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Solicitors' practice areas

Competition & EU law

Louisa Denison

Ashurst LLP

University: University of Cambridge
Degree: Politics, psychology and sociology

Typically, competition and regulatory work includes merger control under the Enterprise Act 2002 and the EU Merger Regulation, regulatory and court proceedings under the Competition Act 1998 and EU legislation, issues arising from sector-specific regulation, state aid, consumer protection, and public sector and utility procurement issues. There has been significant reform of both UK and EU competition law and practice in recent years, and further developments are being considered. The reform of the cartel offence giving rise to criminal liability for individuals has been an interesting development, along with the increase in private competition law actions.

For most solicitors and barristers, weighing up their specific skills against those required to be successful on each side of the profession is a crucial part of deciding which career path to pursue. For Louisa Denison, it was no different. Laughing, Louisa is happy to admit that “public speaking is not at the centre of my skill set or something that comes naturally to me”, so becoming a barrister felt less of a natural choice. Of course, Louisa’s keen to emphasise that she’s working on improving her public speaking skills. But it was this self-awareness, “the analytical side of being a solicitor” and the chance to problem solve every day that drew Louisa to the role of solicitor. She now practises as a competition associate at multinational law firm Ashurst LLP, which she joined in 2021.

A taste of competition

Before training in law, Louisa was a student at the University of Cambridge where she studied politics, psychology and sociology. It was during the second seat of her training contract that she got a taste for what it’d be like to work in competition law. “I really enjoyed the variety of work I encountered as trainee, not just the different types of competition work, but also the fact that you’re working with clients on a daily basis, getting to know what they do, what their products are and the services they offer, while also analysing these markets,” Louisa explains. With an interest in politics and economics, competition law seemed like an appealing option. “You get a really good mix between the commercial side of things, as well as the legal and black letter law, which is why I decided to become a competition lawyer,” she adds.

The variety of work she experienced as a trainee has continued into her life as an associate – with work ranging from merger control to foreign direct investment regimes and the more behavioural side of competition law. “Merger control involves looking at transactions to understand whether there are any requirements to notify competition authorities in different jurisdictions around the world. This can be quite a practical exercise as you have to understand what the client does and its turnover and assets in order to analyse whether it falls within a certain jurisdiction’s regime. If it turns out it does, then we’ll need to put a notification together to the competition authority setting out what the parties do, what the products and services are, how that’s related to that particular market and, if the parties partake in similar activities or offer similar services, why the transaction won’t lead to a lessening of competition in the market.”

Foreign direct investment regime work has become more common in Louisa’s line of work. She explains that they’re “increasingly being implemented across the world and are largely centred around national security concerns”. The work required here involves “analysing a transaction to see whether there’s any aspect that we need to notify in various jurisdictions”.

In terms of the behavioural side, “from a competition perspective, this could involve an investigation by a competition authority into anticompetitive behaviour by firms in a particular market. The competition team may respond to requests for information from authorities to make submissions as to why that conduct is or isn’t anticompetitive”.

“We’re often dealing with clients in new markets and new areas – often areas I’ve not looked at before. This means that you’re always developing a great variety of understanding about different markets”

The CMA and Brexit

Given the nature of this area of law, the wide range of issues she works on is a top perk for Louisa as it means that every day is completely different. “We’re often dealing with clients in new markets and new areas – often areas I’ve not looked at before. This means that you’re always developing a great variety of understanding about different markets.”

When comparing competition law to the often repetitive nature of some other areas of law, Louisa explains that “you never really find that you’re doing the same task twice, which is my favourite thing about working in this team”. 

Plus, with the way the practice is having to adapt after Brexit, there’s much scope for intriguing developments – for example, “the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is starting to put its stamp on the way it wants to approach transactions versus other competition regulators across the world”. This is a fascinating situation to follow as it unfolds and it’ll be “interesting to see how the CMA diverges from the European Union and the US, or indeed tries not to”, Louisa says.

Aside from the changes arising in the aftermath of Brexit, competition lawyers are also seeing an increase in foreign investment regimes – an interesting area of this side of the profession because of its “untransparent process unlike the competition process”. Louisa explains that when it comes to competition decisions, “a detailed decision will be sent out that breaks down why it is that the competition regulator has either blocked or allowed a transaction”; however, this is not part of the process for many foreign investment regimes, such as the UK regime, making it “tricky to advise clients on what it is that, for example, the UK government is trying to determine when reviewing a transaction”. It's a particularly important area for competition lawyers “because of the potential criminal sanctions for not notifying under the regime”. Lawyers involved in foreign direct investments will need to “get to grips with how these regimes operate and what it is we need to think about when reviewing transactions”. It’s clear that this is an exciting time to be advising clients in this practice area.

Demonstrate your interest

While an economics degree isn’t essential to having an excellent career in competition law (look at Louisa), she stresses the need for anyone thinking about a career in this area to “have an interest in the way that markets operate and the dynamics within them”. As ever, and with all areas of the law, analytical skills and good attention to detail are also crucial – more specifically within competition law, these skills will help future lawyers to “tease out the important competitive dynamics in a particular market”. Finally, the ability “to have a grasp of the various legislation that affects competition law”, and to maintain and apply this understanding will set aspiring lawyers up for a fantastic career in this sphere.

These are skills that’ll likely be developed over time, whether that’s through a university degree, work experience or an apprenticeship, for example. Being able to provide evidence of these skills is an essential element of a successful application, which is why all kinds of work experience are beneficial to your CV. Exposure to the profession at all levels is the best way to decide whether a career in the law is the right step. Louisa suggests “speaking on an informal basis to people who practise the law, as well as getting experience of the job itself, either as a paralegal or through a vacation scheme. These can provide a good insight into the types of day-to-day tasks you’ll be doing and whether you’d enjoy them in reality”. She adds: “When you’ve decided that a career in law is right for you, the training contract is a good opportunity to see the different areas of law you could work in.”

This, coupled with the insights into the work of solicitors and barristers you can gain by engaging in conversations as Louisa advises, will be a good indicator as to whether you have a skillset suited to the role of a solicitor or a barrister. So, like Louisa, and many other lawyers do before embarking on a specific career path, weigh up your skills, recognise your strengths and take it from there. And remember – the competition starts before you get into competition law, so being self-aware is vital.