With the U.K.’s future after Brexit looking more uncertain than ever, law firms are taking a range of steps to ensure they are prepared once the country completes its long-awaited departure from the European Union—whenever that may eventually happen.
Following the defeat of the government’s Brexit deal in the House of Commons on Tuesday, time is now running out to reach an agreement that will provide certainty and stability for U.K. businesses and legal services, with an extension to Article 50 now a distinct possibility.
As a result, the physical positioning of law firms in the EU has been closely watched in the legal world, with office launches, European team growth and new relationships with European firms just some of the measures that have been employed by leading firms.
Here is a roundup of what all of the top firms have done so far, either with Brexit or their EU footprint in mind.
Allen & Overy
Solicitors admitted to the Irish roll – 110
Allen & Overy admitted more solicitors to the Irish roll than any other in 2018, according to data from The Law Society of Ireland.
However, the firm’s well-established Continental European presence in locations such as Germany, France, Luxembourg and Brussels means it has little need to build up its lawyers outside of the U.K. in the short term.
The firm’s official line is simply that it will continue to offer strategic advice to all of its clients dealing with the impact of leaving the EU.
“Client restructuring due to Brexit, for example as a result of clients establishing new entities on the continent as a result of the loss of passporting, will obviously result in more work being directed at particular offices and we will ensure that A&O can continue to service our clients as seamlessly and efficiently as we currently do,” a spokesperson for the firm said.
In response to the Brexit vote Tuesday, financial services partner Daniel Shurman said the rejection of the government’s Brexit deal ramps up the uncertainty faced by business. “All businesses can do is continue to implement their hard Brexit contingency plans to ensure they are prepared for any outcome on 29 March,” he said.
Solicitors admitted to the Irish roll – 15
After the referendum, Ashurst established an internal committee to monitor developments.
The firm has also stepped up its interactions with overseas regulators: Bafin in Germany, CMNV in Spain and Central Bank in Ireland, to help deal with some of the complex regulatory issues.
More generally in the EU, the firm launched an office in Luxembourg in 2018. The firm said this launch will assist in broadening its legal advisory reach post-Brexit.
“A further consideration has been the right of our individual lawyers to practice English law in continuing EU countries and vice versa. The entitlement to do so arises under the Mutual Recognition Directive,” a spokesperson for the firm said. “The removal of this entitlement after Brexit will fortunately have limited impact on our Continental European offices because the vast majority of our lawyers are locally qualified and there are no EU lawyers in our London office who are not dual qualified.”
Solicitors admitted to the Irish roll – 28
Magic Circle firm Clifford Chance made several hires in 2018 to bolster its Brexit-related ranks. Gail Orton was made head of EU public policy and is now based in the firm’s Brussels and Paris offices, and competition and technology expert Pierre-Andre Dubois was hired as of counsel in Brussels.
“We are monitoring the picture carefully and feeling confident that our global footprint—especially across Continental Europe and the major global financial hubs—and expertise in areas like financial regulation, international trade and public policy, will stand us in good stead to steer us through the changes ahead,” said U.K. regional managing partner Michael Bates.
Although not a result of Brexit, partners also believe the firm’s appointment of Amsterdam managing partner Jeroen Ouwehand as senior partner sends an important message about the firm’s European focus.
Solicitors admitted to the Irish roll – 26
In addition, the firm confirmed plans for its takeover of a 60-strong local firm in Denmark, and hired a six-strong financial services and insurance practice team for its Antwerp office from Baker McKenzie.
Elsewhere, DLA has made a large number of hires and partner promotions across its EU offices, including France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, Spain, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Romania, Portugal and Poland.
When talking to Law.com affliliate Legal Week about his 2019 predictions, DLA Piper global co-CEO Simon Levine said: “Clearly the Brexit situation needs to play out to whatever conclusion it eventually reaches. That lack of a conclusion so far is making people feel uncertain. That may play into the political situation which will play into our clients and lawyers.”
Solicitors admitted to the Irish roll – 132
Eversheds Sutherland has more solicitors admitted to the Irish roll than any other.
Although not directly attributed to Brexit, Eversheds has shown continued commitment to European expansion.
This year, the firm sealed a full merger with its Dutch affiliate firm Faasen & Partners in January, boosted its Munich office with a 10-lawyer employment team in March, announced plans to double its Belfast head count by 2020 in August, and moved into Russia and Luxembourg with the announcement of a triple office launch in September.
Solicitors admitted to the Irish roll – 131
The firm declined to comment on any Brexit moves or offer further details of its EU strategy, but its large number of lawyers admitted to the Irish roll—131—suggests the firm is taking the situation very seriously.
Sixty-nine Freshfields lawyers also took an additional step last year, obtaining an Irish practicing certificate, enabling them to practice Irish law.
Among top U.K. firms, Freshfields now has the largest number of solicitors with Irish practicing certificates, ahead of Hogan Lovells, with 23, and Allen & Overy, which has 16.
The firm already has a large EU presence, with offices in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Rome, The Netherlands and Spain. So, it will not be under pressure to expand rapidly.
Solicitors admitted to the Irish roll - 6
In addition to ramping up various areas of expertise which relate to Brexit and holding workshops on Brexit-related matters, Gowling in 2018 created an internal “Brexit tracker team” to monitor potential changes in post-Brexit laws.
The firm hired Ursula Johnston from EY as its new director of customs and trade and set up a Brexit hotline for the members of the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders. The firm has also registered some personnel to the Irish roll to advise across U.K. and EU law.
Solicitors admitted to the Irish roll – 42
In April, Hogan Lovells launched a trade practice in London with the hire of a partner from Squire Patton Boggs—a move made in response to client demand ahead of Brexit. The firm also said its new flexible lawyering program, which was launched in February when the firm teamed up with alternative legal services provider Elevate, will be particularly important for clients dealing with the impact of Brexit.
Twenty-three of the firm’s lawyers also obtained Irish practicing certificates last year.
Solicitors admitted to the Irish roll – 53
A spokesperson played down the effect Brexit would have on the firm, saying: “The firm’s preparations are well advanced and we are confident that we will be continuing to serve our clients after Brexit in the same way that we are now”.
But the firm’s guidance to clients has more urgency to it.
“We are still faced with a lot of uncertainty,” corporate partner Lucy Fergusson said in response to this week’s Brexit vote. “Until an agreed deal with a transition period is ratified, businesses must continue to be ready for no deal. If they can, they may wish to wait to flip the switch to put their no deal planning into action.”
Brexit aside, Linklaters launched its fifth German office last year with a move into Hamburg, relocating Frankfurt tax partner Jens Blumenberg and Duesseldorf corporate partner Wolfgang Sturm to open the new base in May.
Norton Rose Fulbright
Solicitors admitted to the Irish roll – 13
In 2018, Norton Rose Fulbright launched a service to help clients navigate and understand what Brexit means for their business, drawing updates from the firm’s Brexit blog.
The firm also hired back partner Glenn Hall as co-head of the government affairs and public policy practice. Hall was previously special adviser to Greg Clark, secretary of state for business energy and industrial strategy. In his previous role, Hall advised on strategy and policy issues across the department’s portfolio, including Brexit.
The firm is also involved in government lobbying efforts. Norton Rose’s global head of transport Harry Theochari was also appointed vice chair of Maritime U.K., ensuring the U.K.’s shipping and maritime industries are heard at the government level to help shape a Brexit outcome that is right for the sector.
“Our Brexit expertise is extensively recognized at all levels of industry and government, a spokesperson for the firm said. “In 2017, the firm’s global head of financial services, Jonathan Herbst, provided evidence to the House of Lords’ EU financial affairs sub-committee on the impact of Brexit on financial services.”
Solicitors admitted to the Irish roll – 19
In 2018, Pinsent Masons hired military scenario planner and historian Lynette Nusbacher to help watch the “Brexit horizon” for the firm and its clients. Nusbacher has since worked with Pinsents to outline four possible Brexit scenarios that will help the firm’s lawyers identify risks and opportunities.
Although not attributed to Brexit, the firm put further focus on Ireland in 2018, almost doubling its team in Dublin.
Talking about Brexit in September of last year, Pinsent Masons head of financial services Alexis Roberts said it is “absolutely critical that clients can continue as before from day one [of Brexit] … Clients are restructuring their businesses so they are Brexit-ready from day one, however hard Brexit may be.”
Solicitors admitted to the Irish roll - 8
Since May 1, 2018, Simmons has hired 12 new partners into EU jurisdictions outside of the U.K., bringing the total number of partners based in EU jurisdictions to over a third of the global partnership. These hires span across Dublin, Paris, Milan, Madrid, Germany and Luxembourg.
Simmons also set up camp in Ireland this year, launching an office in Dublin with a four-partner team.
“[The Ireland office] further strengthens our position in the asset management and investment funds sector,” a spokesperson for the firm said. “This was a client-driven investment, yet one which also positions the firm more effectively in a post-Brexit environment.”
Slaughter and May
Solicitors admitted to the Irish roll – 109
London stalwart Slaughter and May has a six-partner Brussels office, and in 2017 relocated six London competition lawyers to the base there amid a spike in work prompted by the Brexit vote.
Eyes will be on the firm to see whether it maintain its almost solely London-focused strategy or whether it will branch out into the EU post-Brexit.
“The firm has undertaken the necessary work to ensure that we will continue to be able to offer the same uninterrupted standard of client-focused services regardless of the mechanism by which the U.K. leaves the EU,” said a spokesperson for the firm.
In an interview with Legal Week in October of last year, Slaughters corporate partner Nigel Boardman said: “The more rigid your model, the more difficulty you might have if outcomes are counter to your wishes.
“We will come through [Brexit] better than our competitors. We travel more, developing our relationships, and are therefore more globally aware,” he added. “We need to be.”