Although there is no single central register, best estimates suggest that there are almost 20,000 lawyers practising in Brussels. Of those, perhaps 700-1,000 are UK-qualified. The vast majority are there to advise on European law. As there is no statutory monopoly on the provision of legal advice, they are able to reside in Belgium and to practise using their own home title (of solicitor or barrister), although a recent European directive requires them to register with the local bar associations. Naturally, if they want to appear in the Belgian courts, it is necessary to requalify as an avocat.
For those in the major English firms, the substance of their practice differs li
ttle from that of London colleagues. Most of those firms will have European law specialists in London, Brussels and other cities, often working as a single team on major transactions such as cross-border mergers. However, although the work is the same, the working environment in Brussels is very different.
Proximity to European institutions, particularly the European Commission, the Council and, except for the one week a month spent in Strasbourg, the European Parliament, is Brussels' main attraction. Many major companies also have representative offices there. The city also boasts the world's largest press corps, with more than 1,100 accredited journalists. To this can be added all the diplomatic missions, which are effectively doubled because most countries, such as the UK, have a “bilateral” embassy to the Kingdom of Belgium and a “permanent representation” to the European Union (EU).
This means there are a host of potentially useful contacts, and networking is an important part of many lawyers' activities. From networking, it may seem only a short step to engaging in lobbying, and indeed some firms have sought to establish a public affairs capability. It is true that much of a lawyer's normal activity involves seeking to persuade others by legal, economic and other argument, and sometimes there can appear to be a very thin line between drafting legal submissions and preparing the type of position papers used by public affairs consultants. However, few firms really have the people, skills or resources to mount a full-blown campaign involving commission officials, European Parliament members and national government representatives from a range of countries. Normally a law firm will work with one of the major Brussels-based consultancies, but the benefit of being based in Brussels is that the lawyer will also often know many of the personalities involved and be able to make a better contribution to devising the overall strategy.
In this respect a major benefit of Brussels is its relatively small size and openness when compared with larger capitals such as London or Paris. For a start, officials are more accessible than their national counterparts. The multicultural environment, particularly with the recent influx of the Nordic countries, contributes to a degree of openness and informality. In certain areas, notably competition, the combination of heavy workload and limited resources means that junior officials are given a great deal of responsibility very early. It also means that officials will often be prepared to have informal, off-the-record discussions where they will help each side. Building such relationships is really only possible if one is permanently based in Brussels.
One might expect from the number of lawyers mentioned above that the market would be saturated, but more firms and lawyers continue to arrive in Brussels each year, and most lawyers in the large firms will tell you that they have never been busier, and indeed, this does seem to be the case. In part, it could be said that European lawyers are benefiting from a “virtuous circle”. As more move into the practice of European law and into Brussels, they tend to educate their clients on the benefits and pitfalls of European law so that the level of work increases. This awareness is, of course, enhanced by all those journalists providing a blow-by-blow account of high-profile mergers, trade disputes, football transfer rows etc. All of these factors contribute to making Brussels an interesting city in which to live and work.
Stephen Kinsella is managing partner of Herbert Smith's Brussels office and president of the British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium