Legal market overview
Anxiety levels are high on the streets and inside French law firms. If the Lehman Brothers crisis marked the end of the flourishing post-war era, the search for a new model continues and – with the nation still mourning the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 – the future remains uncertain, both politically and economically. All eyes are now on the Presidential election in 2017.
Most agree that France has emerged from the financial crisis as a mid-cap market, a sector that is forecast to double in size in the next few years, driven by a dynamic private equity market. Engineering remains a strong national asset and France is nurturing a number of hi-tech and biotech companies that are attracting foreign investors.
The presence of Chinese and Asian clients, who were involved in a surprising number of large deals in France in 2015, especially in the hotels and leisure sector, is another new development.
Firms are increasingly focusing on regulatory and litigation work to remain profitable, with one firm declaring that ‘we have now entered the litigation era’. Adding to this, the French Competition Authority remains one of the most severe in Europe, delivering a record of €1bn in total fines in 2014 and handing out its largest fine ever (€350m) for a single company in 2015.
Financial fraud and corruption are also being more tightly investigated following the creation of a dedicated national investigation squad and a specialist section of the main court of justice in Paris in 2014. Its first ruling, rendered in 2015, shook the market: the heir to the Nina Ricci perfume and fashion fortune was convicted of tax fraud for the use of an offshore account, sentenced to a year in prison and fined €1m. Her lawyer, the managing partner of a major French law firm, was also convicted. French tax lawyers say the tax authorities have stepped up their game and are aggressively pursuing cases, more often putting lawyers and their clients in the dock, as in the Ricci case. In response, companies are now challenging the French tax regime in court.
Legality, morality and professional ethics are becoming hot topics – and not only in the tax field. In the groundbreaking Tapie case at the start of 2015, the Paris Court of Appeal cancelled a €400m arbitration award from 2008 after finding that one of the arbitrators involved lacked independence.
Despite such upheavals, the ‘ultra-competitive’ French legal market was relatively calm and saw few major changes in 2015. Many firms have already adjusted their model and are now better positioned to handle new demands for high-value advice at a lower fee structure.
Major market changes mainly involved French firms: Gide Loyrette Nouel A.A.R.P.I. took over Cuatrecasas, Gonçalves Pereira’s team in Paris, and closed its Budapest and Kiev offices, which were taken over by Jeantet AARPI.
Lefèvre Pelletier & associés, which still ranks among the top national firms despite another wave of departures, and leading renewable energy boutique CGR Legal announced their merger; the deal will result in the creation of a 160-lawyer firm with several offices in Europe and Asia. Independent firm CVML recently closed its Tokyo office and saw a number of partners defect to rivals.
Among international firms, DLA Piper and Jones Day continued their hiring spree in 2015 and new entrant Cohen & Gresser LLP, which opened in Paris in 2014, also bolstered its ranks in 2015. Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co LLP is now known as Gowling WLG.
The podium of law firms in France is made up of the following: French firms Bredin Prat, Darrois Villey Maillot Brochier, Gide Loyrette Nouel A.A.R.P.I. – which remains the largest French international law firm with some 600 lawyers worldwide – and De Pardieu Brocas Maffei; UK-originated firms Allen & Overy LLP, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and Linklaters LLP; and US firms Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, White & Case LLP and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP – which is widely regarded as the number one US firm in France. Herbert Smith Freehills LLP and Paul Hastings LLP are also emerging as high-profile contenders.
Notable French commercial law boutiques include BDGS Associés, Cabinet Bompoint and Dethomas Peltier Juvigny & Associés. Franklin, De Gaulle Fleurance & Associés, Scemla Loizon Veverka & de Fontmichel (SLVF) and Vivien & Associes rank among the best medium-size firms.
Firms in the spotlight
Chassany Watrelot & Associés
Chassany Watrelot & Associés (CWA) is a law firm exclusively dedicated to employment law and other areas impacting human resources management. Over the past 25 years, the firm has experienced strong growth, with the opening of the Paris office (1999), the Marseilles office (2003), the Casablanca and Tangier offices (2011), and the Algiers and Tunis offices (2012). CWA brings together over 60 lawyers providing legal advice, accompanying and representing companies during litigations, and developing and conducting professional training.
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