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As the French proverb says: ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’. The same lawyers that a year-ago complained that ‘France is shrinking!’ now say ‘France is back!

The election of Emmanuel Macron, France’s youngest ever president, has the country's lawyers buzzing with a new – if reserved – confidence and optimism. The contrast with Brexit Britain and Donald Trump’s America is palpable.

FIRMS IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Dreyfus & Associés

Founded in 2004 by Nathalie Dreyfus, Dreyfus quickly became one of the top intellectual property law firms in France. This IP boutique firm now has a staff of 17 lawyers and can count on a trusted worldwide professional network. It is referred to as ‘excellent’ and ‘widely known’ in numerous publications and international legal directories. The firm regularly receives awards for the quality of its interventions and services.

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FIRMS IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Chassany Watrelot & Associés (CWA)

Chassany Watrelot & Associés (CWA) is a law firm exclusively dedicated to employment law and other areas impacting human resources management. Over the past 30 years, the firm has experienced strong growth and is now in Lyon (since 1987), in Paris (since 1999), in Marseilles (since 2003) as well as in Casablanca and Tangiers (2011), Algiers and Tunis (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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Macron’s pro-business government has embarked on a series of reforms to modernise the country and liberalise the economy. It swiftly adopted flexible employment regulations and tax relief measures, delivering a strong message to domestic entrepreneurs and foreign investors. And the ‘renewable energy market is euphoric’ about environment minister Nicolas Hulot’s plans to reduce France's reliance on nuclear energy from 75% to 50% and end the extraction of fossil fuels within the country’s borders. A number of large renewable energy projects – such as the Dunkirk offshore wind farm, which is expected to produce more energy than a nuclear plant – are attracting plenty of bidders.

To top it off, the 2024 Paris Olympics are expected to generate a new stream of large PPP projects, which have been scarce lately.

But beneath the surface, old problems remain. Leading French companies, investors and politicians continue to face scrutiny from criminal, antitrust and tax authorities. Since its creation in 2014, ‘The French financial prosecutor's office (PNF) has been carrying out a lot of investigations’; and it is increasingly collaborating with international authorities, subjecting companies to simultaneous multijurisdictional investigations. For instance, the PNF has joined the UK’s Serious Fraud Office in investigating Airbus for corruption.

Tax cases are also making headlines. The Silicon Valley giants and private equity investors have been targeted for audits. McDonald’s is being investigated for tax fraud, while UBS has been charged in a landmark case. HSBC paid €300m to settle a tax fraud case with the PNF – the first deferred settlement of its kind. Meanwhile, Guy Wildenstein, an art dealer accused of orchestrating "the longest and most sophisticated tax fraud" in recent French history, was cleared by a judge in Paris in January 2018.

In a new twist, tax lawyers are also facing fraud charges. ‘Many tax lawyers in France are currently terrorised by this trend’ says a leading figure at the Paris bar, who is currently defending a colleague on tax charges. Some hold out hope that the tax authorities will take a less punitive approach under the new government.

The crackdown is also taking its toll on the political sphere. The Fillon case may be the most striking example, but former President Nicolas Sarkozy and many other politicians are also under investigation.

Anti-corruption legislation (Loi Sapin II) enacted at the end of 2016 by the previous government is another source of concern. French companies must put in place compliance programmes or risk being sanctioned by the newly created French anti-corruption authority, which launched its first investigations at the end of 2017. ‘Companies are lagging dangerously behind,’ explains one partner at a US firm. ‘Many CAC 40 companies have nothing in place. There is burning urgency for them to act’.

The law has sparked a feeding frenzy among leading international to mid-sized French firms. But there is growing concern about what some see as an over-proliferation of compliance packages that in some cases are ill-designed. Many firms still lack expertise in this area, and are recruiting. All the while, insurers and consultants are offering cut-price compliance solutions to companies, adding to the industry’s fears about its own future.

The threat of digitisation also looms over the legal profession. While the French market lags behind in this area, the first French legal tech firms have begun to appear, and some law firms have started incorporating new digital devices into their practices. The first robolawyers are finding their way from the US into French tax practices. A partner at a big law firm who is particularly involved in legal tech transformation predicts: ‘In the future, there will probably remain large law firms and niche law firms but nothing in the middle’.

Lawyers are increasingly convinced that focusing on high added-value work is the only way to survive and, in a reversal of past strategies, are rationalising headcount. One partner at a leading international law firm declared: ‘The French legal market is highly competitive. We now have to focus on high-end work. We cannot feed everybody, we don’t want to grow anymore’.

Still, a high volume of M&A transactions and large-cap LBO activity continued to generate strong revenues for French law firms in 2017. But some worry the end of the cycle may be nearing: ‘The digital, pharma and biotech M&A market is now reaching valuations that are too high. For instance, Thales, which has the French state as the largest shareholder, recently agreed to a €4.8bn takeover for chipmaker Gemalto. Prices are very high’.

The same applies to the French property market. One property partner has seen it before: ‘There is today a flavour of 2007. Prices are unreasonable, it looks like we are hitting the top of the wave. Opportunist funds have left, they think France is too expensive’. The Coeur Défense office building, which was subject to safeguard proceedings after former owner Lehman Brothers collapsed, and was subsequently bought by the hedge fund Lone Star, was recently sold for a record price of close to €2bn.

The French legal market saw its share of unrest in 2017. ‘There are a lot of financial conflicts between partners related to the mode of management within law firms. Some business models are really creating turmoil’ says a member of the National Bar Council, while some star partners are leaving international firms to escape conflicts of interests and commercial constraints.

The slide in the value of the British pound was a factor in a series of departures from Ashurst LLP in 2017. Its high-profile banking and LBO team including Nicolas Barberis, Guy Benda, Stéphanie Corbière, Yann Gozal and Laurent Mabilat joined Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, insolvency and litigation star partner Jean-Pierre Farges joined Gibson Dunn with his team, and tax partner Nadine Gelli is now with De Pardieu Brocas Maffei.

Another recent talking point in the market was the creation of Viguié Schmidt & Associés, resulting from the merger of SLVF and Viguié Schmidt. The newly combined firm, which mainly focuses on M&A and litigation, now ranks among the best French independent firms.

Altana raided a team of four partners and 12 associates from De Gaulle Fleurance & Associés, as well as adding partners from Armfelt Association d'Avocats and DLA Piper.

Other significant changes include: the creation of litigation boutique Bougartchev Moyne Associés by former Linklaters’ practitioners; the move of high-profile tax expert Jean-Yves Charriau and David Sorel from Allen & Overy LLP to Lacourte Raquin Tatar; litigation partner Kami Haeri’s arrival at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP from August Debouzy and the latter firm’s hire of Basile Ader from Cabinet Ader Jolibois; and CMS’ hiring of a 12-lawyer property team from Herbert Smith Freehills LLP.

The antitrust market was partially reordered in 2017: Clifford Chance lost Patrick Hubert to Orrick Rambaud Martel and responded by hiring David Tayar from Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. After losing Emmanuel Tricot to LPA-CGR avocats, Veil Jourde is in talks to merge with leading antitrust boutique Fréget – Tasso de Panafieu; and François Brunet moved from Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP to Hogan Lovells (Paris) LLP.

Jones Day continued its recruitment drive again this year, adding star partners David Swinburne (private equity) from Linklaters and Christine Van Gallebaert (securities) from Gide Loyrette Nouel A.A.R.P.I..

Key names in the market include 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 spread across 13 offices worldwide – and De Pardieu Brocas Maffei; UK firms Allen & Overy LLP, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and Linklaters; and US firms Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP – which is widely regarded as the number one US firm in France – Latham & Watkins, Orrick Rambaud Martel, Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, White & Case LLP and Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP

Other very strong independent French firms include: August Debouzy, BDGS Associés, Dethomas Peltier Juvigny & Associés, Jeantet, Viguié Schmidt & Associés and Veil Jourde. Also recommended are: Altana, AyacheSalama, BCTG Avocats, Carbonnier Lamaze Rasle, De Gaulle Fleurance & Associés, Franklin, FTPA, LPA-CGR avocats and Racine. Many boutique French law firms also rank among leading firms and are notably found in the arbitration, employment, IP, tax and white-collar crime areas.

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