Wilson Sonsini spearheads US charge to increase muscle in Brussels

US firms are beefing up their presence in Brussels in a bid to provide antitrust expertise for clients on both sides of the Atlantic.

Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati heads the list of firms strongly rumoured to be examining a Brussels office. It would be the West Coast firm’s first office outside the US and Asia, and would enable it to provide EU competition advice to its roster of high-profile technology clients.

Meanwhile, firms already present in Brussels have affirmed their commitment to growing their offices and are looking for lateral hires.

This year Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft opened in Brussels with the hire of Linklaters’ competition partner Alec Burnside.

Although Burnside is the firm’s only partner in ­Belgium, he said expansion is certain.

“I said loud and clear that we’re going to expand,” he told The Lawyer. “Any self-respecting American firm with a strong antitrust practice sees perfectly well that it needs to be established on both sides of the Atlantic.”

David Wood, managing partner of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher’s US office, said US firms were doing more work than ever before in Brussels.

Gibson Dunn has been in the Belgian capital since 2003, but has expanded ­significantly in the past two years, growing from just four lawyers in 2009 to three partners and around 10 fee-earners now.

“We’re recruiting as quickly as we think we can manage,” Wood said, adding that this recruitment was at all levels, including partners.

Sources in Brussels ­identified Wilson Sonsini as the most likely new entrant from the US, with Davis Polk & Wardwell picked out as another firm sniffing around the market.
Sources added that Wilson Sonsini would be likely to try to pick up European competition work from its longstanding US client Google. However, they thought this could prove ­difficult as Google also has a relationship with Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, which has been in Brussels since 1960.

New firms could also experience problems finding the right people to set up with, suggested those already present in the ­market. These difficulties also apply to firms with existing Brussels offices, according to Burnside.

“There’s quite a queue of American firms that would like to be bigger in Brussels, but I don’t think they’ll find the right way in,” he said. “I think the demand exceeds the supply for the right ­candidates.”

Others suggested that US firms expected to be able to establish a significant ­presence in Brussels more quickly than they would be able to.

However, there is a ­consensus that the need for a Brussels office for firms with strong US competition or corporate practices is growing.

The EU Commission’s recent competition policy annual report showed that 2010 was a “near-record” year for enforcement ­activity by the EU. This has continued into 2011, with recent cases affecting US businesses such as Standard & Poor’s, Visa and Hollywood film studios.

Neither Wilson Sonsini nor Davis Polk returned calls asking for comment about their plans in ­Brussels.