LEADING international legal practices have reacted coolly to news that Big Six accountancy firm Price Waterhouse's European network is gaining stature.

The Lawyer revealed last week that the network will be co-ordinated by Paul Downing, who is leaving his partnership with Pinsent Curtis for the position.

The network now offers equivalent coverage to that available through Clifford Chance or Baker & McKenzie. The head of Price Waterhouse's EU law unit in Brussels, Alastair Gorrie, said the firm now had associations with law firms in 11 countries in eastern and western Europe.

He has been involved in establishing the network, which includes law firms in England, France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Latvia, Poland and the Czech Republic.

“I would think that Clifford Chance and Baker & McKenzie are the two networks which would have pretty much equivalent coverage to ours,” said Gorrie.

He said Price Waterhouse's European network handled mergers and acquisitions, corporate matters, employment law, competition and trade law, financial services and intellectual property.

Gorrie said the law firm network already included 250 lawyers across Europe, but Downing's new role would see the network gain momentum.

“Growth will now be much quicker and I would anticipate new members joining the network to increase the coverage,” he added.

Tim Gee, partner at Baker & McKenzie's corporate department, said he would expect the firm to have this level of coverage in order to have any serious impact. “They've really got the minimum you'd need to achieve what they're hoping to.”

Clifford Chance managing partner Geoffrey Howe would only say: “We'll watch with interest as they move towards establishing a pan-European legal capacity.”

It is expected Downing will co-ordinate the network of firms by becoming manager of the Correspondent Law Firms of Price Waterhouse European Economic Interest Grouping, which is already in place.

While only countries in western Europe can become members of this grouping, firms in central and eastern Europe have entered association agreements so they can be included.

It is up to member law firms, not Price Waterhouse, to appoint Downing as manager of the EEIG. This has not yet taken place.

Gorrie said most of the network's law firms operated from Price Waterhouse premises under their own name, handling work referred by the accountancy firm while also maintaining their existing client base.

Downing will co-ordinate work required by clients with interests in more than one of the network's countries.

“The client will be able to use central points of contact within the network and won't have to instruct 11 different sets of lawyers,” Gorrie said.