Why Brussels is Exempt from Big Law’s Global Office Rethink

Brussels, Belgium. Credit: Bucchi Francesco/Shutterstock.com

Like many industries and sectors, law firms around the world have been rethinking whether they really need all those square feet of expensive office space with remote working here to stay.   

Interviews with Brussels managing partners at eight international law firms show that this conversation is playing out differently in Belgium’s capital. 

International law firms in the EU’s unofficial capital don’t share the concerns of law firms globally, or of Belgium’s business community specifically. And far from downsizing or relocating to less expensive districts in the city, several firms said they plan to double down on their Brussels bases in 2021.

The number-one reason for that? The presence of one of the world’s most powerful regulators of course.

No matter how many meetings go virtual, managing partners say they want to stay physically close to the EU institutions.

And with the EU’s executive arm making moves in new regulatory areas – for instance, in foreign investment and competition – the importance of the Brussels offices of international law firms is set to increase even more, they say. 

“The EU is assuming an ever-larger regulatory role in the world,” said Christopher Thomas, managing partner for Hogan Lovells’ 27 lawyers in Brussels.

“We will therefore see increased demand from clients for specialized advice from lawyers on the ground in Brussels, able to offer carefully calibrated guidance based on daily interaction with the EU institutions.”

“The EU is assuming an ever-larger regulatory role in the world.” 

Even though the city has the world’s second-highest number of lobbyists after Washington DC, commercial real estate prices in Brussels have remained low compared to Europe’s other major cities. 

“One element that you have to take into consideration is that when you operate a law firm in Brussels, real estate is not such a big element as it is in London or New York,” said Jacques Buhart, managing partner of the Brussels office of McDermott Will & Emery (5 lawyers).

“The pressure that exists already in London on reducing the office space is probably lower in the Brussels law firms.”

That might explain why none of the firms contacted said they planned on shrinking their existing office space, even with the COVID-19 rise of remote working. In fact, some said they expect to grow their Brussels bases in 2021. 

“Looking to the future, Dentons has an ambitious strategy to further develop our presence in Brussels, and this will be a key priority for our European leadership in 2021,” said Edward Borovikov, the Belgium managing partner of Dentons’ 26 Belgium-based lawyers.

“Our focus will be on expanding the scope of our Belgian law practice to respond to the growing needs of our clients. This will mean strengthening our existing talent in Corporate/M&A, Banking and Finance and Funds, while also building new capabilities in practices such as Employment, Tax, Real Estate, Energy, Litigation, and IP.”

When DLA Piper found out that the building that houses their Brussels office (92 lawyers) would have to be refurbished due to its old age, they decided to conduct a staff survey.

“We asked them: Do you want to remain in the center of Brussels where we are now, or do you want to be maybe closer to Zaventem or Diegem or somewhere else in Brussels,” said Kristof De Vulder, DLA Piper’s country managing partner. Zaventem and Diegem are smaller, less gridlocked towns located close to Brussels.

“[We have] an ambitious strategy to further develop our presence in Brussels.”

“But the overwhelming majority was that everyone wanted to stay in the center of Brussels,” he said. 

So, early next year, DLA Piper will move half a mile – from its current building on Louizalaan to a new office on Wolstraat.

Other firms say they are happy where they are and see no reason to move to either a smaller or bigger office. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton’s Brussels office (95 lawyers) is situated close to the city’s European quarter and is big enough that every lawyer can have their own office, said Patrick Bock, a senior partner at the Brussels office.

“We’re very happy with the space both from the location, from its general size in terms of giving us the opportunity to grow, and still giving lawyers enough space to work in a socially distanced way,” he said. “I think we’re not going anywhere.”

COVID uncertainty

For some law firms, it is simply too soon to be making any long-term decisions about office space because there is still too much uncertainty around how COVID-19 will impact Brussels’ appeal as an international business city.

“I think our way of working physically in the office will depend on whether Brussels will be this hub for physical meetings in the future or, possibly, at least some meetings will move online,” said Ruxandra Cana, managing partner of the Brussels office of Steptoe & Johnson (21 lawyers).

“That will have a direct impact, not only for the lawyers who have to travel to the office, but also because we depend so much on clients flying in and out of Brussels. So, we’ll have to adapt our office space to that as well.” 

But Cana added that the Brussels office would likely be making some changes to reflect new ways of working.

“We’ll probably not give up the individual lawyer offices, but we may go toward a more standard size of offices rather than multiple sizes […] and a more efficient way of organizing the space – in the sense that we will probably have more spaces for meetings and interactions to the detriment of the typical large corner office.”

In fact, several of the firms contacted – Dentons, DLA Piper, Cleary – said they planned to rearrange existing offices to create more collaborative, hybrid work spaces and to allow more flexible working in the form of for instance hot-desking. 

Others don’t expect to make any changes to office space at all.

“In Brussels, as far as McDermott is concerned, we are not going to change the office layout,” said Buhart, though he added that the firm would likely allow lawyers and staff to work from home one day a week if they wish to do so. 

Law firms also say they are not fazed by city officials’ plans to introduce a toll to reduce congestion in the capital. Although local business lobby groups have warned that the toll will damage the capital’s appeal as a business hub, the managing partners interviewed did not seem too concerned. 

“We depend so much on clients flying in and out of Brussels.”

“The planned Brussels SmartMove toll system will lead to a marginal cost increase for those travelling by car into the city, so I would not predict a major impact on the presence of international law firms in Brussels,” said Koen Platteau, country head of Simmons & Simmons Belgium office (13 lawyers).

“Perhaps regional firms may consider their options across other regions of Belgium, but the toll is unlikely to deter international players from retaining a presence in Brussels.”

Pointing out that most people at the Cleary’s Brussels office already use public transport to come into work and that the city’s congestion is increasingly pushing commuters as a whole toward public transport , Bock added: “So I think fewer and fewer people will be affected in any event by the road toll.”

Others pointed out that that local lawmakers’ bickering over the plan mean it’s far from a done deal and that cities that have gone before Brussels have seen little impact.

“[London’s congestion charge] had almost no impact on the presence of law firms in London at the time,” said Arnaud Wtterwulghe, managing partner of Ashurst’s Brussels office (30 lawyers). “I’m not expecting that the small increase in tax would have a real impact on the presence in Brussels.”

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