David Ortega, Organización de Consumidores y Usuarios (OCU)

After several years working in private practice, David Ortega left Brussels to return to Spain to work in for OCU, Spain's consumer rights organisation.

Brussels Legal spoke with Mr. Ortega about his Brussels experience and how it has helped with his current work.

BL: What is your background?

DO: I am a Spanish-qualified lawyer. I first came to Brussels for my post-graduate legal studies at the ULB. I then stayed and first did a traineeship in the Brussels office of Cuatrecasas, one of Spain's main law firms, followed by one at Freshfields. I returned to the Brussels office of Cuatrecasas where I worked as an associate for the next six years.

BL: What sort of work did you do at Cuatrecasas and why did you switch from private practice?

DO: Nearly all of my work dealt with antitrust matters and the remainder, perhaps 10% at most, comprised EC law (such as the free movement of capital) and regulatory matters.

Cuatrecasas' Brussels office was small (just a few lawyers) so most of our work was referred by the firm's other larger offices rather than generated locally. As well as dealing with EU competition matters we also did some Spanish national competition authority work, mainly merger notifications, for other law firms.

My reason for switching came down to a simple lifestyle choice: whether I wanted to have time or make money!

Cuatrecasas had a twelve year partnership track, which is long compared to many other international firms in Brussels. When I was thinking of leaving I had the equivalent of 8 years post qualification experience. In the last 'quarter†of the partnership track there were more demanding targets on the horizon. It would not be so easy to meet those targets given the characteristics of the Brussels office. I liked the people I was working with and the money would also be good, but not good enough to meet the pressure of those targets!

There was also some uncertainly about the ability of the Brussels office to support two or more partners and about my visibility in Brussels when being considered as a potential partner by the firm's partnership located in other jurisdictions.

I considered moving to other firms in Brussels, but I was not sure about the long-term appeal of the partnership lifestyle.

BL: So where did you move to?

DO: A specific opportunity arose: enabling me to move from private practice to public affairs in another type of organisation and also to move from Brussels back to Madrid.

In September I joined OCU (Organización de Consumidores y Usuarios), Spain's largest consumer rights organisation. Over the past two years I have been working as OCU's European Public Affairs representative.

Outside Spain OCU is not well-known so it best to describe it as the Spanish equivalent to the UK Which? consumer organisation. Which? in the UK has been around for over fifty years and OCU is about thirty-two years old. OCU is a respected private organisation that receives no public funding, all its income come from its members (only private individuals). OCU is a member of BEUC, the federation of European consumer rights' organisations.

BL: You make it sound like the move was quite straightforward. Was it?

DO: In making the switch there was one obstacle to overcome, something other private practice lawyers making a similar switch to face. Sometimes private practice lawyers are seen as aggressive, over-qualified and therefore unlikely to be fulfilled or stimulated by most other legal organisational environments.

I had to convince OCU that switching from a law firm was not going to be a problem! Apart from that the switch was relatively smooth.

BL: And what does your job entail?

DO: I work in European Public Affairs and am the OCU's representative in all EU and international public fora.

Our organisation adopts policy positions on various consumer issues and I facilitate the policy debate and decision-making in these areas. I also deal with competition law issues as they increasingly arise.

BL: What sort of competition law activity is that?

DO: OCU is involved in two aspects of antitrust. The organisation itself does a lot of comparative market testing, collecting and analysing the price of various goods and services at different times. This constant market place price checking helps with the organisation's work but it has also become a potent antitrust weapon.

One case illustrates this: through our comparative market testing we identified a potential competition issue in the Spanish olive oil market. We instigated a complaint with the Spanish National Competition Authority and, after investigation, the NCA fined the main Spanish olive oil producer and eight retailers in Spain for fixing the retail price of that product.

This matter set a precedent in a few ways. It showed the usefulness of the comparative market testing information as a tool in a national antitrust investigation and it also showed the initiating role of OCU in antitrust matters.

Our other antitrust activity comes from the NCA recognising OCU as an "interested party" in certain proceedings, such as the second phase merger process. For example we opposed the Gas Natural/Endesa merger and also participated in the oral proceedings in the olive oil case. It was interesting to see the attitude of the cosy group of local antitrust lawyers to role of "the outsider" OCU!

OCU does not have the resources to fight every case that comes to our attention. So we have to choose the cases, sometimes according to their visibility, and have to be careful about how we communicate with stakeholders. We also have to choose how and where we lobby. Recently the Financial Times published our thoughts about Google's acquisition of Double Click. Overall the work is intellectually-stimulating.

BL: Has your experience in Brussels helped with what you are doing now?

DO: Yes. There is a trend with the role of the Member States and consumers becoming more prominent in EU antitrust. It helps to have already built connections in Brussels and be familiar with the EU institutions. I am in fact more in direct contact with the EU institutions now than when I was an associate.

Without my Brussels experience I would not be able to do this work effectively and it is fair to say I was recruited on the basis of my Brussels experience. While I am based in Madrid, I continue to be in Brussels on average at least a couple of times each month.

These Brussels trips are useful for developing relationships with BEUC and its members and with the EU institutions.

BL: After almost two years, what do you think about moving back to Madrid and changing organisation?

DO: I spent eight years in Brussels - as a post-graduate student, stagiaire, and associate - and enjoyed it very much. If you move back to many Member State capitals then you see the difference in the cost of living and property prices! Certainly in Madrid property prices are much higher than in Brussels.

The more time I spent in private practice, the more I was specialising in one particular area of law. I knew increasingly it would become difficult to make a switch like this one. In the "gilded cage" of private practice it was easy to overlook the real risk of specialisation.

Some will see my move as a drop-out. But it is important to question your priorities as your career proceeds. Looking back I have no regret about making the move. In fact I wished I had made the switch earlier. There comes a point when you must think hard about what you want and in terms of my priorities I learnt I wanted more time for myself. The job was taking up so much of my life.

BL: Would you recommend the Brussels experience to other international lawyers?

DO: Yes it is a great experience for lawyers from other jurisdictions. You can gain great knowledge and contacts and meet lawyers from different jurisdictions in a cosmopolitan environment.

BL: Good luck and thank you for your time.

Other features dealing with related issues:

Peter Citron, Head of Practice Development and Knowhow at Hogan Lovells

Herman Sobrie, Legal Manager of EURid

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