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

This article was written in July 2006.  Despite its age, Brussels Legal still finds its content relevant to Brussels' international legal community.

Sidley Austin's Brussels office was established in August 2003.

On the occasion of the office's third anniversary, Brussels Legal spoke with Richard Weiner (Managing partner and Trade law specialist), Maurits Lugard (Regulatory law partner) and Stephen Kinsella (Competition law partner).

We discussed the office's creation, development and practice scope.

BL: How had Sidley Austin developed prior to the opening of the Brussels office?

RW: The firm today is largely the result of a 2001 merger between Sidley Austin, a Chicago-based firm, and Brown & Wood, a New York-based firm. Sidley Austin Brown & Wood was - and probably still is - the largest law firm merger in the US. The firm has 1,600 lawyers in 15 offices throughout North America, Europe and Asia and today is known just as Sidley Austin LLP.

BL: So why set up an office in Brussels?

RW: A key development occurred in 2002 when Daniel Price and his leading Trade law practice of 35 lawyers joined Sidley Austin. Dan had gained excellent Trade law experience in the US government and built up a top-tier trade practice at Powell Goldstein. So his arrival at Sidley Austin was quite a coup.

Even before joining Sidley Austin, Dan and his team had contemplated opening an office in Brussels. After joining, that 'burning desire' to build a strong EU link with the firm's Washington DC and Geneva offices became even greater, led by increasing client demand.

Laurent Ruessmann and I, with two colleagues, Arnoud Willems and Pascale Hecker, started Sidley Austin's Brussels office in August 2003. Both of us had practised Trade law in Brussels since the late-1980s and had a high regard for Sidley Austin's Trade law group .

We recognized there was a lot of pent-up demand from Sidley clients for EU Trade law work and so the Brussels office was opened to address that unmet demand.

Sidley Austin has a number of 'institutional' client relationships and the Sidley Austin name gave our diverse clients (governments, trade associations, companies) a lot of confidence in bringing their work to the new office.

Our assessment of demand by Sidley clients for Trade law services in Brussels has proved correct. We are now part of a seamlessly integrated international trade group including over 60 lawyers in Europe, the U.S. and Asia.

BL: What was the overall idea or plan for how the office would develop?

RW: From the start we had a clear idea about how the office would develop. We decided it would have - as it now does - 3 main practice areas: Trade, Regulatory and Competition.

Or to put it more figuratively, we viewed the office as a 'stool' supported by 3 equally strong 'legs' and we can now deliver a unique service based on our expertise in those 3 substantive areas.

BL: So how has the Brussels office grown over the past three years?

RW: The development and growth of our office should be seen in the context of that strategic vision. We have gone from 4 lawyers then to 21 today. Our growth has been across the board.

In the beginning the office dealt with a variety of Trade, WTO and customs issues.

ML: We soon developed an EU Regulatory practice in Brussels, beginning in late 2003. This practice deals with a range of issues in fields such as financial regulation, life sciences, pharmaceuticals, and the environment.

From the start, we were keen to bridge the Regulatory and Trade practices, both within the office and across the firm.

RW: Maurits' arrival was a big boost to the office's development. Maurits worked for some time at the Commission (in the Legal Service and DG Industry). He then practised in Sidley Austin's Washington DC office for four years. It was always the long-term plan for Maurits to come here and launch the Brussels office's Regulatory practice.

Regarding the third 'leg' of competition law: after the Brussels office was set up, clients generally assumed Sidley Austin had an existing EU antitrust capability. It was great to complete the office's practice scope with the arrival of Stephen in October 2005.

SK: This was a carefully thought out expansion - I was approached about starting Sidley Austin's competition practice before the Brussels office even opened. One attraction for me was the strong Transatlantic link, particularly to our offices in Washington DC, New York and Chicago.

We started here with a small team of competition lawyers: with Stephen Spinks (previously with Coudert) and I (from Herbert Smith) as partners, two Counsel (Kristina Nordlander, previously with Cleary) and Ken Daly (previously with Herbert Smith) and four junior lawyers.

While the team deals predominantly with Competition law, again there are cross-disciplinary matters where our Competition lawyers deal with various Trade and Regulatory issues. An example is our work for sports organisations such as the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobileration Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the owner and regulator of the Formula One World Championship and other international motor sport championships. A lot of the work we do for them is a combination of antitrust and regulatory advice.

BL: How do you see the Brussels office developing? 

SK: In the Competition practice we are currently recruiting more lawyers, and within 3 years we expect it will have doubled in size to 4-5 partners, with an equivalent increase at other lawyer levels.

When the Competition practice started we made a number of lateral hires. In future, the Competition practice is unlikely to grow through 'parachuting' in big-names.

Our focus is now on developing our own lawyers. As the practice develops further, we intend to start lawyer secondments to our US offices, and vice versa.

Across the European offices, we see Brussels remaining as the Competition law hub in Europe. We also plan to build a Competition practice in London and develop our German Competition capability, in conjunction with the Sidley Frankfurt office.

RW: Being somewhat larger already, we see our Trade and Regulatory practices growing at a less rapid rate. There is certainly enough work to keep everyone busy (for example, in connection with Sidley Austin's ongoing work for Airbus in the trans-Atlantic WTO dispute on subsidies to aircraft manufacturers).

We grow according to our client demand and as it makes sense. We do not aim to be big just for the sake of being big.

We also have a Belgian financial practice - a specialty area within the practice - which will grow to meet client demand as well. In a sense this niche is another 'half-leg' in the earlier 'stool' analogy. In combination with our Frankfurt and London offices, it is important to our clients that we have a domestic corporate and financial capability.

BL: How is Sidley Austin's Brussels office different from other international law firms here?

RW: Establishing a true strength in these 3 key practice areas clearly differentiates our practice from the other international law firms' in Brussels. It is not just the existence of the three practice 'legs' but, crucially, what the combination of these practice areas enables us to do for our clients.

ML: We always take a '3-D' view of a client's problem or issue and look across the practice areas for how best to advise the client. Clients appreciate our approach to their problems and how our advice deals with a wider range of issues.

Our breadth of expertise around the world is another key differentiator. Bolstering our office's key practice areas, we have 75 lawyers working in China and very strong Transatlantic links.

SK: Having joined Sidley Austin relatively recently, I can add a couple of other points. Virtually all law firms claim to have collegial partnerships. It is difficult to find any that claim otherwise.

But here at Sidley I have found it really exists. The way that partners in other offices cross-promote Sidley Austin's Brussels services is outstanding.

Also in Brussels the office has not felt a need to make a 'splash' in terms of marketing and publicity. The office has grown and continues to grow without having to chase after work.

BL: Thank you for your time.

Other features dealing with related issues:

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

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

Trevor Soames, Managing Partner of Howrey LLP in Brussels

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

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