William Baer and Marleen Van Kerckhove, Partners of Arnold & Porter in Brussels

Arnold & Porter's Brussels office was established in August 2003 and has steadily grown since then.

Brussels Legal spoke with William Baer, Head of the firm's antitrust practice, and Marleen Van Kerckhove, Head of the European antitrust practice and of its Brussels office, about the office's creation and development.

BL: When did Arnold & Porter decide to open an office in Brussels and why?

WB: Arnold & Porter knew in the late 1990s that it had to open an office in Brussels. It was a logical, strategic decision.

For years Arnold & Porter has had a leading US antitrust practice. Our practice group has a reputation for skilled and prominent antitrust specialists. Many of our team have prior government experience.

In 2000 I returned to lead Arnold & Porter's antitrust practice after five years working at the Federal Trade Commission, and I readily agreed that Arnold & Porter had to establish a Brussels office.  We made this a top priority.

BL: So why did Arnold & Porter not open here until August 2003?

WB: The real challenge was to establish the office in the right way.  We were determined that Arnold & Porter would offer the same quality of service to it's clients from the Brussels office as the firm provided from all our other offices.  That meant taking time to assemble the right Brussels team.

We knew the critical decision was recruiting the right person to lead the office and so we carefully researched the market.  We needed an 'anchor' around whom the European competition practice could be built.

After a while we identified Marleen as that person.  Marleen was then an antitrust partner at Clifford Chance.  During the 2000-2 period she worked with me and a number of Arnold & Porter partners in jointly representing clients in significant matters such as GE/Honeywell and Pfizer/Pharmacia.  Our lawyers got to know Marleen and she got to know us and how we work.  It was a mutual admiration society.

From that it was clear that Marleen would be the right starting point for our office here.  We just had to convince her to leave Clifford Chance's excellent competition practice!  We spent some time together discussing possible plans and ideas about an office here.  It was quite a coup that she left Clifford Chance to join us.

So we were prepared to wait to start the office in the right way and the specific timing of the office's opening centred on Marleen's availability.

BL: Arnold & Porter opened it's London office in 1997 and there already was an antitrust practice there. Was it a viable option to simply expand the antitrust practice in London rather than establishing an office in Brussels?

WB: Not really.  A large part of the success of Arnold & Porter in the US has come through being in the same city as the antitrust officials.

To offer a credible service to our clients we simply had to have an office in Brussels, right here next to the decision makers.  Lawyers who work in the same place as the regulators generally have a better feel for practice developments.  We knew our US clients felt it was important that we were established in Brussels.

MVK: On that last point, it is noticeable that not just US clients but also European clients attach considerable importance to whether a law firm has a Brussels presence.  This is confirmed by the number of law firms, from the US as well as from other EU countries, that either have set up or will be setting up an office here to meet their clients' demands.

BL: With Marleen heading the office, how did things then develop?

WB: Right from the start we had in mind other people from DG Competition and our London office to work here too.

Antitrust partner Sue Hinchcliffe transferred from London to Brussels. Since the office opened Tim Frazer, another London-based antitrust partner, has spent about half his time here.

Within a year we had also recruited Luc Gyselen from the Commission as a partner.  Luc has tremendous experience from his time in DG Competition and at the ECJ.

The office started with a small group of lawyers. Over the course of our first two years we went from a team of 4-5 lawyers to 10-12.  After the first twelve month period we had three full-time and two part-time partners in Brussels.

As half the work in this office is generated by US clients and as several matters are going through parallel proceedings in the US and in Europe, there are many opportunities for antitrust lawyers in our different offices to work together.  We further support that practice development and team building through the firm's annual antitrust retreat in DC as well as regular secondments of lawyers.

MVK: Over the past three years we have had lawyer secondments from both DC and London. For example, a US associate, Julie Goshorn, worked in Brussels for two years and we have had several other associates on secondment, both from the US and from London.  Now that we have a solid foundation here we are looking to second our lawyers to other offices.

BL: But why start the Brussels office with only a small number of lawyers?

WB: When US firms open in Brussels they usually follow one of three models: too big, too small and just right.

Some US offices have started too big and found they did not have the work to keep everyone busy and so, due to their high cost base, have had to retrench.

Others have started with one or two US partners and one or two European associates.  That size is generally insufficient to gain credibility with clients and to grow their practices.

MVK: We needed to demonstrate to our clients we had a critical mass in Brussels and so were determined to get to eight to ten lawyers as fast as possible.  But at the same time the office would only ever grow as the client base grew.  Clients knew our DC office provided us with a 'fire-fighting' capability if and when more resources were needed, something which continues to serve us well.

BL: So the office's size was and has been 'just right'?

MVK: I think so.  After three years, we have a profitable operation here.  The number of lawyers has grown in line with client work.

BL: Can you name some of the challenges and decisions that have been critical to the office's success?

WB: From the beginning it was important to demonstrate the firm had an integrated, seamless antitrust practice.  A clear signal about that had to be sent externally to clients and internally throughout the firm's offices and practice groups.

The difficulties of certain Magic Circle firms in managing their London and Brussels competition practices are well known.  The presence of Tim Frazer and Sue Hinchcliffe in the Brussels office has helped alleviate that potential London-Brussels problem.  Both offices are aware of the other's capabilities.

Also Marleen made an important request at the start: she wanted me to spend one week a month in the Brussels office for the first year to support the establishment and the integration of the office.

With hindsight it was an excellent decision. To be based here for part of each month has helped us achieve a seamless, firm-wide practice.  After one year Marleen and I agreed to extend my time in Brussels for another year and that has just continued.

BL: How did established and potential clients react to the office?

MVK: Arnold & Porter has a very solid base of established clients.  Our Brussels work comes equally from US and European clients.  That client balance, for a US firm like Arnold & Porter, is very encouraging.

Established clients such as Philip Morris International continue to grow their work with us and at the same time we have seen a lot of repeat work coming from new clients.

Some of that new work is sector-specific, such as in Pharma where the firm has a particularly strong reputation.

Also some clients are attracted by the complementary expertise of our different offices.  An example is the Pharma regulatory practice of Ian Dodds-Smith in London and the antitrust expertise of people like Luc Gyselen, Tim Frazer and myself.

BL: The office has a 'Cartel Task Force'.  What is it and why was it set up?

MVK: When I joined Arnold & Porter I was aware that we needed to be able to service clients on antitrust matters throughout Europe, and indeed the world, despite the fact that the firm had a limited number of offices world-wide.

Therefore, bringing together the contacts that the Brussels partners had established with foreign antitrust lawyers over many years, we set up an informal network of antitrust experts -- picking who we thought were the best in each jurisdiction (a decision that we regularly review).

They are available to assist our clients whenever the client does not have a local antitrust counsel.  In matters such as cartels and dawn raids, it is critically important to have a local expert that we can call upon to assist immediately and on the spot.  They also assist us in national merger control matters.

We meet once a year in Brussels to exchange experiences and further streamline our processes.

BL: As well as antitrust work, you mentioned that the office does some EU regulatory work.  What sort of regulatory work is undertaken and how has the balance with antitrust work changed as the office has grown?

MVK: The bulk of the office's work continues to be antitrust.  However, given the firm's regulatory background and expertise, we also assist clients with EU regulatory issues, such as in relation to food and tobacco regulations, advertising, safety regulations, etc.

BL: So what plans are there for developing the office?

MVK: We do envision growing further as our client base continues to grow and we are looking to expand both organically and through lateral hires.

We have plans, but you'll have to wait to see what they are!

BL: Thank you for your time.  Good luck.

Other features dealing with related issues:

Andreas Weitbrecht, Office Managing Partner, and Jean Paul Poitras, Partner, of Latham & Watkins in Brussels

Trevor Soames, Managing Partner of Howrey LLP in Brussels

Richard Weiner, Maurits Lugard and Stephen Kinsella, Partners in Sidley Austin

Michael Rosenthal and John ('Jack') Martin, Partners at Hunton & Williams