The origins of the Belgian firm, Lexetera, began back in 1982, when Martin Michel set up his first law office, initially on the first floor of his house in Antwerp, soon after completing his three-year professional training and national service. The following year, Michel went into business with a partner and, in 1991, they moved to Franklin Rooseveltplaats in the heart of the city, where the firm is still located.
The firm rebranded as Lexetera in 2001, after Michel and his former partner split up and Karine Van Gulck joined him. But it was in their original offices in Michel’s home that TEN, The European Network, was born. A client that Lexetera and the Dutch firm of, at that time, Van Ewijk-Van de Wouw Advocaten shared brought the firms together in 1988, while working on a cross-border question: “We had the same client and the same problem,” Michel recalls. “We got on and the case went well, so we decided that we should join a legal network to look after future cases.”
Michel and his Dutch counterpart travelled to Paris to attend a meeting of a French-led group, but found the atmosphere to be a little “blasé”, Michel smiles. “So, we did it ourselves and set up TEN. We were then joined by German and French members, and, now, with the recent incorporation of firms in Slovenia and Switzerland, we are 16 across Europe.”
Michel is a passionate and persuasive advocate for the many advantages of being part of TEN: “There are less borders than ever before.” he argues. “Our clients know we offer that kind of service and that, if they have a problem abroad, we can help.”
Last year, Michel says Lexetera worked on five cases involving other TEN member firms and notes that satisfied clients often recommend Lexetera’s services to new clients, precisely because of the firm’s European relationships: “Thanks to TEN,” he says, “we can say ‘just a minute’ and put clients in contact with colleagues across Europe. I’ve just got back from our annual meeting and have some good friends in the network.”
Lexetera is a generalist firm, covering every aspect of the law with the exception of environmental and tax matters. The three lawyers who work with Michel deal with all kinds of criminal, family and liability cases, while he personally specialises in bankruptcy and insolvency law. Since 1980, as a trustee of the Commercial Court of Antwerp, he has been involved in more than 2,000 proceedings.
“We’re a small firm,” Michel explains, “which allows us to deal directly with our clients. That personal touch, talking to the same lawyer who knows you and understands your case, is key to keeping clients happy. I’m particularly proud of the fact that we have had some clients for more than 30 years.”
Birthplace of Van Dyck and Jordaens, Antwerp was home to the Flemish Baroque school of painters, that also included Rubens, in the 17th century. Today the city is a hub for the legal profession in Belgium. There are more than 2,000 lawyers in practice, Michel says, out of a population of just over 500,000. Around 90% of his own clients are small and medium-sized enterprises, many of which operate in and around the port – one of the busiest in Europe, together with Rotterdam – that now forms the bedrock of its economic activities.
“Globalisation has changed the local legal marketplace,” Michel says. “Fifteen years ago, there were maybe three or four big insurance companies, each of which employed three lawyers. Now, there is one huge insurance company that employs just three lawyers. There’s a lot of competition and lots of lawyers have joined forces to cut costs.”
Michel is a proud Antwerpian, having been born in the historic port city, studied law at its university, and lived there all his life. In his free time, he has been practising full-contact Kyokushin karate for the last 45 years – “although my doctor has ordered me not to fight any more,” he admits ruefully – and holds a 6th dan black belt. He remains very involved with the sport, however, and is now one of three European board members of the World Karate Organization, after serving as General Secretary of the European Karate Organization for 25 years.