a partner at Hunton between 1997 and 2003.

Martin will remain at the Brussels office for six months to help grow the practice and will then relocate to the firm’s Washington DC and Richmond offices to concentrate on his trial practice.

Hunton’s New York-based managing partner Wally Martinez says the firm had plans to build its Brussels practice significantly during the coming months.

“We’re firmly committed to expanding our Brussels competition practice,” he says. “Adding Michael and Jack is a key step towards providing our clients with the highest-quality European competition representation possible.”

Steptoe bags ex-Leboeuf insurance specialist

US firms have even been willing to raid other US firms to get the right people in the rush to gain momentum in Brussels.

As first reported on www. (1 February), Steptoe & Johnson has hired the former head of LeBoeuf Lamb Greene & MacRae‘s insurance regulatory team for its Brussels office.

Guy Soussan, a partner at LeBoeuf since 1998, joined the firm in 1987 and established its EU insurance and regulatory practice in Brussels.

He specialises in EU insurance regulatory and compliance issues for insurance, reinsurance, captives, intermediaries and other financial sector entitles in all classes of insurance and reinsurance.

Covington appointed to Microsoft antitrust case

Microsoft has added Covington & Burling to its legal battalion to fight the European Commission’s latest charges of providing incomplete and inaccurate information about its Windows operating system.

As first reported on www. (23 December 2005), lawyers for Microsoft slammed the Commission for charging the conglomerate with failing to comply with its antitrust ruling of 2004, complaining that the regulator has continued to move the goalposts.

Covington competition lawyers David Hall, George Berrisch and David Harfst have been brought in to join Van Bael & Bellis name partner Jean-Francois Bellis and White & Case‘s Ian Forrester to defend Microsoft in the landmark case. It is the first time the Commission has charged a company with failing to comply with one of its rulings.

Sullivan & Cromwell has been the chief US legal counsel advising Microsoft throughout the case.

A source close to the case told The Lawyer that the regulator’s decision was unjustified.

“It’s endless,” says the source. “Microsoft has tried to comply with the Commission’s increasingly complex demands, but every time they submit something new, the Commission says it’s not good enough.

Clifford Chance has filed a new complaint against Microsoft on behalf of ECIS. Brussels partner Thomas Vinje is leading the action.