Legal market overview
Belgium was not as severely affected as other Eurozone countries in the recent crisis, but the economy remains vulnerable and the number of bankruptcies continued to rise, with over 11,000 companies going bankrupt in 2012, resulting in an increase in restructuring and insolvency work for law firms.
The M&A and corporate transactional market remained subdued, particularly at the top end of the market. Companies are still cautious and deals often failed to complete. That said, firms have reported an uptick in activity since the second quarter of 2013 and there is a general feeling of optimism in the market.
The capital markets also remain volatile and law firms have been kept busy acting for borrowers who need to refinance maturing loans. The year also saw the first IPO in Brussels since 2009 (and the largest since 2007) in the form of the listing of Belgian postal operator bpost on NYSE Euronext. The IPO consisted of an offering of existing shares held by CVC Funds through Post Invest Europe, corresponding to approximately 30% of bpost’s shares. Linklaters acted for bpost, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP advised the Belgian state, which holds 50.01% of bpost, and Allen & Overy LLP advised CVC Capital Partners.
Belgian labour law is undergoing consider-able change relating to the harmonisation of the treatment of white collar and blue collar employees. A political agreement was reached in July 2013 and will be introduced as a bill in federal parliament, with the expectation it will come into force in 2014.
The country’s position as the seat of the European Union (EU) also provides a continuous flow of work. At EU level, despite a decrease in cartel cases, the European Commission imposed its largest ever cartel fine – totalling €1.5bn – on seven companies for manipulating the market for cathode-ray tubes. The IT sector has been a focus of abuse of dominance cases, and Google is subject to several ongoing complaints that are keeping law firms busy. In the merger control space, there were fewer notifications, but nine Phase II decisions, including the third prohibition of Ryanair’s attempted takeover of Aer Lingus. The Belgian government also introduced a new Belgian Competition Act, which came into effect in September 2013. The act created a single, simpler Belgian Competition Authority.
The legal market includes prominent international firms such as those mentioned previously and independent Belgian firms such as Stibbe, NautaDutilh, Eubelius and Liedekerke Wolters Waelbroeck Kirkpatrick.
Fierce fee competition is a growing problem in Belgium and the establishment of boutique firms is one solution that is a continuing trend in the market. Notably, corporate and litigation boutique Strelia was launched in January 2013 and labour and employment firm Younity was formed in October 2012 with Jean-Philippe Cordier, former head of employment at Stibbe, as managing partner.