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For decades, the top Dutch law firms coexisted peacefully, sharing the spoils of the country’s lucrative corporate market. That tranquillity was shattered in May 1999, when the U.K.’s Freshfields opened shop in Amsterdam and immediately began poaching local lawyers. In the upheaval that’s followed, the legal landscape has shifted dramatically. Several top Dutch firms have joined forces with U.K. newcomers or merged with other Dutch players. And the aggressive head-hunting by 1,850-lawyer Freshfields (now called Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer) has sparked active recruiting by other firms. Losing top lawyers to the competition has become an everyday fact of life. Judging by the numerous alliances and mergers, Dutch lawyers have finally woken up to the need for a truly international strategy, as an increasing number of corporate clients want firms with offices in the major financial centers of Europe and beyond. “The internationalization of the financial markets — certainly in Europe — and the increasing number of international transactions is forcing the legal profession to adapt to the changes,” says Tom de Waard, a partner in the Amsterdam office of Clifford Chance, who welcomes the recent transformation. “I’ve been saying for some time that firms will have to decide whether they want to be an international practice. If they don’t move, they’ll be left out of the picture.” With 23 offices in Europe, Asia, and the U.S., Freshfields has already built a Netherlands practice of 14 partners and around 50 associates, largely lured away from such leading Dutch firms as 179-lawyer Stibbe Simont Monahan Duhot and 251-lawyer De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek. Freshfields, which is also recruiting new university graduates, is aiming to have 75 associates on board by next summer. Ian Hewitt, co-managing partner of Freshfields’s Amsterdam office, says the firm’s move into the Netherlands filled an obvious gap in its coverage of significant legal markets in Europe: “The Netherlands is a key jurisdiction in the corporate and tax planning of many cross-border corporate and financing transactions — a core part of our firm’s practice.” Hewitt questions the notion that Freshfields sparked a wave of mergers and lateral hiring. “The pressure on Dutch firms to review their international strategy was already there,” he insists. “Our timing was right to attract quality, internationally-minded lawyers. But perhaps the Dutch hadn’t seen such high-level lateral partner moves, and the success of our move may have hastened other firms’ review of their strategies.” Whatever the inspiration, Clifford Chance, which has had an Amsterdam office since 1973, went on a cherry-picking spree shortly after Freshfields opened for business in Amsterdam. Its recruits include de Waard, a well-known M&A specialist from Stibbe, plus a top capital markets expert, also from Stibbe. The Clifford Chance Dutch office now has 23 partners and 106 associates. Other U.K. heavyweights have moved into the market by linking with local firms. In December 1999, 125-lawyer Boekel de Neree announced its intention to merge with the U.K.’s 1,500-lawyer Eversheds. And at press time, Linklaters & Alliance was negotiating to formally merge with De Brauw Blackstone. The two firms have been allied since 1998. The new firm would be called De Brauw Linklaters & Alliance. So far, the realignment has resulted in at least one casualty: the breakup of Loeff Claeys Verbeke. One of the oldest and most respected firms in the Netherlands, Loeff split in 1999. Its Netherlands corporate lawyers joined the U.K.’s Allen & Overy; the remaining Netherlands lawyers linked up with Loyens & Volkmaars, a Dutch tax boutique, to form Loyens & Loeff. Not all top-tier firms have yet given in to the siren. Despite the hemorrhaging, Stibbe and 155-lawyer Nauta Dutilh have both said they want to remain independent — although in 1999 Stibbe held merger talks with a German law firm and with the U.K.’s Lovells, neither of which resulted in a union. American firms have not yet shown signs of entering the Dutch market on the same scale as their U.K. counterparts. But, notes de Waard of Clifford Chance, “U.S. firms are moving into the U.K. and Germany. It’s only a matter of time before they start looking at other European countries, including the Netherlands.” Hewitt of Freshfields is more dubious that the Americans will make a play, noting the limited number of Dutch international corporate law firms they would be interested in merging with or acquiring: “I don’t see major U.S. firms coming into the Netherlands unless it’s part of a big change in their overall Europe strategy.”

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