German law firm Haarmann Hemmelrath has come under attack for its merger with Austrian firm Hügel & Partner, which the Viennese bar claims is illegal.
It claims that Austrian law does not allow the merger between the Austrian firm and the German multidisciplinary practice (MDP) because the Bar Rules Act prohibits MDPs from practising in Austria.
However, legislation brought in last May under the European Lawyers Act does not prohibit MDPs in other European Union (EU) states from having affiliate offices in Austria. “The question is how to interpret the rules,” says Haarmanns partner Rainer Roniger.
Roniger denies that Haarmanns is acting as an MDP in Austria. “We’re a German MDP with an affiliated office in Austria,” he says. “In Austria we don’t have accountants, we only have lawyers, and therefore we’re not acting as an MDP.”
Haarmanns notified the Viennese bar of its intention to merge last May. When the merger took effect on 1 July 2000, however, the Viennese bar refused to recognise it.
Haarmanns then made a complaint to the Austrian Constitution Court, asking it to overturn the bar’s decision and to declare its order illegal.
The Constitutional Court granted a suspensive effect, which means that the order is ineffective until the Constitutional Court makes a final decision.
“We expect to win at the Constitutional Court, which means there’ll be no change,” says Roniger.
The Constitutional Court will have to take both the Bar Rules Act and the European Lawyers Act into account before making its decision.
The European Lawyers Act, which sets out a framework for EU lawyers’ activity in Austria, should complement the traditional statute regulations of the Bar Rules Act, but if there are any contradictions then the European Lawyers Act would supersede.
Roniger says there is a discrepancy between the rules for the big five accountancy firms, which are all currently permitted to work in Austria, and those set out for MDPs.
“I don’t see what the difference is between the big five operating in Austria and what we’re doing,” he says. “They’re offering a one-stop shop and legal advice, which is in direct competition to law firms. The Austrian bar is acting against Austrian interests by preventing us from competing with the big five.”