Tussles in Brussels: the US firms just keep on coming

A slow year in the European city fails to dissuade Gibson Dunn from launching

US firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher has just finalised a deal to poach a small Brussels competition team from Squire Sanders & Dempsey. It is the latest in a wave of US firms to have invaded the Brussels legal market over the course of the summer, despite the fact that established firms there have little work.

Gibson Dunn’s launch follows hard on the heels of Arnold & Porter, which opened last month, and Willkie Farr & Gallagher, which has just established a competition team in the Belgian capital.

In 2002 there was also a flurry of activity from the US firms: Howrey Simon Arnold & White officially opened in June with an ambitious five-partner launch, spearheaded by Norton Rose competition star Trevor Soames, and Latham & Watkins opened in February, poaching a team from Wilmer Cutler & Pickering. Since then, no major newcomer has braved the market – until now.

While behavioural competition work is more plentiful than usual, merger notification work has cratered and the odd cartel case is not enough to keep all the lawyers in town busy.

Over the last year Linklaters has had to aggressively tackle its staffing levels, managing out associates and making 15 support staff redundant. Although the firm suffered heavily because of its dependence on M&A support work, Linklaters is by no means alone.

Despite the difficult climate, Gibson Dunn launches this month with rated Squire Sanders partner Peter Alexiadis, who will bring a small team of associates. The office will handle both merger notifications and behavioural work.

Gibson Dunn Paris partner Bernard Grinspan told The Lawyer: “A lot of firms opened at a time when they felt they had to be in Brussels. They were not pushed by big clients.” He claimed that Gibson Dunn’s launch was a response to US client demand.

Like Arnold & Porter, which took on Clifford Chance partner Marleen Van Kerckhove last month, Gibson Dunn has actually been hunting for a suitable European opening for several years.

Willkie Farr, which has been open in Brussels for two years, hired Nauta Dutlih partner Marc van der Woude last month for a competition launch. The firm’s chairman Jack Nusbaum said: “We’re interested in being in the major European capitals and, as far as antitrust work goes, Brussels is the place to be.”

Many US firms that open in Brussels are guilty of presenteeism, but at least if things don’t go right for Willkie, Arnold & Porter and Gibson Dunn, they will have lost only a modest investment, unlike Howrey or Latham. Their cautious launches also leave plenty of room for organic growth if things do go well.

In the meantime, other US firms will no doubt come to Belgium for reasons that the established players find hard to fathom.

Longstanding Brussels Herbert Smith partner Stephen Kinsella is one of the few who claims to be able to explain the trend. “It must be the restaurants,” he said.