European invasion – firms flood into the EU’s legal markets

US and UK firms have been seeking to expand their European footprints post-Brexit, writes Buchanan Law’s James Lavan

The EU remains an important market for US and UK firms MDart10 /

The long march of lawyers across Europe continues apace more than 50 years after US law firms, together with their Magic Circle counterparts, first opened offices in Paris and Brussels. A new breed of ambitious firms now see further potential.

History provides some context. As attention turned to Frankfurt, followed by Milan and Madrid, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to new markets emerging in eastern Europe. By the millennium, several of the EU’s largest independent players had been subsumed into the growing army of English law firms. The creation of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in 2000 saw two of Germany’s biggest firms join forces with the Magic Circle player.

Post-Brexit, many US and UK firms have selectively expanded their existing EU footprint, or created a new one. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ireland. Following the Brexit vote, UK and US law firms flocked to Dublin: a trend that still shows no sign of abating. Of the 37 international law firms with a local office, more than half have opened since 2020, putting Dublin into pole position as the new EU destination of choice.

The arrival list since 2016 comprises some notably big players: Addleshaw Goddard; Bird & Bird; Covington & Burling; Dentons; DLA Piper; Fieldfisher; Hogan Lovells; Pinsent Masons; Ropes & Gray; Simmons & Simmons; Squire Patton Boggs; and Taylor Wessing.

Of course, Brexit is not the only reason for this Irish stampede. Dublin has other attractions too: it is a leading offshore funds centre, a global centre of aviation finance and nine out of 10 of the world’s largest tech companies have their European headquarters in the city.

Most of the new arrivals focus on discrete practice areas – funds, IP, insurance and employment – while a minority aim to operate as full-service law firms, throwing down a gauntlet to the Big Six Irish independents. Some have absorbed smaller and mid-market players, increasing competition for fees, talent and market share.  

Similar strategic plays have occurred in Luxembourg. As Europe’s biggest, and the world’s second largest funds market, it is a natural EU-based alternative to Dublin. Since the Brexit vote, around 15 international firms have planted a flag by opening a local office.  

Although most EU markets have been quieter in 2022/23 with limited corporate capital raising, as well as notably depressed M&A and private equity volumes, many firms are now positioning themselves for a resurgence in activity – hopefully, by H2 2024. They are also making a long-term strategic play in terms of anticipated growth over the next decade and beyond. Increasing their lawyer headcount in European offices with an existing footprint can be relatively easier to achieve and potentially provide a better ROI than doing the same in London.  

Already home to well over 100 international firms, Brussels has seen a further wave of new office openings by big US law firms since 2020: Reed Smith; Curtis Mallet-Prevost Colt & Mosle; Kirkland & Ellis; Simpson Thacher & Bartlett; Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson; Weil Gotshal & Manges; and Davis Polk & Wardwell.

More US firms with a London office, but without an EU presence, are anticipated to set up a Brussels base. Meanwhile, Amsterdam is also seeing some new office openings with Fragomen and Squire Patton Boggs among the most recent arrivals.

The jury is out on significant international expansion in the EU’s big four: Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Many big US and UK firms have invested heavily in these markets over the decades. While the battle for work with residual French and German independents has reached a standoff, Italy and Spain remain trickier for some international players.  

Notwithstanding Brexit, London is still a hub for numerous international law firms which seek to capitalise on the world’s second most important financial market. Most of Europe’s larger independent firms have been there for at least 20 years. But notable new openings and developments are still happening in and around the Square Mile.

Among the most recent to enter the fray, Germany-based GSK Stockmann opened an office in September 2022: its London team advises on financial transactions structured via Luxembourg and Germany. Belgian firm Van Baeel & Bellis, which opened a London office in September 2020, recently established a UK-based international trade team with senior hires from Crowell & Moring and Ashurst to bolster the firm’s Brussels and Geneva teams in navigating parallel enforcement regimes.

Most notable, perhaps, is Kuwait-based Meysan Partners which recently launched its London office. Focusing on commercial and investor-state disputes, “with a mission to apply the firm’s international litigation and arbitration know-how to the most complex cross-border cases”, Meysan hired John Reynolds as London managing partner and head of international disputes. Reynolds previously spent 15 years as a heavy-hitter at White & Case in London, where he was firmwide head of international disputes.  

There will be more opportunities for law firms to grow strategically, both across the EU’s diverse markets and in London, providing cost-effective alternatives to the established elite.

James Lavan is an executive director at Buchanan Law.

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