Sidley opened its Brussels office with the mission of offering high-quality pan-European legal services. Over the decade, the office has grown steadily as we have handled increasingly complex matters for our clients. The Belgian capital, host to the principal European Union institutions, is the hub of EU rulemaking and enforcement.
So what makes Sidley such an enduring and successful legal presence in Brussels?
From the beginning, the business paradigm was unusual. “We did it differently,” said Stephen Spinks, who joined Sidley in 2005 and is currently managing partner in Brussels. “Around 1992, a lot of U.S. firms thought it would be helpful to have an office here, and they established themselves in antitrust law. We opted to initially build our practice around EU trade, a natural extension of our global trade practice.”
Carter Phillips, chair of the firm’s Executive Committee, explained the firm’s rationale. “We needed an office in Brussels to complement the trade work we were doing in Washington, D.C. and the WTO work we were handling primarily in Geneva.”
Once that stronghold had been established, said Phillips, the next step was to extend the firm’s global reputation for life sciences regulatory work to Brussels. Partner Maurits Lugard, now head of the EU Life Sciences Regulatory team, moved from the firm’s Washington office to start the regulatory practice in Brussels, just as EU food and drug legislation was coming of age.
One additional element was still needed to form Sidley’s vision of the ideal EU practice. “We needed to add a world-class competition practice that could anchor the firm’s overall push to develop into a truly global enterprise,” according to Phillips. To that end, Lugard and Richard Weiner, a founder of the Brussels office and its first managing partner, succeeded in luring Stephen Kinsella, now head of the firm’s EU competition team, and several other high-profile competition lawyers, including Spinks, to Sidley.
This, in effect, completed the formation of the “three-legged stool” partners often reference when describing the firm’s strategy of having a trio of strong practices in Brussels—regulatory (primarily life sciences and environmental), antitrust/competition and trade.
By all accounts, the office is still infused with the same “start-up” energy of its early years—a palpable sense that everyone there feels, acutely, that they have played a major role in building something special from scratch. This is easy to understand considering that the team hung out the proverbial shingle in 2003 with a couple of rented rooms and just four lawyers, including Weiner and Arnoud Willems, who now heads the firm’s EU Trade and Customs team. The office now boasts a total of 25 lawyers and 24 non-lawyer professionals.
A culture of cultivating talent
Carl-Michael Simon, a former associate in Brussels who is now Assistant General Counsel, International Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Switzerland, admired the ability of the partners, in particular Lugard, whom he calls a mentor, to foster talent and teamwork. “What I learned most was about excellence and collaboration. That was the standard—the values of Sidley,” he said.
The work he and others have undertaken in the Brussels office is exceedingly sophisticated. EU law is an amalgam of civil law and common law, a complex web that is crucial for global businesses to understand and appreciate. For this reason, the Sidley Brussels team mirrors what one would see just outside its office doors—a variety of cultural and national backgrounds.
“Our office is a microcosm of what you find in the city,” said Spinks. “Our people are from all over Europe and beyond. People often speak English at work but when they sit down to lunch they may speak a different language. And that language may not be one of the two main local languages—French and Dutch.” This, he said, adds an extra dimension to the practice that the firm actively cultivates.
Former associates remember the office’s culture fondly, particularly how it inspired and engaged junior lawyers. “When I first joined the competition team, it was just being formed,” recalled Hanne Melin, now Director Global Public Policy and Head of eBay, Inc. Public Policy Lab EMEA, a firm client. Melin, who practiced in Brussels for five years, said she came away from the experience “viewing the law not as a static thing but as something you could help shape and evolve.”
Melin vividly recalls walking down hallways with Kinsella on the way to client meetings, feeling they were a team. “As an associate, I always felt Kinsella trusted my ability to grow with the task,” she said.
Citing her time with Sidley as an important formative influence, Melin said, “I owe my legal training to the partners in Brussels—but even more important—I owe them my ambition to be a more innovative and creative lawyer.”