The Belgian market is packed so why are firms still eager to get a look-in?


As the hub at the centre of Europe Belgium has developed into one of the Continent’s most diverse legal markets. Domestic firms of all sizes jostle for space with regional and international players. Some of the latter focus on EU and competition law, while others are trying to build full-service Belgian practices – and every year more firms move in.

Among those most recently to have arrived in Brussels are UK firms Wiggin and Osborne Clarke. Coincidentally, both focus on media but the two are following quite different strategies in Brussels.

Wiggin opened its doors on 1 January after hiring Ted Shapiro, formerly European legal head for the Motion Picture Association. Shapiro, a Brussels resident of 17 years, says the key to the firm’s move is a need to provide its clients with a closer link to the EU, both for media law matters and competition.

“The meat and potatoes of big law firms in Brussels has always been competition law,” Shapiro explains. “For all the complaints you hear about the powers of the European Commission, they’re at their most powerful when regulating competition law.

“The media sector’s always been a lure for competition regulators and there’s a lot going on in that area. It’s a big area and Wiggin needs to have a finger on the pulse of competition law generally.”

Shapiro’s move to Wiggin was partially opportunistic; he was looking for a change of scene and Wiggin was considering its options in Europe. Just weeks in, Shapiro says the client response validates the office’s launch.

“It’s about Wiggin’s commitment to providing a full service for its media clients – I’m already getting questions from Wiggin clients about the extent to which proposals in the UK are consistent with EU ­reforms,” he says, adding that the EU is increasingly concerning itself with media law.

US client-appeal

Osborne Clarke also has a reputation as a go-to firm for media but this is not its only motivation for launching in Brussels.

“It’s very much to do with the internationalisation of law firms,” says Osborne Clarke CEO Simon Beswick, adding that US clients in particular place great importance on Brussels as a base for firms.

“We realised that you can’t sell a pan-European service if you’re not in Brussels,” he explains. “We’re late to the party, but we’ve realised that’s what we need to do.”

Osborne Clarke previously worked with Belgian firm De Wolf & Partners before the Belgians declined to join the pan-European merger proposed by the UK firm. Field Fisher Waterhouse (FFW), which was in merger talks with Osborne Clarke for some time, also had a Brussels office and Beswick says this led to his firm putting its plans on hold until the talks collapsed.

The firm hopes to offer a mixture of services including data privacy, IT and telecoms advice, commercial and contract law, regulation, employment and “M&A, from time to time”. Competition law, however, is not expected to be a focus.

Nerve centre

Local firms agree that Brussels is an important place to have an office.

“If a law firm wants to take itself seriously, it must have some representation in Brussels,” says Liedekerke Wolters Waelbroeck Kirkpatrick’s newly elected managing partner Vincent Busschaert.

Although Busschaert and his colleague, corporate partner Christel van den Eynden, agree that the Brussels market is already fairly crowded, they also think Osborne Clarke and other new arrivals should be able to find lawyers to join them.

“I don’t think they’ll have a hard time,” says van den Eynden. “There’s quite a bit of movement right now.”

She points to the establishment of several boutiques in Belgium. Perhaps the most high-profile is corporate boutique Strelia, established by former Stibbe partner ­Olivier Clevenbergh, while other recent launches include employment firm Younity, set up last autumn by lawyers from Stibbe and FFW.

Busschaert says the past two years have been solid for Liedekerke, with the firm benefitting from its extension into areas such as energy and public-private partnerships as well as improving the service it gives to its clients. He thinks the firm’s 6 per cent turnover rise in 2012 is proof of the strategy’s success, despite the fact that big transactions are notably absent in the market.

“The start of 2013 is promising,” adds Busschaert, “and we foresee some pick-up in the economy also.”

However strong or weak the local economy, the mixture of EU work, domestic transactions and litigation is likely to remain a draw for firms of all types, and the diversity of the Belgian market is unlikely to diminish.

Key figures: Belgium

GDP (2011): $513.7bn

Inflation (Jan 2013): 1.5%

Population (2011): 11m

Life expectancy at birth: 80

Unemployment rate (Q3 2012): 7.8%

Source: World Bank, Statistics Belgium

In brief

Despite the crowded nature of the legal market in Brussels, the law firms just keep coming. We examine why the mix of EU work, domestic transactions and litigation is likely to remain a draw.