Legal market overview
The Belgian economy has gathered momentum since the end of 2013, ending two years of stagnation, and the overall atmosphere in the market is now more positive than during previous years. However, the situation remains rather unpredictable as the Belgian economy is to a great extent dependent on the situation in Europe. In October 2014, a new centre-right government was formed, with one Francophone and three Flemish parties forming a coalition. As well as lowering taxes, the government intends to increase the qualifying age for pensions and tighten immigration rules.
As a result of the general upward trend, there has been an increased appetite for M&A and capital markets activity. Private equity firms have also been busy, although many deals failed to complete. Another noteworthy trend is the growing investment by Chinese and US companies in the Belgian market.
In the context of increased restructuring activity, law firms were involved in major deals for large companies. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP advised the Belgian Ministry of Finance on the preparation of a banking reform act to provide comprehensive rules on bank recovery and resolution.
Law firms have also seen a surge in public-private partnership (PPP) projects in the past two years, a relatively new phenomenon in Belgium. PPPs have continued to be a driving force for real estate work.
In the employment sector, harmonisation of the dismissal law between blue-collar and white-collar employees entered into force in July 2014, triggering a considerable amount of advisory work for many labour and employment practices. Following the trend towards centralising occupational pension schemes throughout Europe, a single cross-border pension institution for the Benelux region is currently in the making.
Within the context of Belgium’s tax reforms implemented in 2012, the Belgian authorities have taken a more aggressive approach to pursuing tax abusers. This has resulted in an increasing importance of preventive and compliance tax law advice.
As home to the three primary European Union (EU) institutions, there is a strong presence of EU competition and regulatory lawyers in Brussels. A number of significant antitrust investigations have served to provide a steady flow of work for firms over recent months, with the financial services, pharmaceuticals and technology sectors all held under close scrutiny by the authorities. Ongoing investigations into alleged anti-competitive practices on the part of Google are set to have major impact, as are the pay-for-delay patent investigations into the behaviour of various pharmaceuticals companies. Another development grabbing the market’s attention is the European Parliament’s decision to adopt the directive on antitrust damages actions. The directive is expected to pave the way for an increase in such claims and there is an anticipation that US plaintiff firms may take advantage.
There is a continuing trend for experienced lawyers to leave their position in high-profile international or Belgian law firms to launch specialised boutiques. A notable example in 2014 was the foundation of corporate boutique Cresco Advocaten, which took an entire team of experts previously working at Ambos NBGO Advocaten. In the area of IP law, Van Innis & Delarue entered the market in 2013. Koan Legal Strategies merged with Lorenz to become Koan Lorenz.
Firms in the spotlight
Strelia started its activities on 1 January 2013. It was formed by experienced partners and their teams coming from various firms, including international firms (Stibbe, Nauta, White & Case, Linklaters), to bring together their expertise and strengths and provide their clients with a new offering.
The firm combines the advantages of a small and flexible firm with a professional service delivered in accordance with international standards. Its team currently comprises about 25 lawyers, most of them with an international experience.
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