In the past, Howrey's Brussels office has recruited a number of high-profile competition and IP lawyers from the European Commission and private practice. This was the office's most significant expansion since opening in September 2002.
Brussels Legal spoke with Howrey's Brussels Managing partner, Trevor Soames. We discussed the past and future development of the office and the challenges of managing this growing, vibrant practice.
BL: Why did Howrey first decide to open an office in Brussels?
TS: Howrey is an unusual firm in that it focuses on just three practice areas: antitrust, IP and global dispute resolution. The firm is a market-leader in each of these areas.
The decision to open a Brussels office was driven by the needs of the antitrust practice. The firm well understood the importance of European competition law and wanted to build an equivalent component to add to and support it's first-class US antitrust practice.
In 1999 Howrey first started looking into opening a Brussels office. Howrey's antitrust practice then enlarged when it merged with the practice of Jim Rill and Sean Boland and their colleagues. That development increased the practice's international perspective.
The firm had a clear objective concerning the establishment of a Brussels office: it had to maintain and further develop Howrey's market leading position in antitrust. It was imperative that the office's scale and scope of resources met that objective.
The GE/Honeywell case highlighted to US General Counsel in particular the importance of ensuring that European competition issues were properly dealt with, for if they were not the consequences could be severe. Brussels was a serious issue. After all, if Jack Welch could be stopped, who would be next?
I have the impression that a number of US law firms felt a degree of pressure to react to GE/Honeywell and some of those who opened a Brussels office during the 2001-3 period may have had the decision forced upon them by circumstances.
For Howrey, GE/Honeywell only confirmed the firm's previously made decision to set up operations and gave it a further degree of impetus especially as the firm was handling a lot of significant European cases itself or instructing other law firms to assist them and co-counsel. The merger prohibition decision did not rush the timing of our office opening. We had already decided to set up in Brussels - but as I say only in a way that would meet our market leading imperative.
BL: A number of lawyers were recruited and the office opened in September 2002 with a very visible marketing promotion campaign. Why was the campaign so visible?
TS: We decided to make a 'splash'. We were determined to show the market as well as existing and potential clients that we were (and indeed are) in Brussels for the long-term.
We were proud of who we were and what Howrey had achieved outside Brussels. We wanted everyone to know that the same ambition and focus on excellence would exist in the Brussels office as in the other Howrey offices. We are not and were never going to be a 1 or 2 partner and handful of associates-type Brussels office.
BL: Do you think that campaign was successful?
TS: Yes. Everyone - existing and potential clients, regulators, competitors - knew we were here and what type of service we were providing from the day the office opened. We were also able to recruit a cadre of excellent associates from day one.
BL: So how did the office develop?
TS: We had about 15 or so lawyers and affiliated economists in September 2002.
The 2002-3 period was a hard time, we opened when the market was very depressed. Although we were able to win many new clients, initially there was not sufficient client work to keep the large team continually busy. Looking back we were probably working at around 70% capacity during our first year. But I think we all know pretty well that those years were difficult for many firms and given the circumstances prevailing at the time I think we did pretty well...
Things really started to motor in 2004 and from the summer of that year activity levels resulted in 100%+ capacity utilization on a regular basis and as a result we needed to expand our lawyer numbers to keep pace with the increasing client demand. We therefore started to increase our associate numbers through judicious and careful use of our stagiare programme which served as a training/testing ground for talented new recruits from a variety of Member States.
BL: How has the office's practice developed in this recent period?
TS: In the last year or so the growth in the office has been spectacular, with a significant number of key clients with a range of complex cases and a resulting healthy revenue stream. Our success and profile has enabled us to recruit in a strategic manner for both the IP and antitrust parts of the practice.
Our office's IP practice really started when Carl De Meyer and his IP team joined from Linklaters in 2005. As Head of IP in our Brussels office, Carl has developed the IP practice at the European level and built solid ties with our US IP practice. Howrey's international IP practice has been enhanced enormously.
This summer we recruited further key IP players from Nauta Dutilh namely Benoit Strowel, Fabienne Brisson and Maarten Meulenbelt. This has resulted in us having the strongest IP litigation practice in Belgium and there are significant synergies with not only our European IP practice but also the antitrust practice.
Our antitrust practice has developed in a couple of ways. First through internal promotions. We have promoted in the last two years three new partners from the associate group: Bruno Lebrun (before Howrey with Freshfields and Norton Rose), Sylvie Maudhuit (previously with Bredin Prat and Norton Rose) and Dr. Peter Camesasca (previously with Linklaters).
Second, we have recruited top-quality lawyers from the Commission and private practice. In we recruited Professor Damien Geradin as Of Counsel and earlier this year were fortunate to attract the esteemed former Deputy Director General Götz Drauz from DG Comp, Martina Maier (from Haarmann Hemmelrath) and Marc Reysen and Michael Schütte (from Freshfields) as partners.
Each is a high-profile recruit in themselves and brings fantastic practice experience.
BL: And you are now going to develop your German antitrust practice?
TS: Yes. But the fact that a number of these partners are German is more of a coincidence. In the first instance they were recruited because they are great European antitrust lawyers but the German team will have a focus, naturally, on providing top-tier service to the German market. We hope to have a German office in the near future but that will be IP led and is not essential (though it would be useful), we believe, to the development of the German practice.
BL: Unusually - and perhaps uniquely - Howrey works with an independent, but affiliated economic consultancy practice called CapAnalysis. Could you explain how that relationship works and how Howrey benefits?
TS: CapAnalysis is an independent economics consultancy. We do a lot of work with them - but not exclusively. We use all the major economics consultancies. CapAnalysis also does not work exclusively with us.
In Brussels, I believe we are the only major player to have such a relationship with an economics consultancy.
Howrey advises and implements our client's strategy. At all times Howrey manages the relationships with CapAnalysis and the outside economists on behalf of our clients.
The importance of economic analysis should never be under-estimated in competition law. CapAnalysis provides very helpful, fast economic analysis of the significant economic issues arising across all types of work - from the most significant to more routine self-assessments when it may not be possible for a variety of reasons to obtain external economic input swiftly enough.
Working with CapAnalysis builds a solid understanding of the economic issues. For example, our associates gain first-hand experience of these economic matters. We are able to meld the economic and legal analysis from the start and can then instruct other outside economists as needed.
BL: So far what have been and/or are the main challenges in managing the office?
TS: There have been three main challenges - two in the past and one now.
The first was the challenge of building and developing the office. We were creating something entirely new. It was not just about finding a building and hiring people - although those were challenging enough! We had to build an esprit de corps within the office, ensuring that lawyers arriving from other backgrounds and firms gelled together and created a top quality vibrant and enthusiastic law firm.
The second challenge resulted from the difficult economic conditions that we all experienced in 2003. We had only just set up the office and so it was a tough time to start. At that time there were some unfortunate rumours in mid 2003 spread by those (very few) of ill will that we intended to close our office; those rumours were totally untrue, Howrey was in Brussels for the long haul and we never wavered in our confidence that we would succeed. It was just taking rather longer than planned.
The third and current challenge is managing the office's swift growth. We have gone from what was still a relatively small office to about 50 fee earning colleagues and expect to grow further. This expansion is challenging in terms of our physical office space and organisation structure but we are managing the growth pretty well though with some temporary discomfort.
In physical terms, the office is bursting at the seams and we are rapidly renovating a new floor of our building. Our support staff and indeed entire team have been great at making sure the office keeps functioning in the meantime! Only this week we have had to turn our lunch room into an office! But we get our new space fitted out in a month or so, and that will be a relief.
The office organisation structure is evolving too. As Managing partner the burden has been steadily increasing over the last four years and in order to ensure a better spread of responsibility as well as freeing up more of my time for critically important client work, we have established a management committee of senior partners as well as delegating a range of significant items of office management to our increasingly large and experienced group of partners.
A number of our recent recruits have top level management experience (Michael Schütte was Managing partner at Freshfields Brussels, Benoit Strowel was Managing partner at Nauta Dutilh and Götz Drauz has wide management experience from the Commission). None of them are coming here to manage - they all want to develop their fee-earning practices - but it is a fantastic resource we can draw on to manage the office's next period of growth.
BL: You mentioned the office's esprit de corps, what exactly do you mean by that?
TS: Partners and associates all have an entrepreneurial spirit. Everyone in the office has made a positive choice to come to Howrey and invest in the development of this business. There is a keen awareness of the business aspects of legal practice and a collective ambition.
It is fair to say that we are confident and enthusiastic - but I would hope without being arrogant or aggressive - about the firm, our Brussels office, what we have achieved and what we will achieve in the future.
BL: Given the number of lawyers that are in the Brussels office, one might expect Howrey to be more visible in terms of client work than it sometimes appears.
TS: Our relatively low profile in comparison to the size of the practice (in terms of whatever empirics one chooses to use, whether revenue, clients or number of lawyers) is something of a mystery to us. It takes the listings some years to catch up to market reality. So that is one reason. The answer may also lie in the, so far, relatively limited amount of merger work we have undertaken since we opened. That is changing given the up turn in the merger market and the arrival of Götz Drauz is already having an effect: there is certainly a fair amount of merger work going on in the office. But we are not and will not be a Form CO factory. We do not service a corporate pipeline but instead focus on complex competition cases of all types. A lot of our work - such as our cartel and investigation work - is below the 'water-line' and for obvious reasons does not get much publicity especially when we are successful in getting cases dropped. There is a tremendous variety of work in the office as it gives a broad, interesting range of work to both partners and associates. I am sure our competitors are curious about what keeps us going, but we are very busy and getting busier.
BL: So you will be recruiting more associates during this next period of expansion?
TS: Definitely. We have grown to 18 partners within 4 years and our current leverage has become too low with the result that our associates have been working very hard. We are seeking to expand our associate and stagiaire group.
BL: What currently excites you about the developments at Howrey?
TS: One development is the overlapping and complementary development between the antitrust and IP practices. Both practices are following the same path to expansion and offer tremendous cross-over opportunities to our clients.
Another aspect of our development is the way we are building upon Howrey's existing strong foundations. In some firms, partners are knowledge silos - autonomous and largely unconnected to their colleagues' practice. Here in Brussels and across Howrey's offices we have tremendous varied experience and brain-power that we can access. Our clients are very satisfied by the breadth and depth of experience and knowledge at their disposal. It is exciting to work with such a range of brilliant and complementary talents. Howrey is like All Soul's College.
BL: Turning to your clients, how did they react to the creation and development of the Brussels office?
TS: Very positively. We have been undertaking an increasing amount of work for pre-existing clients of Howrey but we have also been very successful at generating a significant proportion of our business from wholly new clients. Even where we work for a pre-existing client of the firm, it is important to note that the work is rarely donated to us but rather we have to pitch for it against other highly competitive and expert law firms.
BL: Has the Brussels office attracted work from Howrey's existing clients or work from new clients?
TS: The office developed its business primarily on the basis of new clients or clients of the firm whom we started to work for after pitching for their work. We were in fact generating significant new clients from day one. If you look at our client lists you will see that each year we generate a number of new clients as a result of which we are not dependent on a static client group, instead there are regular additions to the client base and that is important to ensure a broad variety of work.
BL: So are there other opportunities for developing the office lined up?
TS: Good people are always contacting us and we are open to new possibilities. If we see a real opportunity, we will take it.
BL: Thank you for you time.
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