Macfarlanes to open Brussels base for KWM hires as partner exit prompts South Africa closure

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Macfarlanes is launching a base in Brussels to accommodate one of its recent partner hires from King & Wood Mallesons (KWM), after closing its Johannesburg office at the end of 2016.

The new Brussels office is being set up for competition partner Christophe Humpe, who is joining Macfarlanes alongside fellow KWM competition partners Tom Usher and Cameron Firth and former KWM senior partner Stephen Kon, who is joining as a consultant.

The base is expected to launch in the next few weeks and will also be staffed by a small number of assistants.

Macfarlanes senior partner Charles Martin said the office would be “an important underpinning for the competition team that is joining us from KWM”.

As to whether any further KWM lawyers would be joining Macfarlanes, Martin said: “It is likely that some of the KWM team will be moving across, but who and how and when is pretty fluid at the moment.”

Martin described the the KWM competition team as “a perfect fit for our business, both on the transactional side and on the advisory side”. He added: “We can see exciting opportunities; not just for working on complex regulatory issues on M&A deals, but also for getting into a much broader range of advisory work.”

Former KWM senior partner Kon was at the helm of the firm’s European arm when it ran into its current difficulties, with a filing for administration expected in the coming days.

Martin described Kon as “one of the most highly regarded senior figures in the competition law world in Europe”. “To have him join in a capacity where he can work with clients on competition and Brexit-related issues is a very exciting possibility,” he added.

Meanwhile, it has also emerged that Macfarlanes closed its Johannesburg office – formerly the firm’s only base outside of London – at the end of October.

The firm launched the office in 2013, when it hired energy and projects partner Scott Brodsky from Baker McKenzie, where he was co-managing partner of the firm’s Johannesburg office.

Brodsky has since left to join a client along with one Macfarlanes associate, while one of the firm’s other South Africa associates has joined Pinsent Masons’ newly launched Johannesburg office.

Martin said the firm had opened in Johannesburg to support Brodsky’s sub-Saharan energy and projects practice, but that the market had “proved far tougher than expected”.

“We were really pleased with the quality of the team,” Martin added, “but there was a lot of headwinds and it wasn’t a particular surprise when Scott left us to join a client in South Africa. That made the decision to wind the small operation down pretty straightforward.”

Macfarlanes has largely eschewed overseas expansion, preferring a City-focused approach that has proved very successful, with the firm posting profit per equity partner of £1.29m in 2015-16.

Partner departures from the firm are rare, although two practice heads have left in recent months – competition head Marc Israel, who is joining White & Case, and financial services head David Berman, who has joined Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.