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

This article was written in February 2007.  Despite its age, Brussels Legal still finds its content relevant to Brussels' international legal community.

Latham & Watkins' Brussels office opened in February 2002 and is now celebrating its fifth anniversary.

Brussels Legal spoke with Andreas Weitbrecht, office Managing partner, and Jean Paul Poitras, a Brussels-based partner, about the office's development during this period.

We discussed, within the context of Latham's wider office expansion and particular structure, how the office has grown, what has been learnt during that process and possible future developments.

BL: Why did Latham's Brussels office open in February 2002?

JPP: To explain that you first have to understand Latham in terms of both its historic and more recent expansion and the firm's particular organisational structure.

During the 1970s and 1980s Latham expanded beyond its original Los Angeles office to become a major national US law firm. In the 1990s a strategic decision was taken concerning expanding internationally. Latham, in part based on advice from McKinsey, decided international growth was essential for the firm's continued success; Latham could no longer remain a purely national firm.

In Europe the firm's objective was to have a strong presence in the five largest Member States (UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain). While the firm had opened an office in London some 15 years ago, it was not until 2001 that the firm's other big European developments started. In that year the German practice exploded with the opening of the office in Frankfurt and with approximately 50 lawyers from Gaedertz forming our Hamburg office. In the same year another 80 lawyers from Stibbe started Latham's Paris office.

The Brussels office opened shortly thereafter in early 2002. Between then and today the Milan, Munich (and since January 2007) Madrid and Barcelona offices have opened.

BL: You mentioned the firm's particular organisational structure. What do you mean?

AW: Focusing on one office in isolation from the rest of the firm gives an unclear picture of how we operate. For a firm of its size and geographic spread, Latham has a unique organisational structure.

The firm does not have a home office where management is based and key decisions are taken. The firm's roots are in Los Angeles - the original office so-to-speak. But today we have twenty-four offices around the world; New York is the largest office (by number of lawyers) with Washington DC, not Los Angeles, second in size. The firm's Managing Partner, Robert Dell, is based in San Francisco and the firm's top management is spread throughout our offices in North America, Europe and Asia.

We have a one firm model with no separate profit centres. We succeed or fail as a firm. Modern communications, especially email, and intensive travel have allowed us to implement this model on a global scale.

Latham has a unique structure and that makes doing things the right way critical for the firm to operate successfully.

BL: What do you mean by doing things "the right way"?

AW: Managing the firm's global expansion has been key to the firm's success. So at every stage the firm has made sure the expansion is properly resourced.

Doing things "the right way" comes down to the way we operate and work. There are three closely-related aspects that explain this:

One factor is the critical role of the firm's group of more senior partners. There is no particular interest in explosive growth or large mergers that create big headlines for a day and problems for the next five years. Latham is looking to add incremental individual partners and groups or partners that increase value to the firm over the long-term. The senior partners in Europe have helped with identification of such laterals and have carefully managed the firm's expansion.

These partners, particular the senior US ones, have acted as an interface between the firm and these potential lateral hires. For example John Watson (in the Paris office) has helped develop the corporate side of the firm and David Mulliken and his predecessor John Lynch (respectively in the London and Paris offices) have helped build the litigation practice. It takes time and effort to do this properly. Latham values the important role of such long-term investment in developing the global practice.

The second factor is that we work on a case-by-case basis. There is a decentralised structure here with local decision-making and partners deciding where the work goes. This is very different to UK firms; no one in management here tells a lawyer to send work to a particular office. There are no preconceived views about the capability of the Brussels office or what it should or should not be doing.

The third factor is the constant challenge of integration. The key to successfully developing an organisational structure like ours has been to build team spirit over time. Little things can build into big things and we need the confidence to build them.

BL: Practically-speaking how does this firm integration work? What form does it take?

JPP: We are constantly working on integration between the offices. A notable feature in Brussels is how some partners split their time between this office and another European office.

For example on a weekly basis: Alain Georges and Hugues Vallette Viallard are based partly here and in Paris; Matteo Bay is based here and in Milan; Marc Hansen and, to a lesser extent, John Kallaugher split their time between London and Brussels; a German partner, Marco Nunez, is here at least twice a month; Javier Ruiz Calzado, a Brussels-based senior Spanish counsel, is actively involved in linking up with our new offices in Madrid and Barcelona.

BL: In this integrated office system, what role does the Brussels office play? For example does the Brussels office take a lead role in the firm's EU competition practice?

JPP: All types of competition and EU law are practised in the Brussels office. The office also contains Latham's Global Services Operations dealing with business support matters such as IT and in-house training.

AW: Latham's competition group in Europe is spread throughout the European offices. EU competition law is practiced from Brussels and the other European offices.

While Brussels is not the "home" of the European competition law group it is to some extent the focal point of the offices' activities in this area: Brussels does not have an official coordinating role, but we probably have a de facto coordinating role at the practice level. We are often dealing with multi-jurisdictional matters. So to some extent Brussels is viewed as a natural "hub" office by our other European offices.

JPP: It has also been rewarding to see how the language capabilities of Brussels and our other offices have been utilised to deal with cartels and other internal investigations. It illustrates how the group of offices is working together.

There are also unique EU questions outside the area of competition law which are directed to Brussels. For example I have dealt with product safety and large global product recalls.

BL: How has the Brussels office developed over the past five years?

JPP: Development was somewhat slower than some might have anticipated. The initial start-up phase focused on integrating the office into the firm and in 2002 when the economy was not booming (unlike 2000 or today) there was not enough business to keep everyone busy at that time.

But from that base the subsequent progression has been constantly upward. We have developed the office at our own pace. Brussels is now an established office facing the same issues as other established offices, such as a limited amount of associate turnover.

Today we have some different people with different experience. That is necessary for the practice as it is in 2007.

AW: The last five years have seen a steady development as every year the office has got better. The office continues to become more integrated with the firm. There has also been a progression across the firm in referring transatlantic matters. The Latham brand is working.

BL: Does the Brussels office have its own client base?

JPP: Latham is a full service firm. But our ambition in Brussels has always been to be more than a service office for the rest of the firm. We have lots of our own independent clients who are often separate to the wider firm.

Yet the firm has generated a lot work for us, perhaps more in than the previous years. Over the last five years the nature and number of transactions that Latham is involved in have increased.

AW: Some of our most important cases have come from within the firm. Clients have considered our global capability first and only occasionally looked at the local office capability. They know our office is very connected to the wider firm. Clients know that in other law firms there is a different type of connection between the offices.

BL: With the benefit of hindsight, what do you look back on and wish you had done differently?

JPP: In the last five years we have not added any laterals and we may have missed some opportunities. At the start we had a vision about the office and looking back some of us think that at times along the way we should have taken more of a risk but were not prepared to do so. Sometimes with some potential lateral hires a degree of flexibility would have been required on our part and we were cautious.

We have made some conservative decisions and we can ask ourselves: should we have added a group of lawyers at a particular time? Was that an error or not? Ultimately it was a judgment call. But today we are more established and continue to look for lateral opportunities.

BL: How do you envisage the Brussels office growing?

JPP: My view is the office should be in the range of 25-35 lawyers, capable of dealing with three large, complex cases at the same time. A key issue is whether we decide to build a Belgian component to the practice.

AW: In my world, there are no preconceived ideas amongst the management limiting the office's growth to thirty-five lawyers. So you see we have room for dissenting views! And probably we are going to see a significant lateral hire soon, maybe around the time when this interview is published.

BL: Good luck and thank you for your time.

Other features dealing with related issues:

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

Trevor Soames, Managing Partner of Howrey LLP in Brussels

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

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

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