Eric Cusas, Managing Partner of Field Fisher Waterhouse in Brussels

Field Fisher Waterhouse was a newcomer to the Brussels legal market in April 2007, when it opened its Brussels office.

Brussels Legal spoke with office managing partner, Mr. Eric Cusas, about why the office has opened, the group of lawyers starting it and the plans for future office development.

BL: Why has Field Fisher Waterhouse opened an office in Brussels?

EC: Two developments have coincided enabling us to open at this time. One is what I might call the "professional journey" taken till now by the group of lawyers who are starting the office. The other factor is the development of Field Fisher Waterhouse's own international strategy.

BL: Can you explain a bit more about this "professional journey"?

EC: The office has started with three partners, Emmanuel Roger France, Pierre Frühling and I, and one counsel, Anne Kamp. We are a total of twelve lawyers plus support staff and all of us have come from the Belgian independent law firm, Verhaegen Walravens.

We are tight-knit group: Emmanuel, Anne and I have know each other for fifteen years when the three of us worked for Loeff Claeys Verbeke (merged since then with Allen & Overy) prior to Verhaegen Walravens. Our other partner, Pierre Frühling, was at Liedekerke before Verhaegen Walravens and he has known us for a long time too.

A big reason we all joined Philip Walravens and Jacques Verhaegen to start Verhaegen Walravens in 1998 was that while we had learned a lot during our time working in the large international firms, we were keen to apply what we had learnt in our own way. We were young and enthusiastic and especially wanted to create our own Belgian independent firm.

Our particular areas of practice often involve international, cross-border work. For example, Pierre is an EU competition practitioner, Emmanuel Roger deals with IT and corporate fraud, and I deal with commercial, insolvency, litigation and arbitration.

So of course our practices required an international, cross-border capacity. Particularly as a pan-European capacity was important to prove to clients (either companies or referring law firms) that we could deal with their matters.

At Verhaegen Walravens we looked at our international strategy and decided the best way to develop our capacity was to join an alliance.

Initially we joined the Lawrence Graham International network. But it became clear that that particular network did not work for us because its structure was too 'looseâ€. As odd as it may sound the network was too democratic and sometimes it was not possible to make or impose a decision. The network's 'looseness†did not correspond with our strategy and so we left about two years ago.

We had learned the success of a network is dependent on the energy of particular individuals. If the network is little more than a 'dining club†then it becomes hard to convince US firms about cross-border capacity and expertise in referral work.

As our need for an international capacity remained, we continued to look and then joined a second network, the European Legal Alliance (ELA). The initial attraction came from contact with one of the member organisations, a French law firm called Dubarry.

The ELA was attractive in different ways: it had solid geographical scope (with firms in Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, Spain, and Italy); and a tighter structure (for example, the ELA was an LLP incorporated in Ireland, with a secretary-general and practice groups).

For us, the ELA was a successful venture. There were a large number of referrals across the alliance and we built up confidence working with a number of like-minded lawyers and law firms in other European jurisdictions. A large part of this success was due to the leadership provided by the city law firm, Field Fisher Waterhouse.

As the ELA developed it became clear to Field Fisher Waterhouse that a key decision was how the alliance should develop next. Field Fisher Waterhouse saw integration as the next step and other members had to decide whether to integrate or go back to being independent.

BL: So what happened then?

EC: In fact there was a divergence of opinion amongst the ELA's members: some agreed to merge and others chose to remain independent.

There was also a difference amongst the five partners at Verhaegen Walravens about what was for the strategic benefit of our clients and practice development. Two partners, Jacques Verhaegen and Philip Walravens, wanted to remain independent. The three of us saw an opportunity to develop our ELA experience further.

The parting has been amicable. Although Jacques and Philip are no longer our partners, they remain friends and we wish them well. The ELA itself has now been wound up.

BL: What attracted your group to Field Fisher Waterhouse and vice-versa?

EC: I recognise moving back to a bigger law firm structure moves away from some of our earlier thinking. But we still decide our own destiny, although in a different way.

Through the ELA we have worked together for a few years and we have got to know our new colleagues. We have some idea about what we are all like and Field Fisher Waterhouse knows it has not just hired a group of unknown laterals!

We also appreciate Field Fisher Waterhouse's management structure and support. The logistical capability of Anglo-Saxon, particularly UK firms, is attractive. As partners we do not want to deal with all administrative details; the firm's back-office structure will help. This type of support is essential for us as we go forward.

As a City firm, Field Fisher Waterhouse recognised there was a need for credible, international capacity across Europe. It is important for US referral work that we have the capability across Europe. To be credible to US clients the firm needed a real presence in Brussels.

The firm's future expansion also has to be kept in mind. Field Fisher Waterhouse has also just opened an office in Hamburg dealing with corporate & IP work. As a result of the ELA, we are maintaining a close exclusive relationship with Jimenez de Parga a firm of 60 lawyers in Spain.

BL: Regarding the office's presence in Brussels, what are the future plans? For example, will you be a specialist, niche player?

EC: We are definitely not looking to be a niche player. We intend to create a full-service law office - particularly in all areas that Field Fisher Waterhouse is already specialising in.

We have moved into our new office on Avenue Brand Whitlock with twelve lawyers, but we are definitely looking to expand. While we will not add people for the sake of adding people, we hope to be around thirty lawyers after three years.

There are ongoing discussions with potential recruits. For example we are looking for a partner in corporate over the next twelve months.

The main criteria is for candidates to have experience but not to be at the end of their careers! The Brussels office partners and counsel are relatively young (in our early forties) and we are looking for enthusiastic lawyers with a similar outlook to us.

BL: Good luck and thank you for your time.