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Interview with Kristien Carbonez

15 February 2018


Kristien Carbonez
is head of the London representative office of the law firm Liedekerke. Her specific areas of expertise are national and transnational intellectual property law and European Community law and regulatory issues. She is also responsible for the international relations of the firm in general and manages the firm’s international Country Desks. Kristien is a member of the Brussels and New York Bars and is a registered European lawyer with the English Law Society. She holds LL.M. degrees from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and Georgetown University, Washington D.C.

What made you decide to become a lawyer?

I never had an epiphany or a higher calling – but somehow I have always wanted to become a lawyer from a very young age. I used to negotiate hard with my sisters (sometimes using dubious tactics, it has to be said) to be able to wear their clothes once in a while and would then draft up contracts to put it all in writing, and require their signature!

Where did you receive your training?

I did my law degree in Leuven, Belgium, which included a year at Trinity College, Dublin, as an Erasmus student. With my Belgian law degree in hand, I moved to Heidelberg, Germany where I did a Masters of Law (LL.M.) at the Max Planck Institute for International and Comparative Law. This was followed by a short “stage” at the European Commission in Brussels in DG Markt, before starting my three year “stage” at the Brussels office of UK law firm Bird&Bird. Once I was fully admitted as a lawyer to the Brussels bar, I decided to do a common law LL.M, this time at Georgetown University, Washington DC and take the New York Bar. You can never study for too long!

You have worked in Belgium, the US and now in the UK. How do these postings compare?

I have worked as an intellectual property lawyer (mainly doing litigation) in Belgium, in the US and in the UK. The biggest difference in these “postings” was between litigating in Belgium vs litigating in the US and the UK. Belgium is part of the civil law system whereas the US and the UK are of course common law systems. Although differences between the systems are many, the greatest single contrast as far as my practice was concerned was the total different approach to litigation. In the common law model, attorneys investigate, interrogate, and argue facts (“the adversarial system”) whereas in civil law jurisdictions, simply put, attorneys don’t ask questions—they make legal arguments before the court—and it is up to the judge to inquire about facts (“the inquisitorial system”). So once I started practising in the US and then later in the UK, I was drawn into witness and expert-prepping, interviews, and statements, huge and very time-consuming and longwinded discovery processes to gather any possible evidence, long trials involving cross-examination etc. It is no surprise that the cost of litigating in the US and the UK is so much higher than in the civil law countries and that a lot of disputes get settled before they even reach the courts. No stone is left unturned.

In any event, the advantage of having worked with a variety of clients and law firms, while practising on both sides of the Atlantic, is that it has certainly enabled me to have a broad grasp of different legal systems and cultures and international client needs, which has helped me in my current role.

You now head up the London representative office of Belgian law firm Liedekerke. Can you clarify the kind of services you provide?

In London, I basically act as an ambassador for Liedekerke.

I am the first point of contact for UK and international clients and peer UK, US and other law firms that have questions relating to Belgian or Congolese/OHADA regulatory, corporate and commercial law in the framework of crossborder transactions. Depending on the area and sector at stake, I then liaise with my specialist colleagues based in our Brussels or Kinshasa office to deal with the matter in the most appropriate way. Where needed, I will provide project management support throughout the transaction. Vice-versa, I also help our Belgian clients with their business matters in the UK, putting them in touch with the right UK counsel and accompanying them along the way. We only advise on Belgian and Congolese/OHADA law, not on UK law.

I am also responsible for sourcing business opportunities for the firm in London and internationally. Indeed, Brexit notwithstanding, London is still one of the most prominent international financial centres where a lot of the transactions we work or want to work on originate. This means that I am involved in a lot of representative business development work.

Finally, and more generally, I manage Liedekerke’s international law firm relationships out of London, coordinating the firm's various Country Desks to expand the client base of the firm.

Is some of your work related to Brexit?

Absolutely. Our London office has become a Brexit reporting outpost, liaising with our Brussels’ office on the latest developments that may affect our clients and flagging opportunities that arise from Brexit. A lot of businesses - in financial services, insurance or any other sectors really - which right now have their EU headquarters in the UK are indeed looking at relocating part of their business in light of Brexit constraints. The main constraint is the potential loss of passporting rights for the finserv industry but corporates are confronted with all sorts of other regulatory issues. It is incredible what the ramifications of Brexit are. And although Belgium is not as much on the radar screen as Frankfurt, Paris, Luxembourg and Dublin, it is nonetheless one of the countries that different industries are looking at as a potential destination. It is public knowledge by now that Lloyds of London, Chubb and Amlin will set up their European hub in Brussels and Liedekerke is advising further insurance and financial services companies as well as corporates in setting up activities in Belgium.

How do you see the future relationship between the UK and the EU?

That is the £350 million pound per week question and any answer is purely speculative at this stage ... If only it were clear what those negotiating the transitional and end-game agreements wanted. I don’t think we will end up with falling out into hard WTO-rules-only Brexit, or that the UK will end up being a low-tax, low-regulation haven in the long run, given the mutual interest in something sensible. No side of the debate can afford for these negotiations to fail. The terms of a post Brexit deal clearly have the potential to cause a lot of upheaval in the UK but they also have the potential to influence the prosperity, efficiency and safety of the continent’s entire economy.

What is dawning on most people that didn’t see it already is that while there is a non-economic case for Brexit, it’s very hard to make the trade case for Brexit, namely that trade deals with third countries could ever compensate for the loss of full access to the EU single market. What I don’t think is so appreciated in the UK is that preservation of the integrity of the EU comes first for the EU negotiators, so they cannot land on a bespoke “best of both worlds” model that incentivizes any other Member State to follow suit after the UK. That is why the stick to EEA or CETA templates even though the UK understandably makes the point that no other country has started negotiations from being a major existing Member State. I am not sure that the straight EEA model is politically palatable in the UK given the outcome on “sovereignty” would be worse than the status quo. I don’t think the economic downside of CETA or CETA+ will bother that many people who voted for Brexit but it will greatly upset all those who say the UK did not vote to become poorer.

Only time will tell... I am moderately optimistic though that a deal that creates a “level playing field” between the EU and the UK will be struck.

What aspects of life in London appeal to you?

I love London’s vibrant cosmopolitan life, its diversity, its restaurants (my colleagues berate me when I say this but I think one eats better in London than Brussels), its cultural offering, its shopping opportunities, and let’s not forget its beautiful parks! But it’s the vibrancy that I probably love most. Arriving in St Pancras from Brussels is always like a breath of fresh air. However, don’t be fooled. I could also give you a list of things that do not appeal to me in London!

Do you envisage remaining in the UK?

It is never easy to make plans for the long term, but I think that we will certainly stay in London for the next five to 10 years. I personally think that the UK, or rather London, will remain a dynamic and exciting city to live in from a professional and personal point of view despite Brexit. I am married to an Australian and my three children were born here and go to school in the English system. London does very much feel like home. However, we go where the best opportunities lead us, so let’s see what Brexit and the future brings!

Do you have contact with other Belgians here?

Yes I do through events hosted by the Belgian Embassy, AWEX/FIT and BXL Invest, the BLCC, The Vlaamse Club and personal avenues. There is a very dynamic Belgian business community here in London. However, I do not make a point of hanging around the Belgian community per se. I was not born in Belgium, and did not spend my childhood or teenage years in Belgium and therefore probably feel a little less Belgian than I should. But I do love bumping into pockets of Belgians where you least expect it. I found out recently for instance that the wife of the Greek chess school coach of my son is Belgian!