Catriona Hatton still retains a copy of a memo that, in the early 1990s, when she was a junior lawyer, she distributed to clients, flagging up the possibility that the European Commission would propose a merger-control directive.
Back then, the idea was something “totally, totally new”, she recalls. Twenty years on, Hatton is one of a growing group of female managing partners in Brussels law firms. Competition law is her bread and butter, control of mergers – once practised only in Europe and a few Western states – has become a global norm, and competition law consultancies have globalised themselves.
What first impelled the convent-educated daughter of a small businessman to Brussels from the Irish countryside was not law or an interest in the European Union. It was a love of language. By the time she left school at 17, she had added two – French and Italian – to English and Irish and she wanted time abroad. So she signed up to an AFS inter-cultural programme, hoping to be placed in a French-speaking home for a year. Instead, she found herself in Mechelen, with a family that spoke only Dutch and German and she went to a Dutch-speaking school. By the time she returned to Ireland in 1981 to begin university studies in law, a subject that she thought she could combine with her interests in Europe, she had added Dutch to her repertoire.
At Trinity College, Dublin, she was taught by two women who would become president of Ireland – Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese – and for a time she thought, like them, of focusing on human rights. But the mid-1980s were, “like now, a very difficult time” on the Irish labour market, and instead she opted to specialise in competition. In the law firm Mason Hayes & Curran, her career path began to seem clearer. She found women who mentored her; “it is important to see women ahead of you,” she says.
The company began to think of opening an office in Brussels.
She jumped before the practice did, opting for a post-doctorate (licence spéciale) in European and international law in English and Dutch at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. A good academic grounding, she says, can provide a useful breadth of perspective to counter the narrow specialisation that is increasingly required of EU lawyers. At VUB, her teachers included Karel Van Miert, who was later a European commissioner for ten years, for transport and then competition.
She entered one of the three leading Brussels practices specialising in EU law (Stanbrook and Hooper, now subsumed into McDermott Will & Emery), where she handled cases ranging from the environment to investment.
But the Cockfield white paper, with its proposal for a merger-control directive, created a “buzz” and steered her towards competition law, which she practised primarily at Hogan Lovell for more than 13 years. She liked the chance to understand how business and markets work, and the variety of those markets.
Clients have included a US power-industry group, Colfax, and a Russian metals-and-mining giant, Norilsk Nickel, whose purchase of LionOre Mining International was the largest cross-border acquisition by a Russian company. Both cases contributed to her being named best competition and anti-trust lawyer in Euromoney's European Women in Business Law awards this year.
When the US practice Baker Botts decided this year to open a Brussels bureau, it chose her as managing partner, announcing the news on Times Square in New York, putting her name and face up in lights on the giant digital screens.
More prosaically, she now has to recruit staff for Baker Bott's team. She does so with some guiding principles. Lawyers, she says, need more than qualifications. “It is really important to remember the people part of the business.” In competition cases, that also means realising that “you are dealing with people who may lose their jobs”. Lawyers need to be able to see the general political and business context of their specialisation. She adds that women need to know they can be more ambitious. “Not many women I interview will say ‘I want to be a partner'”, she observes. Above all, everyone needs “a positive attitude”.