Jean Russotto, Partner of Steptoe & Johnson (Brussels)

After opening in 2002, Steptoe & Johnson's Brussels office expanded in 2004 with the absorption of Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly's Brussels office. Brussels Legal spoke with Jean Russotto, senior partner in Steptoe & Johnson's Brussels office, about the office's creation and development.

BL: How has Steptoe & Johnson's Brussels office been established?

JR: Our office has developed in two stages. It started in 2000 in a small way, opening to serve clients with data protection, privacy, and information technology law needs. The office had three lawyers and was led by Kees Jan Kuilwijk, a Dutch lawyer.

At the start of 2004 the next development took place. A group of about ten lawyers (including myself) joined Steptoe & Johnson from Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly's Brussels office. The office today, in terms of practice areas and people, reflects those two developments along with recent growth in the insurance and regulatory areas.

BL: So why did Oppenheimer's Brussels office decide to join Steptoe & Johnson?

JR: Oppenheimer opened its Brussels branch in 1969 and over the next 35 years it undertook corporate and regulatory work as well as developed a strong Belgian practice. At some points during that period it numbered up to 25 lawyers. I saw a lot of the changes as I joined that office in 1972.

But in 2001-2 Oppenheimer in the US was not doing so well, largely due to the fallout from the 'dot.com' bubble. The firm closed a number of its US offices (such as in Silicon Valley) during that period and inevitably there was a question concerning what strategic role the Brussels office had within Oppenheimer.

The Oppenheimer partnership and the Brussels office partners came to an amicable decision about separating. The Brussels office was profitable and there was no urgency about the timing of the separation.

Amongst the Brussels partners, we discussed our options: joining another firm in Brussels or becoming independent. We were in contact with other firms at the time and I had a previous connection with Steptoe & Johnson.

As I mentioned, Steptoe & Johnson already had a very small, but not wide practice here, and there was an immediate interest in us joining together.

An agreement was reached between Oppenheimer, Steptoe & Johnson and the Brussels office partners. Although issues such as client conflicts and cost had to be considered, it was still a relatively straightforward combination. Steptoe & Johnson took over Oppenheimer's existing offices and client base. So there was very little immediate, practical change for most of us!

BL: What was the appeal for Steptoe & Johnson of your group joining them?

JR: Steptoe & Johnson's US background helps explain its objectives in Brussels. The partnership is a so-called 'old-line' Washington, DC law firm. Therefore, its historical core competences were in the fields of litigation, tax, and federal regulation, and within those areas, from our perspective, were very strong capabilities in the international trade, competition, and insurance practices.

For its part, Steptoe & Johnson saw the Brussels office as the firm's main continental European office. For example, Oppenheimer's Paris office (which practiced local law) did not suit Steptoe & Johnson given its own regulatory focus.

In 2004 it was almost inconceivable for a large DC office not to have a Brussels presence with a solid, multinational group of lawyers. Steptoe & Johnson's underlying logic was to create an office similar to that in Washington, DC, that could reinforce and expand upon its existing practice strengths.

We could support the US offices' needs. An expanded Brussels office had to be familiar with the EU institutions and have sufficient expertise in international trade. We had to match the US practice in having strong expertise in insurance and banking and a solid antitrust practice and be growing in medicine, pharmaceutical and biotech areas.

Our Brussels office could support itself from its own client base (we were and are profitable). Steptoe & Johnson was very happy with the merger; it has been a profitable and provided a quick entry into the Brussels and EU market place. The firm acquired an existing base of clients as well as the benefits of professional affinity with a like-minded group of lawyers.

BL: Did the switch from Oppenheimer to Steptoe & Johnson meet your group's expectations?

JR: Yes indeed. Since 2004 we have definitely moved up a notch with Steptoe & Johnson. There is better name recognition with a Washington DC-based law firm. The Steptoe & Johnson brand name makes life a lot easier when we market our services. Clients were very positive about the move from Oppenheimer to Steptoe & Johnson. So in that respect the move was smooth.

In terms of management and administration, Steptoe & Johnson is run like clockwork. We've joined its office network and have benefited from accessing the excellent IT and human resources support.

While there has been this support, luckily there is no heavy administrative burden. As a branch office we don't feel the constraint of a rigid central administration. Relations between Brussels and Steptoe & Johnson are generous, open and helpful.

Having specialists in the firm's areas of expertise, such as major litigation, competition, and trade meant we have been quickly integrated in the firm's practice groups. At the same time we still maintain our geographic identity in the EU, and are able to market our services to existing and new clients with a great deal of flexibility and autonomy. At the same time, we are more solidly established in the market place, as we are part of a firm with 460 lawyers that are available to support our initiatives.

BL: Has Steptoe & Johnson contributed to the practice development of the Brussels practice?

JR: To a large extent we remain quite self-sufficient, generating a great deal of work through our office alone but no doubt helped in this by the strong reputation of Steptoe in the US and internationally. What we had before we have safeguarded and anything on top of that is 'icing on the cake'. We have received substantial additional work from our US and UK offices, yet we are not dependent on referrals from Steptoe & Johnson's other offices.

But I should observe that we have the capacity to take on referrals, and we enjoy the opportunity to work with our colleagues in other offices. For example, over the past year to 18 months we have been counsel to a very large airline -- a long-standing client of the DC office -- in an airfreight cartel investigation being conducted by the EU Commission and competition authorities in the US and elsewhere. This representation in Brussels was the result of our DC office referring this client to us. This one matter alone keeps 2-3 lawyers busy out of about fifteen lawyers in our office; and it has given us the chance to work on some very interesting competition issues that we believe others in the EU market will face now and in the future

BL: But since the Oppenheimer group joined the office has largely stayed the same size, why is that?

JR: There are a number of reasons why the office has not 'exploded' in size.

Initially both sides - the firm and the Brussels office - were getting to know each other. Since we joined in 2004 there was at least one year of internal integration and relationship building, followed by at least another year of consolidation. There is a certain level of autonomy in the office. Simultaneously, we have become well integrated into the organisation with a coordinating partner from DC helping guide that integration.

Also Steptoe & Johnson is not a major transaction firm. Our capacity requirements are driven primarily by regulatory work, as compared to M&A-oriented firms. By its nature regulatory is a more self-contained and incremental type of work.

It is fair to say Steptoe & Johnson is very conservative on the issue of lateral hires compared to other law firms. To get into 'the family' is not easy and Steptoe is meticulous about whom it takes on. We do not hire senior laterals without them having a transferable client base (as well as the requisite expertise). And Steptoe prides itself to this day on its 'culture'. We were very pleased to see this when we ourselves joined. The firm not only wants to recruit excellent lawyers, but also 'colleagues' in the truest sense of the word, who will enjoy working together and adding to the strength of the firm's social fabric.

BL: Although the office has not grown so far in numbers, do you plan to grow it in the future?

JR: Over the last three years there has been good growth in terms of work and we are in the process of hiring more lawyers as there is still a case to grow; and there will be internal growth as our senior associates progress and we are five partners and need additional support.

Although there are pressures to expand we do not need new personnel at any cost. As I observed above, the Brussels lawyers and the Steptoe management are keen to maintain the same work spirit in the office. Over the years at Oppenheimer we lived through some uneasy times. We are a happy 'family' and are wary of rocking the boat. Inconsiderate hiring may lead to blood-letting later on.

The growth in Brussels rests with the Brussels partners as we know the local market and we have the initiative regarding a business case and local market expertise. We have to make sure there is good integration with new partners and a mutual respect and professionalism. We are looking to expand in Brussels in some of the core areas of strength for the firm - competition, trade, life sciences, and other regulatory areas. Our DC office recently brought on an excellent legislative policy practice group, and we also see opportunities to add to our own policy practice and work in the EU.

BL: Steptoe has two non-US offices, Brussels and London. What are the relations between the offices and how will they develop?

JR: We have very good, solid relations with the London office. In areas where Brussels has the expertise, such as EU antitrust, we can service the London office clients. Insurance and data privacy are strong in both offices and so we create synergies from that. For example we have been developing insurance products together and will continue joint developments between the offices, including hosting joint client conferences. In fact, this week we are hosting a major EU insurance conference in Brussels for existing clients and others, and we believe this type of conference will demonstrate the very strong skills we offer in Brussels, as well as London and DC.

BL: Finally Steptoe & Johnson has a relationship with a Belgian law firm called Olislaegers & De Creus. What is that relationship? How does it work?

JR: Olislaegers & De Creus is an independent Belgian law firm located in the same building as our Brussels office. The firm is legally distinct from Steptoe. However, it serves as a resource to Steptoe clients who need assistance with certain areas of Belgian law. This grouping has been approved by both Brussels bars; first when we were Oppenheimer and now as Steptoe & Johnson.

The firm comprises three former Allen & Overy partners and they are very Anglo-American minded. Olislaegers has its own clients and we work very closely with them on an as needed basis. The Olislaegers attorneys also attend certain firm-wide events and conferences, and participate frequently in our Brussels office meetings.

BL: That raises the question why is Olislaegers not part of the firm?

JR: Olislaegers' client base is a bit different from ours as they work for Belgian branches of international companies practising corporate and contract work (including IP, labour and commercial disputes). This arrangement is well-established and works well for both parties.

BL: Good luck and thank you for your time.

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