Q&A with Johan Ysewyn, Partner, Clifford Chance

BL: What is it that drew you to a career in competition law?

JY: As many people from my generation, I started off doing a lot of general EU-type as well as commercial work. There was the internal market push by Delors – 1992 remember – and there was lots of advisory work on distribution contracts and the like. But things were developing fast.  When I started practicing, the Merger Regulation had just entered into force and national authorities were being set up all over Europe. The Belgian Competition Act had just kicked off. So there was simply a lot more competition work around. I also enjoyed the interplay between politics/policy, law and economics – though in the early days, there was a lot of law and procedure and much less economics. The latter development is something of the last decade.

BL: A dawn raid sounds like a very draconian measure – what is it like to conduct one in practice?

JY: We have just defended a client on one a couple of weeks ago and it is extraordinary how they have evolved in the last couple of years. It really is all about IT now.  The Commission knows very well that the “smoking gun” is no longer nicely tucked away somewhere in a cupboard, but that all of their investigation revolves around e-mails, text messages, chat rooms – and that is what they’re after. It also means you need to understand the IT side much better – or at least have a team on the ground that does. It sounds dramatic – and it is pretty stressful – but 90% of it is people management, both dealing with the client’s employees and the investigators.

BL: What has been your most bizarre professional experience?

JY: In acting for a toy manufacturer, trying to convince a national competition authority that there was no such thing as a market for fashion dolls – but that the market was much wider. We brought about 250 dolls to the hearing to show that there was no standard way of defining a doll – and therefore that there was no such thing as a fashion doll. My daughters would have been proud of me.

And a surreal discussion at a Commission hearing about the substitutability of tampons and sanitary towels – where there wasn’t a single woman in the room!

BL: How creative do you perceive your work to be?

JY: It really depends. Some days it really feels it’s all about admin: finding a right time for a conference call, organizing meetings, client visits, etc. And then you get the legal question / issue nobody’s ever thought of. And you’re asked to assess risk without any legal precedent around. Those moments can be pretty creative, but it’s still law, so creativity has its limits.

BL: You are a lecturer, an author and a practicing lawyer – how do you compare these three activities and which one is your favourite?

JY: They’re very complementary and it’s difficult to choose. I love lecturing – I think it’s great to share knowledge with young people and I try to encourage debate so my lectures are generally quite lively.

I do a lot of writing – some might say too much – and thoroughly enjoy it, early in the morning, especially this time of year when it’s light early. Writing can get you into a flow which is really great fun. But it’s very lonely and I couldn’t just limit myself to that. What is true is that I do feel that you only thoroughly understand a topic when you have written about it.     

And then, there is my day job. Being a practicing lawyer is a great job. The interaction with clients, my team, the fun of winning cases, the buzz of getting the strategy right and feeling it all fits together. There’s nothing that compares to it.

BL: If you had to offer one piece of advice to a budding competition lawyer in private practice, what would be?

JY: Don’t forget to have fun. Stay close to your clients. Try and find a balance between life and work. And above all, enjoy it. It’s a great job. Good luck with it.