Trevor Soames qualified as a barrister in 1984, then a solicitor-advocate. Due to Brexit, he then became an avocat au Barreau de Bruxelles and took Belgian citizenship to preserve EU Court advocacy rights and legal privilege. Known for his advocacy skills, Soames has led many EU (and UK) competition cases over the years covering all areas of practice. In addition, he is a well-regarded photographer, mainly of wildlife, and presently focusing (when time allows) on areas of the world impacted by climate change.
What attracted you to a career in law?
I never wanted to be a lawyer. It all happened entirely by accident after being arrested selling strawberries outside Wimbledon in 1981 and charged with obstructing the highway. Having researched the applicable law, I pleaded not guilty and defended myself in Court. Much to my horror, the police lied when giving evidence against me (a student) but in cross-examination I was able to prove they hadn’t given truthful evidence and was acquitted. I’ve always enjoyed public speaking and at school won many oratory competitions, so having experienced the fun of arguing a case in court I thought that aspect was sufficient to stay on at university to study law (no doubt to the horror of my then tutors, one of whom is now a distinguished Justice of the Supreme Court) in order to qualify as a barrister.
How has the market changed since you first started practising?
Much has changed. When starting out there weren’t very many law firms, let alone lawyers, practising competition law in Europe. There were only a handful of truly relevant European jurisdictions (the UK, Germany and France) and in the international sphere, just the USA. Since then, competition law has spread its tentacles to almost every country and inevitably the number of law firms and lawyers practising in the market has grown hugely. In parallel with that growth, the volume of case law has expanded greatly, as has the number of books, learned publications, conferences, etc; furthermore, competition law has become much more complex, with microeconomics now much more integrated into enforcement activity and case law than it was in the mid-1980s. Communications have utterly revolutionised practice: who now recalls telexes, faxes and even sending (snail-mail) letters of advice? Rapid response 24/7 is mandatory – as is brevity, so that advice can be comprehended easily on a mobile device. Finally, in recent years we have seen the development of the important civil litigation side of the practice, most notably damages claims.
Which qualities are necessary for a successful competition practitioner?
Being an excellent lawyer is a necessary but insufficient condition. In addition, one needs a good (or better) understanding of economics, tactical nous, an absence of hubris, courtesy, teamwork and a sense of humour.
Which enforcement trends do you see emerging in the near future?
The re-appointment of Margarethe Vestager as the EU Competition Commissioner – the first time a Commissioner has been reappointed for a second term in that role – combined with her new status as executive vice president for digital ensures that digital/tech issues will be at the forefront of enforcement policy, including data issues and the behaviour of multi-sided platforms. On the domestic UK front, Brexit, once it occurs, will substantially increase UK domestic competition law enforcement powers where, for example, merger review powers will be repatriated to the Competition and Markets Authority, having long resided with the EU Commission when transactions satisfied the EU Merger Regulation’s turnover thresholds. Though Brexit will have some impact on civil damages litigation; there will be a lot of counterbalancing new work, some of which will depend on whether or not there is a withdrawal agreement. For example, absent an agreement, it would be possible for UK courts to decide on substantive Chapter I and Chapter II competition cases being litigated before them, even while the EU Commission, for example, is investigating an alleged infringement or an infringement decision is before the EU Court on appeal. That’s impossible at the present time, but potentially possible post-Brexit.
What are the big issues in the competition space currently?
There are many issues that are “live” at the present time. They are too numerous to list but include, importantly: the extent to which EU competition law, especially merger control (and perhaps market definition) should be adjusted to look more favourably on the formation of EU industrial champions – even though there may be negative domestic impacts on competition; the ever-present issues regarding data, privacy, the power of multi-sided platforms and how to deal with their potential impact on competition; and the current review of the Vertical Block Exemption Regulation, among others.
How has Brexit impacted your practice?
Initially, it was a potentially serious blow; it threatened my ability to continue to live and work in Brussels, as well as being able to practise EU competition law effectively. Those challenges have been overcome by becoming a Belgian avocat and taking Belgian citizenship, so preserving my EU-related business as well as rights of free movement and establishment, etc.
How would you like to develop your practice in the next five years?
I’ve always been an opportunist in the sense that over the years I have become expert in multiple and successive business areas, so I simply cannot predict what the next five years will hold. My practice will develop in accordance with client needs. I’d like to do more advocacy, as that is a great skill of mine, and I enjoy being in court or oral hearings more than anything else. I look forward to helping others develop their careers.
What is the best piece of career advice you have ever received?
Fight hard: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Maintain ethical standards (and your moral compass) at all times.
Be courteous. Attention to detail. Attention to detail.