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Brussels is a speck on the map compared to European metropolises like Paris or London, but the capital of Belgium is increasingly becoming a prime destination for U.S. law firms. Today, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher is expected to announce the opening of an outpost in Brussels, making it the third U.S. firm in as many weeks to move into the city. In August, both Arnold & Porter and Sidley Austin Brown & Wood set up shop in Brussels. And in 2002, firms including Latham & Watkins and Howrey Simon Arnold & White established offices in the city. What’s drawing these firms to Brussels is antitrust work, particularly involving the European Commission, the European Union’s increasingly influential regulatory agency that’s based in the city. Just as Washington, D.C., is an indispensable location for U.S. antitrust practices, Brussels has become the place to be for any firm whose corporate clients compete on a global stage. “If you have a lot of contact with the European Commission, a number of firms have decided, as has Gibson, that you need to have a presence there,” says Gary Spratling, who co-chairs Gibson’s antitrust practice. “You’ve got to have people on the ground, appearing before enforcement agencies, meeting with people,” he said. Gibson hired Peter Alexiadis, a former partner at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey’s Brussels office to head up its new outpost, which will initially count a team of three to six attorneys. And Spratling says he will spend a significant amount of time in the Brussels office, as will several other Gibson U.S.-based antitrust attorneys. The European Commission, which counts 20 commissioners and a staff of roughly 24,000 functionaries, is both a regulatory and a law enforcement agency. Besides having the authority to approve or disapprove mergers and acquisitions, it can investigate companies whose practices it deems anti-competitive and even raid corporate offices. It’s also the forum where a company can bring complaints about competitors that receive state subsidies. This broad purview means the commission has far-reaching power over any company whose market stretches beyond U.S. borders. Gibson is currently representing PeopleSoft Inc., the target of a hostile takeover bid by Oracle Corp., before both the U.S. Department of Justice and the European Commission. And Spratling says his clients have been involved in at least a dozen cartel investigations before the commission during the past few years. The European Commission can’t be ignored, says William Baer, the head of Arnold & Porter’s antitrust/competition and trade regulation practice. In August, the firm opened a six-attorney office in Brussels, which Baer expects to grow to 10 attorneys in the next couple of months. The spate of new arrivals in Brussels is actually the second wave of foreign law firms to set their sights on the city. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, dozens of U.S. and British law firms opened offices in Brussels in anticipation of the 1992 unification of the European market and the lowering of trade barriers. But the importance of Brussels as a center for antitrust and competition law has only become clear in the past few years as the European Commission has increasingly flexed its muscle, launching investigations into corporate giants like Intel and Microsoft. The commission’s 2001 veto of General Electric’s $45 billion merger with Honeywell, which had already been approved by U.S. authorities, cemented the critical nature of Brussels. “That was a demonstration of the raw power of the commission,” says Howrey Simon antitrust co-chairman John Briggs. “It demonstrated the reality that companies — be they American, Canadian, Asian or European — could not just assume that if they solved their antitrust problems in their own country that they would not have a problem in Europe.” Howrey Simon played a role in getting the GE/Honeywell merger nixed, as the firm represented a client opposed to the combination. While Briggs was in Brussels making presentations to the commission’s merger task force opposing the deal, he was also putting together the pieces to launch a permanent Brussels office. The firm recruited Trevor Soames from London’s Norton Rose, and currently has five partners, 13 associates and three economists stationed in Brussels. “Firms [that] aspire to have a serious domestic antitrust practice representing significant American companies are going to be hard-pressed not to have a serious capability in Brussels,” Briggs says.

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