BRUSSELS — In 1988 there were only nine. In 1989 another six arrived. And this year 10 more U.S. law firms flocked to Brussels, hoping to cash in as the European Community directs a quiet revolution in the way businesses can do business in Europe.
Propelling the rush is the long experience of American law firms in helping corporate clients cope with government regulation. The U.S. regulatory burden, long thought to blunt American business' competitive edge overseas, has actually helped American law firms position themselves for the market that is developing here. They are attracting clients not only from back home but also from Europe and Asia.
To many of the 3,000 Belgian lawyers practicing here, the competition is anything but welcome. "Many lawyers feel they are being invaded by foreigners who are playing by different rules," said a Belgian lawyer who asked not to be identified. The Brussels bar sharply limits advertising--local law firms cannot even widely distribute informational brochures about themselves--and it prohibits lawyers from lobbying.
By contrast, lobbying on behalf of their corporate clients is precisely the reason that many of the 25 American law firms are here--although few will admit it in so many words.
"Lobbying is something we do here, but what it really amounts to is just effective advocacy," said Turner T. Smith Jr., head of the year-old Brussels office of Hunton & Williams of Richmond, Va. "Aggressive, 'U.S.-style' lobbying is not regarded highly here. If you go in and shout at people, it doesn't work here--or, usually, in the United States. Carefully prepared, factual arguments frequently do work."
The newcomers are also handling standard corporate legal matters, such as mergers and acquisitions, for their clients. But this they could do in London or Paris, where many of them already have offices.
What distinguishes Brussels is that it is the headquarters city of the European Community, which is trying to standardize the conduct of business in its 12 member countries by the end of 1992. New regulations pouring from the EC will govern everything from the price of goat's milk to the terms of corporate mergers. And most of the American law firms here have corporate clients seeking to monitor and influence the rule-making process.
Law firms are also flocking here from London--30 at last count--and other European capitals as well. Many law firms are taking on the same sort of multinational character as their corporate clients, with no respect for national borders.
"Everybody's getting excited and saying, 'There's gold in them thar hills,' " said Joseph P. Griffin, since last year the Brussels-based partner of the Philadelphia firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.
But whether there is enough gold to support 25 American firms is not so obvious. After a smaller-scale rush to Brussels after the European Community was founded in 1957, several American firms pulled back.
"The need for services is growing fast, but it may not be growing as fast as the supply," said Richard Webster, one of the veterans of the U.S. legal community in Brussels. Webster joined the Brussels office of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, a New York firm, four years after the office opened in 1960.
Another U.S. lawyer in Brussels, who asked not to be named, said many law firms have come for defensive reasons, after a move by their competitors. "They felt they couldn't afford not to come," he said.
The newcomers include mostly heavy hitters--"mega-firms," in the words of Carl Bevernage, a member of De Bandt, Van Hecke & Lagae, Brussels' largest law firm. The American firms pay double the local going rate for starting attorneys, said Bevernage, who is also president of Brussels' Dutch-language bar.
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom of New York, by most measures America's largest, opened in Brussels this year. From Washington has come Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, renowned for its lobbying.
Also in the field are two Los Angeles-based giants--Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and O'Melveny & Myers.
Many of the firms are buying up or combining with European law practices. Others are stocking their Brussels offices with European lawyers. "We try to present as European a face as possible," said Howard M. Liebman, a partner in the 20-year-old Brussels office of Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly of St. Paul, Minn.
Xavier Magnee, president of Brussels' French-speaking bar, said there was no way the city's law firms could close the rapidly developing market in regulatory law here to experienced American firms. Acknowledging the growing number of joint ventures between U.S. and European law firms, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "If you can't lick 'em, join 'em."
The American law firms' clients also have an international cast. They include not only American corporations but also European and Asian.