Partners Ulrich Soltész (Gleiss Lutz), Olivier Clevenbergh (Stibbe) and Craig Pouncey (Herbert Smith)

This article was written a few years ago.  Despite its age, Brussels Legal still finds its content relevant to Brussels' international legal community.

The law firm alliance between Gleiss Lutz, Stibbe and Herbert Smith took a more visible form earlier this year when all three Brussels offices moved into the brand new Central Plaza building.

Brussels Legal spoke with three Brussels-based partners: Ulrich Soltész (Gleiss Lutz), Olivier Clevenbergh (Stibbe), and Craig Pouncey (Herbert Smith). We discussed the nature of the firms' alliance (called "the Alliance") and the significance of sharing the same premises in Brussels.

BL: Why was the Alliance between your firms created in the first place?

US: Around the year 2000, each firm had a substantial practice in its home jurisdiction together with a presence in others: Gleiss Lutz was based in Germany and central Europe; Herbert Smith in the UK and across some other parts of Europe and Asia; and Stibbe was present in the Benelux and other parts of Europe

There was a fairly neat geographic fit between the three firms in terms of jurisdictional scope and areas of practice. Brussels was the only location where all three of us had an office in the same location (something that remains true today).

OC: At that time each firm was seeking a more international reach, a greater cross-border capacity if you like. Independently each partnership had identified that step as the next strategic development for their respective practices.

But at the same time no partnership wanted to lose its independence. We all wanted to ensure key management decision-making would remain within our respective firms. 

CP: The Alliance seemed the ideal way to achieve this objective of gaining increased international capacity while maintaining management authority within each firm.

The Alliance first started in 2000 between Gleiss Lutz and Herbert Smith and Stibbe joined a little later on 1 January 2002.

BL: Law firm alliances can mean different things to different people. What is the nature of your particular alliance and how has it developed?

OC: The Alliance maintains a balance between the independent partnerships of our three firms and cooperation through pooling our people and expertise in certain practice, marketing and administrative areas.

None of us had significant experience of a law firm alliance before. So the Alliance has been a learning experience for all three firms.

US: We formed a Joint Steering committee to manage all common matters from the start. It is composed of partners, including the managing partners, of each firm and determines common Alliance strategy and interests. It takes decisions regarding joint marketing, communication and practice development.

The Alliance enables our lawyers to be based in each other's offices. For example Andreas Wölfle, a Gleiss Lutz partner, together with an associate have been based in Herbert Smith's London office for the past two years and another Gleiss Lutz partner, Michael Burian, has been seconded to Herbert Smith's Tokyo office since the summer of 2006. A Herbert Smith partner, Phillip Talboys, is based in Gleiss Lutz's Frankfurt office.

The Alliance's nature has been communicated externally via our common corporate branding. The Alliance logo is seen across all firms' online and physical communications. It is clear we are an alliance of three independent law firms.

CP: It may seem like a complex system with two levels of management - one at the level of the Alliance and then another within each firm - but it is not. Clients know which firm they are dealing with and internally each of us makes a clear distinction between our own firm and the Alliance.

BL: And how have your clients reacted to the Alliance?

CP: Since its inception they have reacted positively. Many major clients have reassessed the type of work they can send to us in light of that increased international capability (today we are close to 1600 lawyers across all three firms' offices in Europe, Asia and New York).

Our network has also made the Alliance members more attractive for US clients seeking advice here and we have also seen it with the type of work we are invited to pitch for.

US: US law firms have been happy to send us referral work, whether specific to particular European jurisdictions or for cross-border work. Unlike US firms with Brussels offices, we are not direct competitors for these referring firms.

BL: Have conflicts of interest arisen between Alliance members' clients and, if they have, has this negatively impacted on the expected benefit of the Alliance?

OC: So far the issue of conflicts of interest has not arisen in any significant way. We were aware of this issue from the beginning and set up a Conflicts committee to manage any potential conflict issues early on. But to date it has not been a problem.

BL: Don't you think clients feel pushed into using the other Alliance partners?

US: No not at all. We are not desperately pushing each other's services. We are able to offer cross-border 'products†to our clients, but it is their decision whether to take up that opportunity.

CP: The question raises a more general issue of client referral that is not specific for the Alliance. The interests of the client always have to come first. Any law firm that has a different outlook is taking an extremely short-term view. Clients choose the arrangement that works best for them. When clients have other preferred partners in other jurisdictions then it is not a problem. It is a common issue for all international law firms today.

BL: Earlier this year all three offices moved into the same office building in Brussels. What was the rationale for this move and what are the expected benefits?

OC: Brussels is an important location for the Alliance partners because it is the only city in which all three Alliance firms have a presence. So on a purely symbolic level, the Alliance takes a visible, physical form as we are 'under one roofâ€.

Each office has its own part of the building, showing we are three independent law firms. But being in the same building is important for a number of reasons.

US: In Brussels, Gleiss Lutz and Herbert Smith can operate on a scale that was not possible for either office individually. We are each approximately 10 lawyers in our respective offices while Stibbe has more than 120 lawyers based here.

Practically-speaking being in the same building means we can collaborate on hosting seminars together and we are able to share resources such as IT; conference facilities, library and know-how. Such cooperation occurred before, just not in such an immediate, accessible fashion as now.

The Brussels office facilitates contact between our lawyers and staff. Whether it is between lawyers permanently based in Brussels or lawyers visiting from another office. Sharing the same building also helps enhance contact between the Alliance partners on a working, day-to-day basis.

BL: Is this contact between the Alliance firms' lawyers actually so important?

OC: Yes. All law firms - from global firms with offices all across the world to law firms in other alliances face a well-known professional issue: can we, with confidence, recommend local lawyers in another jurisdiction who will advise our client to the expected standard?

The "one-stop shop" concept is something all law firms like to believe in, but many clients are more sophisticated than that.

US: An intangible, but significant benefit of sharing the same building is we get to know our Alliance firm lawyers a lot better, either through working with them or meeting them on a day-to-day basis.

We have a regular, practical exchange of ideas, knowledge and people and can cross-sell each other's products with confidence. A degree of trust is established that is not so easy for firms that are involved in a looser alliance or network.

BL: Are you surprised that other firms have not tried to follow suit with the same or at least a similar type of alliance model?

CP: No not really. Fundamentally law firm alliances are very specific to the firms involved. Our Alliance is limited to the structures and outlook of our three partnerships.

There are (and have been) many types of international alliances and associations between law firms. Why some associations work and others don't is an interesting question with no straightforward answer - largely because there is no magic formula. Forms of cooperation have to be right for the firms involved. Law firm alliances face the same issues: what are the participating firms' expectations?; how is the association organised?; how will it develop?

BL: What role will the Brussels office play in the development of the Alliance?

US: With all three firms working in the same Brussels building, the office here is likely to be an 'interface†for the Alliance. Inevitably it will help build up a stronger network of contact between our lawyers.

Probably there will be a greater number of internal and external joint meetings and events in Brussels as the Alliance takes advantage of the shared infrastructure it has here.

BL: How do you foresee the Alliance itself developing? Will the number of Alliance partners increase? Is a merger inevitable?

OC: We have good relations with law firms in other jurisdictions so that the three firms are already able now to provide help to their clients in countries where none of them has an office.

The Alliance is not a stepping-stone to a three-way merger! The Alliance meets our shared objective, facilitating a level of cooperation that has increased our combined international capacity and credibility.

But the Alliance is developing and so we have to see how circumstances change in the coming years. But there is currently no active consideration of a merger.

BL: Good luck and thank you for your time.

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