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EU & competition law: area of practice

Opportunities for solicitors to travel are common, explains Stephen Rose from Eversheds Sutherland International LLP.
Brexit will have a profound effect on our work. UK law firms may need to increase their presence in Brussels.

Competition law is designed to promote free and fair competition. The nature of competition law means that lawyers tend to act on behalf of large international companies, as these organisations have the greatest ability to affect competition in the market. Lawyers can also advise new market entrants, for example, where their access to the market may be blocked by competitors. The role of a competition lawyer is to respond to investigations by competition authorities in the UK and EU, to handle court proceedings and to advise on day-to-day trading and compliance issues.

Most competition lawyers are based in London, Brussels or other European capital cities

Competition lawyers often work on high-profile cases that can attract a lot of media attention, as the cases tend to be critically important for the companies involved. For example, the Competition and Markets Authority is currently investigating whether the UK energy providers deliver a fair deal to consumers. Lawyers who work in this area of practice also defend companies accused of price fixing in secret cartels. The stakes are high in cartel cases, as companies can face fines of up to ten per cent of their turnover and individuals can go to prison. Another important aspect of competition law is merger control; the European Commission or UK regulators may be concerned that a merger could lead to higher prices or worse terms for customers. The role of the competition solicitor is to use advocacy and economic evidence to show that the merger will not reduce competition. The timescale for transactions depends on the complexity and scale of the case. In the last ten years, the work of a competition lawyer has become more complicated due to the increasing amounts of electronic evidence. To investigate a major cartel case, for example, a team of up to 50 lawyers may be needed to review the company’s emails and mobile phone records for a number of years. Cartel cases can take between five and ten years or even longer if the case is appealed. Merger investigations are shorter and take between a few months and a year. Competition lawyers also work on ad-hoc queries advising clients on trading and compliance matters. Competition solicitors usually work for around nine to ten hours a day. Much depends on the culture of the law firm and the nature of the case. If there are tight deadlines, working in the evenings and at weekends can be necessary. Most competition lawyers are based in London, Brussels or other European capital cities. International travel is common, as are meetings at client’s offices; competition lawyers need to understand how different businesses operate and visiting clients is often the best way to do this.

Is EU & competition law recession-proof?

Merger control is an important part of a competition lawyer’s work, so if companies are doing fewer deals then levels of merger control work fall. However, investigations and litigation work remain and may even increase in times of recession to compensate.

What will be the likely impact of Brexit for European & competition lawyers?

Brexit will have a profound effect on our work.  At present, the UK competition regulators share enforcement responsibilities in the UK with the European Commission.  Post-Brexit, EU law would cease to apply in the UK with the result that the UK regulators would have to take on more cases and run these in parallel with Brussels.  Substantive UK competition law may also diverge from EU law over time. 

The workload of competition lawyers will need to refocus and potentially will increase.  UK law firms may need to increase their presence in Brussels and will advise on related trade law and regulatory matters that will have huge strategic importance for clients. 

What is it like doing a trainee solicitor's job in EU and competition law?

Typical trainee tasks include processing, gathering and reviewing evidence. The type of work depends on the cases the law firm is working on, but trainees may have to use sophisticated forensic IT tools to review documents and emails. A lot of research is carried out by trainees to understand the different markets. As a junior lawyer, you often get a chance to forge good relationships with clients by advising them on day-to-day trading and compliance. Law firms often encourage junior lawyers to do a postgraduate qualification in EU and competition law. Firms will be impressed if students are aware of competition issues in the news and can demonstrate a lively questioning mind.

Types of law practised by EU and competition solicitors

  • EU and UK competition.
  • Commercial litigation.

What skills does an EU and competition law solicitor need to do the job?

  • Excellent drafting skills.
  • Intellectual curiosity.
  • The ability to test and critically review evidence.
  • Commercial awareness.
  • An understanding of economic principles.

Stephen Rose is a partner in the competition, EU and regulatory group at Eversheds Sutherland International LLP. He graduated with a degree in law from the University of Oxford in 1987.