We recently sat down with Ken Daly, managing partner of Sidley’s office in Brussels and co-head of the Antitrust practice, to discuss what differentiates the firm from other players in the market, the importance of setting a diversity-focused culture, and other memorable office highlights from over two decades of legal service in the European capital.
You have been with Sidley for most of your legal career. What led you here?
The firm opened in Brussels in 2003 with a leading trade practice. I joined in 2005 when the firm decided to add an EU Competition team to bolster its U.S. antitrust offering. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to get in on the ground floor and help build up the office’s profile and expansion into other areas, and do so in the way we wanted, rather than trying to fit into the mold of a pre-existing competition team. A blank slate was important for us. While we had a clear vision of how to get the EU Competition practice up and running, it was reassuring to know that we shared the same goals as our colleagues from across the firm, and had their full backing and support. Just as important was the cultural fit with the lawyers who had opened the office, which was perfect right from the beginning.
The EU Competition practice started with two partners and two counsel. We got together very early in the process and outlined the culture we wanted, focusing on collegiality and teamwork and making the best of one another’s talents, and it was clear that those already at Sidley when I joined had this same perspective, were great at what they did, and were enjoying themselves. Frankly, I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to partner with a group of lawyers who I admired and enjoyed working with and considered (and still consider) friends. That spirit continues to define our culture to this day.
The Brussels office is celebrating a significant milestone this year — its 20th anniversary. What was the impetus for Sidley wanting to open an office in Belgium’s capital city?
Brussels is the home of European Union rulemaking and enforcement. It is where all the action is in terms of managing trade policy and negotiations on behalf of the EU member countries, and remains a thriving regulatory hub, notably for the life sciences and technology sectors. It was only logical for Sidley to have a presence here, further complementing the services our lawyers provide to clients in so many other regions around the world. From the moment we opened the office, we found that a lot of our clients needed help with navigating how to access European markets, and how competition, trade, and other EU rules can impact their business operations.
What is the legal market like in Brussels?
Some of the international firms in Brussels focus mainly on competition clearances for deals. We do that too of course, but Sidley has distinguished itself by being a much more full-service EU law firm — with a particular focus on competition, international trade, privacy, and EU regulatory law. The depth and breadth of our practice in Brussels is truly one of our greatest assets.
You mentioned the firm not fitting into a mold. What were the misconceptions of the office when it opened?
One of the things that initially surprised some internal colleagues was that we were not really here to do Belgian law. They imagined us to be a niche practice, only focused on local issues. What we do is really the opposite. We help almost all of Sidley’s largest global clients in dealing with an astonishing range of issues related to accessing EU and global markets, and we serve as a hub for questions of any kind in relation to the EU. That is something we are extremely proud of in Brussels.
Each of Sidley’s 21 offices has its own unique attributes. What’s distinctive about the Brussels office?
We have an amazing collection of smart EU law professionals. They are qualified and experienced in jurisdictions across Europe and the world, and approach client matters from a multidisciplinary perspective, whether advising on competition, trade, life sciences, or privacy issues, or assisting clients in high-stakes investigations and disputes before the European Commission, EU and national regulators and courts, and the Court of Justice of the EU. For instance, our life sciences team in Brussels, which is part of Sidley’s Global Life Sciences group, not only has an in-depth understanding of EU regulatory, trade, and competition law but can piece that together with first-hand technical, scientific, and business knowledge of the life sciences industry. We are told time and again by clients that they can’t find this mix of industry knowledge and lateral thinking across multiple areas of EU law at other firms.
Do you foresee any market changes in the years ahead?
Some argue that in certain areas the EU is trying to position itself as the world’s regulator. Just witness the EU’s recent initiatives in artificial intelligence, digital market regulation, or supply chain sustainability. By leveraging its power as a key trading block, the EU is imposing standards that will require trading partners to adhere to an ever-growing number of European regulations. All of this means that any business operating globally has no other choice but to pay close attention to European law.
Sidley’s Brussels office is already fully engaged in mapping and understanding these changes, and helping clients navigate them. Our lawyers have real insight into the machinery of the EU and how its global policy goals and objectives fit together with international trade law and WTO rules and treaties governing movements of goods, services, and people. The ability to see things more broadly and think long term pays dividends in this environment, especially as the EU is increasingly telling the world to “sit up and take notice — you’re going to have to comply with our rules whether you like it or not.”
Describe the office culture in Brussels.
The cultural distinctiveness that exists within the office is a massive virtue for us. Brussels is sometimes referred to as the Tower of Babel, a place filled with people of all mixed backgrounds and cultures. We have 22 different nationalities here in the office. Our office is composed of lawyers and professionals from across Europe and the world, including Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Congo, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Ukraine, Uruguay, the UK, and the U.S. The linguistic capabilities that we have are just astonishing. We celebrate a lot of national days, and when the World Cup or Olympics comes around, our kitchen plays host to a number of vibrant rivalries.
Does this environment benefit client work?
Absolutely. We have embraced diversity at the workplace, but we also value diversity of approaches when solving client problems. The EU is so vast — its regulatory systems are complex and multilayered. There is nearly always an EU overlay to the legal problems facing our global clients, so we have encouraged our international colleagues to use the Brussels office as their “red phone” to Europe. If there is an issue or matter with any connection to European law, we want them to call us so that we can solve our clients’ problems together. We have a diverse group of professionals, qualified in common and civil law systems, who bring unique ideas and perspectives to the table. And if our lawyers don’t have the answer to a client problem, we can draw on a vast network of local on-the-ground counsel to provide country-specific advice.
When you look back on the growth of the office, is there a personal highlight that comes to mind?
One of the things I’m most proud of is the recent partner promotion of two of our homegrown lawyers: Anne Robert and Josefine Sommer. It is really exciting to play a part in welcoming the next generation of talent and leadership to the partnership. We want our people to feel confident that the Brussels office is going to be stronger in ten years’ time than it is today, just as we are stronger now than we were ten years ago. Importantly, it signals to our younger lawyers coming up through the ranks that we offer a platform — and a home — built to win for the future and focused on providing solutions to our clients’ most complex EU problems.
Is there a particular project you would like to talk about?
Pro bono work is part of the DNA of the Brussels office. We recently partnered with the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, on a pro bono project that surveyed different countries on the ways that asylum seekers can gain access to remote legal assistance, particularly in circumstances where there are logistical challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UNHCR project aimed to help countries all over the world come to terms with what changes need to be made to facilitate access to legal assistance, including the ability to consult with legal counsel via video conferencing. Coordinating a multi-jurisdictional project like this fit right within our sweet spot. Sidley was able to assemble a team of lawyers from the Brussels office and across the firm to survey the law in these countries, offering recommendations and advice to help the UNHCR achieve its goals.