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Antitrust expert Dr Salomé Cisnal de Ugarte on life at the epicenter of EU law

01:02 07/03/2020

Salomé Cisnal de Ugarte takes multi-tasking to a whole new level. As managing partner of global law firm Hogan Lovells’ Brussels office, and a specialist in antitrust issues and EU competition law – which prohibits anti-competitive practices – she advises multinational corporations on topics like mergers and cartel investigations, as well as coordinating global transactions in multiple jurisdictions for her clients.

Her expertise also sees her holding positions such as elected director of the Harvard Alumni Association, and vice chair of the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU’s competition policy committee. The latter is one of myriad networks in which Cisnal de Ugarte is active, including the Harvard Club of Belgium and professional networks such as Club L and Women on Board. The international nature of the firm’s Brussels office means the five European languages she speaks are used on a daily basis. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that she was included in Politico’s top 10 Women Who Shape Brussels in 2018, in which she was described as “brilliant and quick”.

Meanwhile, with three of their four children playing amateur golf at national and international level, she and her husband spend most weekends ferrying the kids to competitions while also indulging their own passion for the sport. She talks to ING’s Dave Deruytter about being lucky enough to love her job, seeing the beauty of life in Belgium, and juggling a busy diary with a little help from Google, STIB and Uber.

How did you end up in Brussels?

I arrived 24 years ago. Originally we came because my husband was offered a position at the European Commission. He had just finished his PhD, I had just finished doing a master’s at Harvard, and we’d just got married. He's German, I am Spanish, and Brussels seemed like a perfect place for an international couple to start their careers. The idea was to stay one year and then move on. I was expecting our first child – we have four – and then I started working at a German law firm. We said ‘oh, let's stay another year’, and then it was another… Nowadays my husband is a professor of finance at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management at Université libre de Bruxelles. He has been a visiting professor in places like Stanford and Oxford, but we never wanted to leave Brussels. Very soon we discovered the beauties of Belgium and the quality of life here.

Did you already have some international experience?

I come from the Basque Country, which can be a rather closed society. But I went to the German School. Neither of my parents spoke a word of German but they wanted to give us an international education. I did a joint degree in law and economics in Bilbao, with a view to leaving Spain after university. When I finished I got a scholarship to go to Florence, and I loved it so much that I decided to do my PhD there. I was at the European University Institute, a unique institution set up by the EU member states and the European Commission. After that I went to Harvard to do a master’s, then returned and married my husband in Madrid before coming here.

What makes Brussels so appealing for law firms?

There are many attractions from a macro- and microeconomic perspective. We are one of the top global law firms, with almost 3,000 lawyers and 50 offices. Most of our clients are global companies. Brussels is a strategic centre of operations, not just for law firms but also for our clients. It’s the epicentre of European law, so Brussels is an essential place from that perspective. We’re also in the centre of Europe, geographically.

But Brussels has evolved in another way, too. Our office now also serves as a hub for coordinating global transactions. Typically we do this work for big companies that merge or acquire other companies. We might be coordinating transactions that need to be notified in many jurisdictions, often more than 10, from Belgium to Brazil to the Philippines.

We also do a lot of global antitrust work from Brussels. So institutions like the European Commission, or other competition authorities, investigate companies for cartels or other anticompetitive conduct. Our clients can receive unannounced visits by a team of inspectors and if that happens we have to be there to assist them within a very short period of time. From Brussels we are well placed to reach all places within Europe very quickly.

Is Brussels good at attracting talent?

Brussels attracts a lot of talent and it's a very competitive marketplace for lawyers. We have lawyers in our office comprising 17 nationalities. I speak five languages – Spanish, German, English, French and Italian – and I use them every day. Being a very international office, in turn, attracts talent. We receive many applications from all over Europe, but also from other parts of the world, such as India, the US or Brazil. But it’s not just our company: these days Brussels itself draws lots of high-calibre talent from all around the world. In an international atmosphere everybody feels welcome. It’s an attractive place to work and live – the quality of life, the high level of social services, the education. These are things that people appreciate.

Is Brexit important to your work?

Brexit is still the big unknown, right? The elephant in the room. But we have to take it into account. For us there are two elements. One is the potential impact of Brexit on our clients. We already have a lot of activities, guidance and legal advice in terms of preparing them for the potential consequences. Some of our clients are already moving out of the UK or have been preparing for a potential no-deal Brexit. The other element is what we are doing to prepare ourselves. For Brussels it is also an opportunity because it’s already a strategic office within our firm. With Brexit, our office will become even more important.

How do you get Hogan Lovells on the radar of stakeholders and clients?

We are already a large, well-known law firm with a very good reputation and we have great communication professionals who help us convey the message to clients and potential clients. I speak at quite a lot of conferences, mostly about antitrust and competition, and sometimes about other issues like diversity, leadership or women’s issues, and I publish articles, too. This week I was even talking at a conference in the US via Skype. We also organise webinars – we try to take advantage and innovate in terms of the digitalisation that is there.

We are very present in the local market, and we organise conferences and seminars. I’m also active in different networks. For example, I am a past president of the Harvard Club – a combination of Belgian people and expats; people from the European institutions or from companies. I was recently elected as director of the Harvard Alumni Association Board of Directors in the US.

We are also very active in the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU. I am currently vice-chair of the competition committee. And I’m involved in other professional women’s networks, such as Club L and Women on Board Belgium.

What do you like, or not like, about Belgium and Brussels?

I like many things. The openness of Belgium, the strategic position, the health system, the ability to get everywhere easily. The quality of life is fantastic, and I love the food. I love my chocolate – I eat it every day. What is less good, I think, is the never-ending works that we have on the streets. The traffic is getting worse. I think we can do much more in terms of sustainability. I just bought an electric car, and I realised that we don’t have an electric plug in our garage at work, and we need that, right? Having all the different levels of government in Belgium is an area that can improve and will improve, I’m pretty sure about that.

What advice would you give to newcomers?

My advice would be to join a sports club, a university club, a professional organisation. There is also so much going on to cater to all interests – there are conferences on every subject you could imagine. So it's not just related to your job but also to other things that are taking place in Brussels and all over. Antwerp is another thriving city with lots of cultural activities.

How do you spend your free time?

We spend most of our weekends around golf, taking our kids to training, competitions and getting to play ourselves. Our holidays are usually also golf-related. The two middle kids are very good and the fourth one is getting there. During the summer they play pretty much every weekend. There are lots of competitions here and abroad. This often takes us to Scotland, but they also go with the Royal Golf Federation or the Association Francophone belge de Golf, which gathers the French-speaking clubs in the country.

I have very little free time. My job is also very absorbing. My luck is that I love it. I really enjoy the work we do for our clients, and we have a great team. During the week I combine work and free time by going to networks and events after office hours. On the weekends, it's more family and friends. My luxury is to go for a run. It’s just half an hour a day but it’s time for myself, to clear the mind.

How do you juggle everything?

The family coordinates through Google Calendar. It has to be that way. If it’s not in my calendar, it’s not happening! And during the week I don’t do the children’s taxi service. The bus, the bike, the train and, occasionally, Uber take care of that.

Photo: Bart Dewaele

Written by Paula Dear