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The General Court on the scope of the Commission’s powers to request information

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On Friday 14 March the General Court issued seven Judgments in cases T-292/11, T-293/11, T-296/11, T-297/11, T-302/11M T-305/11 and T-306/11. We represented one of the seven applicants (needless to say, the opinions below are exclusively my own, and in no way can be attributed to my client or my colleagues).

I had already anticipated those Judgments noting that -irrespective of who the prevailing parties were- they would be of great interest and procedural relevance. [The Judgments came out while I was lecturing on competition procedure at the Brussels School of Competition, so I discussed them almost live].

The cases concerned seven appeals lodged by cement companies against massive -arguably unprecedented- requests for information, and they are important because the Court was asked to clarify whether there are any real limitations to the Commission’s investigative powers.

There have been two groups of Judgments:

-In six cases the applicants grounded their appeal on the lack of motivation of the information request. In those cases the GC has ruled (a) that although “it is true that “the presumed infringements [were] set out in very general terms which might well have been made more precise”, they have the minimum degree of clarity in order to be able to be considered to be consistent with the requirements of EU law; and (b) that even if “the size of the workload caused by the volume of information and the very high degree of precision in the response format imposed by the Commission cannot be reasonably disputed”, that workload was not disproportionate in the light of the necessities of the enquiry and the extent of the presumed infringements.

[Intermission: Too often, when the Court decides to dismiss an application it practically denies any reason to every argument made by the applicant). This wasn't the case here, and the Court was objective and transparent enough to acknowledge that there could be problems, but that they were overridden by effectiveness considerations. I like it better this way].

-The content of the Judgment in the seventh case (T-296/11 in which we acted for the applicant) is different, as explained in the Court’s press release http://curia.europa.eu/jcms/upload/docs/application/pdf/2014-03/cp140035en.pdf

Instead of focusing our arguments on lack of motivation (which we thought would at most have only given us a temporary victory), we had posited that the criterion of “necessity” in Art. 18 of Regulation 1/2003 should be interpreted not in light of what the Commission intends or hopes to find, but in the light of the elements that the Commission has and that raise the suspicion triggering the investigation. We claimed that otherwise the criterion of necessity would be devoid of any practical significance.

The GC has accepted the theory (as it did in Prysmian and Nexans -now pending before the ECJ- regarding inspections). According to the GC, the Commission is not obliged to disclose to the companies the preliminary evidence at its disposal, but it must have enough evidence to justify the information request (paras. 38-40).

In this particular case, and since the Court acknowledges we had “put forward factors capable of casting doubt on the sufficiently serious nature of the evidence concerned”, the Commission was very exceptionally asked to produce a summary of its file. Luis Ortiz Blanco and myself were asked to go to Luxembourg to access it and make observations without being allowed to disclose anything not even to our client [I'm not disclosing anything confidential because this is all explained in paras. 23-26 of the Judgment]. This is what explains that a great part of the Judgment is redacted as confidential.

Obviously I can’t say or even hint at anything that’s not been disclosed in the non-confidential version of the Judgment. Essentially, the Court explains that in the light of the Commission’s file the Institution could have validly addressed the exhaustive and exhausting information request to the applicant. The reasoning (mainly contained in para 59) is that even if we did offer an alternative interpretation of the elements in the file, the Commission cannot be asked at a preliminary stage to have evidence so consistent as to be sufficient to establish an infringement; it’s enough to have evidence that -at a preliminary stage and absent third party contextualization- would have arouse a reasonable suspicion.

The lines of what’s reasonable are of course blurry, and the Court’s approach is -rightly or wrongly- deferential to the Commission and to the need of safeguarding the effectiveness of its investigations, particularly at an early stage. Some may fear that if Courts started annulling requests for information (or Phase I clearance decisions, to pick a “random” example) then the floodgates would open. However, failing to annul those categories of decisions systematically and regardless of their merits or lack thereof those may also be akin to conferring carte blanche on the Commission, and that (regardless of the unquestionable good intentions of the Institution) might also have drawbacks.

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Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

14 April 2014 at 9:38 am

Conflicts of Interest in EU Competition Law

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It’s been two months since Nicolas temporarily left this blog for a half a year stint at DG Comp’s Private Enforcement Unit.

In the course of this short period he’s managed to single handedly unblock negotiations on the Commission’s proposal for a Directive on Antitrust Damages, and he’s adapted very well to the fonctionnaire lifestyle (meaning that he’s now taking some days of holidays) ;)  (jokes aside, congrats to Eddy de Smijter and to the rest of the people involved in the negotiations about the Directive).

As he anticipated in his farewell post, Nico is maintaining all academic activities. Within that context, he’ll soon be participating at a conference on one of is favorite topics organized by his University. So, on 24 April the Liège Competition and Innovation Institute will be hosting a conferece in Brussels on Conflicts of Interest, Ethical Rules and Impartiality in EU Competition Policy .

Although Nicolas knows that I don’t share the same passion for the topic (or maybe precisely because he does?), he’s asked me to advertise the conference here. So voilà. It will feature representatives from the General Court, the European Commission, the OECD, the Belgian Competition Authority, as well as lawyers in private practice, The New York Times’ Brussels correspondent and ULG Professors and Researches, including Nico himself. Even Emilly O’Reilly (the current Ombudsman, whom you may remember from this) is on the tentative list of speakers.

Why do I say I don’t share the passion for the issue? Because whereas some improvements could possibly be made in the rules -mainly regarding their transparency-, I think we should be careful in not overshooting the mark. Otherwise we’d risk creating the impression that there’s a major endemic problem where I’m not at all sure there’s one (I, for one, I’m much more concerned about the Commission’s recruitment processes and about internal rules that oblige experienced people to rotate jobs too often or too soon). Anyone working in Brussels for some time will have worked with, against and before friends or professional acquaintances (sometimes the line is drawn too thinly). In my experience who you have on the other side doesn’t matter (at least for good: I do know of situations where lawyers’ friends deciding on cases have been unnecessarily harsh on them just to make a point and dispel any concerns, and that’s as unfair as the contrary) and there are enough checks and balances to avoid problems. The only positive consequence of working before people who know you is that they will perhaps trust you, provided that you have never proved not worthy of that trust (and competition law practice is also a game of repeated interactions), but I don’t see what’d be wrong about that.

As I told Nico back when he wrote his controversial piece on this subject, what’s different in our field is that our “relevant market” is very narrow; we’re not so many lawyers/economists repeatingly interacting among us and with the same academics, officials and judges. The only solution to the perceived problem, as framed, would be to have virginal public officials and lawyers who have not moved around jobs, who know no one, who haven’t studied at the same places, who haven’t worked with different people and who haven’t established a personal rapport with those in their field. In my view, at least, in that case the cure (assuming it were feasible, quod non) would be worse than the disease.

That said, considering the speaker line-up I’ve no doubt the conference will be most interesting.

 

What makes a great lawyer?

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In the course of a conversation last weekend someone asked me about who I thought were the best competition lawyers in Brussels. Not that I’m going to share my thoughts on that here because it wouldn’t be elegant to use the blog for self-publicity ;)  it would be unfair as, aside from the subjectivity inherent to the reply, I’ve only been exposed to the work of a limited number of people. Our conversation then shifted to what is it that makes a great lawyer, and that’s something that I thought could make an interesting subject for a blog post (it’d been a while since we didn’t post random ruminations).

 

To be sure, there’s no perfect lawyer for all situations, areas of practice and clients, but in any event the ideal recipe should probably incorporate a balanced doses of multiple ingredients, most of which aren’t taught, or at least not at law schools, and often not even at most law firms:

 

Typical (bad) legal education mainly centers on developing and evaluating brain power. In my own country as well as in other continental systems this too often means plain memory. In anglosaxon systems (and to some extent in the German system too, or so I’m told) logic, analysis and writing receive more attention. And once you’re out of university some people will measure how of a good lawyer you are internally in terms of billable hours (we’ve already dealt with that at length before), and externally in terms of which firm employs you and your hourly rate (in my experience very imperfect proxies too).

 

But, in reality, there are a wide array of intangible abilities or skills that are extremely hard to assess and even to perceive, but that, fortunately, can be developed and that are, in my view, what make the difference. I refer to things like empathy, integrity, creativeness, common sense, communication and people skills, diligence and responsibility, perfectionism, the ability to question everything starting with oneself, availability, hunger/ambition (to learn and to improve), commitment (often confused with the belief that success deserves absurd sacrifices), marketing and selling, loyalty, reliability, curiosity, passion, experience, good judgment,  ability to prioritize (which has always made me distrust advice from lawyers who seem not to get priorities in their own life straight; or maybe I’m the erred one??), attention to detail, the ability not to lose the forest for the trees, having a practical business-oriented mind, being motivational and fair to colleagues, calmness, prudency, confidence (in your ability to improve, not the false security of thinking you already master everything), and I’m sure I’m forgetting many others.

 

Of course, there are many people that make partner at BigLaw firms without many of these, in which case some will consider that they are “successful”, “rich” and “hence” great lawyers. I would disagree because, lawyering being a service, excellent lawyering should be measured by its impact on others, not on the lawyer.

 

As I said earlier, to me, the ideal probably lies in a right combination of the skills outlined above, or perhaps in their relentless pursuit. But if I had to choose the single most important ability to have in a lawyer, I’d say the ability to understand people.

 

By people I mean clients, colleagues, decision-makers (judges, authorities, etc), opponents as well as the processes and interactions within and among them. And by understanding I mean trying to work inside their mind to know or guess -sometimes even to help them know or guess- what they want, what moves them and how they are likely to move and be moved. Knowing the law will provide you with a basic knowledge of the common framework you all move in, but then you need a lot of listening and a bit of intuition.

 

The above is only my Saturday morning take at a question without an answer, and, frankly, it’s highly unlikley that an ultra-specialized 30 year old lawyer who chose EU competition law for a career will get it right… So, it’s your turn: what is it that makes a great lawyer?

P.S. Pictured above is Atticus Finch, the legal hero from To Kill a Mockingbird, who recurrently tops up every list of fictional lawyers. His domination is so uncontestable that the ABA had to come up with this list of  The 25 Greatest Fictional Lawyers (Who Are Not Atticus Finch)

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

3 March 2014 at 1:00 pm

Two-sided markets in merger and abuse of dominance cases

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When you have a 8 9 10 to 9 ? job it’s often quite hard to do things on the side, and, between us, it may not make much sense that many of them are work-related. Only this month, and in addition to ordinary work -which included 5 Court deadlines- and blog posting, I had to lecture in Madrid about 102 (intro, tying and refusal to deal in 3 hours), participate in the panel on interop at AIJA’s antitrust and tech conference on a Saturday morning, finish and present a paper on evidence in cartel cases, and lecture -next Friday- for 6 hours at the Brussels School of Competition on procedure. And since I thought it would be the quietest month in sight, I took a week off for my postponed Christmas holidays (not very smart, no). Overall I spent almost as much times in planes (11 flights this month) as in the office, and had to compensate at the cost of sleeping hours.

Why should you care about all this? You shouldn’t; this is all to explain why during this whole month I kept on swearing myself that -blogging aside- I would refuse any non-work projects for the next few months. Well, said and not done:

On 3 April ERA will be hosting an afternoon workshop on Two sided markets in merger and abuse of dominance cases here in Brussels. They couldn’t have chosen a more interesting topic, so I gladly accepted to chair it. Not only is the subject matter a fascinating one, it will also be dealt with by two great panellists: Thomas Graf (Cleary Gottlieb) and Lars Wiethaus (E.CA Economics).

The program is available here: Two Sided Markets in Merger and Abuse of Dominance Cases (ERA)

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

26 February 2014 at 1:10 pm

Antitrust tidbits

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- On Friday Brazil’s CADE announced that it’s also investigating Google pursuant to a complaint filed by Microsoft (see here). The investigation appears to address the very same practices previously investigated by the FTC and DG Comp, on which we’ve already commented ad nauseam. I may reduce my coverage of all Google-related issues (despite the attention we’ve paid to that case in recent times, there’s world beyond that in antitrust), but given that my firm is finally! currently betting big in Latin America (see here), I’ll now be spending more time looking at competition law developments over there, and possibly commenting on them here. Btw, if you’re interested, there is a very good blog on competition law in Latin America.

- Some of you may have wondered about how the Federal Government shutdown in the States is affecting antitrust enforcement. If that’s the case, here are the contingency plans set up by the DOJ and the FTC.  On a non-antitrust related note, I’d strongly recommend you to check out Jon Stewart’s hilarious coverage of the shutdown:  Rockin’ Shutdown Eve

- Headhunting season remains open in the Brussels legal market, with David Hull also leaving Covington (third partner to leave in recent weeks following Lars Kjolbye and G.Berrisch) to join VanBael & Bellis.  Speaking of headhunting, for some interesting thorughts on the Brussels recruiting world, check out Steve Meier’s blog.

- A friend sent me this piece from abovethelaw.com on 10 Reasons to Leave BigLaw. Don’t think that a good part of what it says applies to everyone, but it’s always good to measure your choices against a contrarian -even if arguably exaggerated- view.

- Certainly the most relevant thing that happened in the antitrust field in the past few days (or maybe not) was my presentation about Interoperability in the payments industry last Thursday in Brussels :)  Here’s my presentation: Interop_Payments_Lamadrid (only makes sense if you click on slideshow).

Until I was invited to do this I’d frankly never paid much atention to the much-hyped mobile payment fever, but have now discovered a most interesting area. As I explained at the conference, if smartphones and payments have received so much antitrust scrutiny on their own, their marriage will be something like an antitrust lawyers’Nirvana!

The sector shares all the interesting features of high tech (multi-layered, multi-sided, strong network effects, rapid evolution, etc.) but has the peculiarity to feature both strong incumbents and stong entrants (traditional payment service providers, mobile network operators, tech companies…), all of which enjoy some degree of market power that they’re trying to leverage. The business strategy aspects of it are most interesting: everyone is setting up alliances (often with natural competitors), often betting on multiple horses, and at the same time acting unilaterally not to renounce the opportunity to reign the market (hence the Game of thrones slide). At the same time, we’re told that all players will end up holding hands and competing happily in an interoperable candyland where consumers’ life will be made easy and pleasant (hence the following slide). My bet is that on that road a number of interesting competition issues will arise, notably concerning access to the “secure element” (which is the key to the provision of m-payment services).

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

12 October 2013 at 5:17 pm

New job

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One of us just got a new job (and a new car). More details tomorrow…

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

9 September 2013 at 4:44 pm

Mens Sana in Corpore Sano

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image (1)

Our motto (above) says it all.

At chillingcompetition, we like people who combine business and pleasure.

And we are particularly fascinated by those who mix serious lawyering and sport.

Alfonso is perhaps the physical incarnation of this.

Sport, especially basketball, was always big in his life as a kid.

When he moved to Brussels as a young lawyer, he started socializing running at the Aspria.

And in more recent years he has seemed willing to explore new, extreme sporting territories like gastronomic orgies of jamon serrano and trappist beer drinking.

With this background, we are proud to post above a picture of the fastest competition lawyer in town.

Alfie pays a drink to the reader who finds the man behind the helmet.

Written by Nicolas Petit

5 September 2013 at 12:12 pm

Posted in Life at Law Firms

A handy copyright infringement

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Capture

(Warning: this is a fairly uninteresting post with no legal content whatsoever, so feel free to skip it. The reason why I’m posting it comes at the last paragraph)

I’d anticipated another post on reverse payments today, but it will have to wait until Monday. With only one week to go before the holidays I’m swamped at work and accumulating significant delays on a bunch of non-work stuff (several articles, book reviews, paper grading, etc.) which, for some reason, I had committed to do before the holidays.

It makes you reflect. This is one of the peculiar features of private practice; you try to do your best in work-related matters and you end up doing all other stuff hastily and sometimes badly. It’s never bothered me that much, but it probably bothers others (the ones you pay less attention to, or the ones that suffer your delays). I don’t know to what extent this is inherent to the profession or to my irrational tendency to embark in all sorts of projects (or most likely both), but it clearly is an area in need of improvement, at least in my case. Tips welcome!

I won’t bore you with details on what keeps me busy and what I’m being unable to do (it actually was my initial plan, but I then I realized that with a too personal post I’d risk ending up appearing as another whining-while-at-the-same-time-bragging lawyer). Actually, even this actual post may be enough to convey that impression, but that’s not the intention. Anyway, let me give you an example of me doing non-work things at the last minute badly and how I resorted to Nico to fix it.

I spent this whole week travelling because of work (right now ,Friday at 16.20, I’m writing from the Court’s library in Luxembourg; by the way, the food was worse today…) and had to lecture yesterday at ERA (Academy of European Law) on the interface between Intellectual Property Article 101. It’s always a challenge to explain the Technology Transfer BER in a way that doesn’t induce people to suicide, but I think I succeeded: only two people tried, one by jumping out of the window, the other by attempting to read the actual guidelines on technology transfer (despite my warnings) ;)

As usual, preparations were done at the last minute. The problem, however, is that I was asked to deliver a fairly detailed ppt in advance (smart trick to force speakers to prepare in advance..). And that was a bit of challenge; so I resorted to Nico.

He has an excellent and incredibly detailed power point presentation on IP and competition law (I hate using power point, and not only because of its lack of interop with 3rd party applications… yes, cheap pun, but I couldn’t avoid it..) so I basically copy-pasted it in a Garrigues template ppt and used it (actually, I didn’t even do the copy-pasting myself; I’ve to thank Rocío de Troya for that).

It ended up being a good idea, as I explained to the students, my use of Nico’s materials was useful to illustrate several concepts that are very relevant to IP law, such as a copyright infringement, free-riding and follow-on innovation (btw, the term “based” that you see in the slide above -the 2nd in my (his) presentation was actually a euphemism).

You most likely don’t give a damn about this story, but put yourself in my shoes: I had to (i) thank Nico and acknowledge his authorship of the materials; (ii) write something quick and light for a summer Friday afternoon; and (iii) minimally and superficially  reflect on the absorbent (for good and for bad) aspects of the profession.. Have a good weekend!

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

5 July 2013 at 4:39 pm

Back to blogging + post hearing thoughts

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 European-Court-2-620x250[1]

I’m back to blogging after my leave of absence from for work.

As some of you know, on Wednesday we had the oral hearing in case T-79/12, Cisco v Commission (Microsoft/Skype) . I will of course not write anything about the merits of the case, notably because (i) I shouldn’t –which is quite a good reason to start with-; and (ii) I’m deeply involved in the case, and therefore you should take anything I say with a huge grain of salt [however objective and accurate it would’ve been ;) ]

But since this blog is about personal thoughts, I nevertheless figured that I could share some not substance related thoughts on the experience.

Regardless of what might happen, the hearing was intense, interesting and even fun. If you like competition law, litigation, technology and opponents who are challenging, it can’t get much better.

There’s always an intra-story behind every case, and here there are a few interesting coincidences I can safely tell you about:

1)      We had to go to Luxembourg to discuss about one of its “national champions” (they had home court advantage!). In case you didn’t know, Skype’s headquarters are located in Luxembourg, at 23-29 Rive de foreclausen (bad joke, but couldn´t resist it..)

2)      I’ve been a student of both my partners (Luis Ortiz Blanco and José Luis Buendía), of one of our client’s counsels (Alvaro Ramos) and of our opponent (Jean Yves Art was a truly good merger control professor in Bruges).

3)      The very issues dealt with were actually the subject of my LLM thesis and of my interrupted PhD research, which was convenient. I’ve to thank Pablo Ibañez for initially suggesting the topic;

4)      Another coincidence is that literally a few minutes after the hearing, while we were having lunch at the canteen (decent grill, actually), Microsoft announced and explained the activation of the Lync-Skype bridge of which we had been talking about all morning (no kiddin’; that’s what I call interesting timing…). I’m trying to set it up in my computer at work right now (even after 4 months of fights with our IT department we were never allowed to download Skype at work…)

After the hearing I made the joke that I should now find a new purpose in life. This earned me a couple of gentle reminders: one from my partners, who gently pointed out to the pile of pending stuff that I’ve waiting, and another from my girlfriend, who subtly reminded me that I’ve some wedding planning pending too…

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

31 May 2013 at 3:10 pm

Leave of absence

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The question that I get the most often from readers of Chillin’Competition relates to how I manage to reconcile an already quite time consuming job –and a few adjacent academic and business activities – with blog writing (other typical questions being: why don’t you change your pic on the blog? why don’t you use a fake pic of a better looking dude? do you really not make any money out of the blog? (that has a follow up: are you dumb?); why are you not at a fancy firm with a sequence of anglo-saxon names? how does your firm let you write a blog? are you and Nico lovers, friends, do you hate each other?; are you two the same person?)

I generally have a decently good -if long- response to that, and the fact is that I’ve -generally- managed to find the time to juggle everything.

However, I recently whined  justified myself wrote about not being able to find the time needed to write something worth your reading time, and commited to make a greater effort. However,  in spite of my good intentions, I will not be able to honor my commitment (including the one about writing down my detailed views on Google’s commitments).

I will be taking a short leave of absence until 30 May. In a way it’s a pity, because there’s most interesting stuff going on on which to comment, but work these daysis as interesting as it is absorbing. As it is becoming customary, Pablo Ibáñez (LSE) will be covering my absence.

P.S. On Google’s proposed commitments, and in a nutshell, I would argue that the Commission’s strong hand play has yielded very good results for the Institution. Whereas I retain my doubts about the underlying and arguably unknown theories of harm, it’s hard to deny that the Commission has managed to extract very significant concessions from Google that should make its competitors’ lives easier.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

16 May 2013 at 6:41 pm

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