Peter Fousert is an insolvency partner with PlasBossinade in the Netherlands, one of the ILN’s Dutch firms. In this episode, he discusses with Lindsay the challenges of the war on talent, the delayed insolvencies that pandemic measures have incurred, and his interest in how environmental issues and regulations will impact the legal industry and its clients.
You can listen to the podcast here, or we’ve provided a transcript of the highlights below.
Lindsay: Hello and welcome to the Law Firm Intelligence Podcast. I’m your host, Lindsay Griffiths, Executive Director of the International Lawyers Network. Our guest this week is Peter Fousert from PlasBossinade in Groningen, the Netherlands. Peter, welcome. We’re so happy to have you with us. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and the firm and your practice?
Peter: Hi, Lindsay. Thank you very much for inviting me. As you mentioned, my name is Peter Fousert. I’m a Netherlands based lawyer working for PlasBossinade as a partner there. My firm, PlasBossinade, isn’t, well an international oriented local law firm. We are based in the north of the Netherlands, proud to do so. We have lawyers and civil notaries in offices in Groningen, which is all the way north in the Netherlands, and a civil notary office in Rotterdam. As you may know, the main port of Holland, one of the biggest port in the world. We are a partner-run law firm and our main practice areas are M and A, commercial litigation, tax and finance solvency and restructuring, employment law and real estate, including the tax structuring of real estate.
We work for a lot of branches. Some important ones in our practice are shipping and ship building, industry and healthcare. We work for clients in the variety in size from very big and governmental organizations to small locally owned businesses. It’s a broad practice, basically.
Lindsay: That’s great. How about your practice in particular?
Peter: I’m mainly working in insolvency and everything that, well has to do with insolvency or companies in financial distress situations. I work as a bankruptcy trustee as well, for well almost half of my time.
Lindsay: That’s great.
Peter: So, I see both sides of the medal, so to speak.
Lindsay: That’s great. So, let’s dive into our questions. What would you say is your biggest challenge at the moment and how are you working to overcome that?
Peter: I think for a firm like our firm, a mid-size local-based law firm, our biggest challenge is the war on talent basically. We’re suffering, well the vortex of the Magic Circle firms in the Netherlands. And although we are working and living in a student town, it’s still hard to get the talent in in the way we want it. So, we’re always looking for new ways to find the right people for the right place, but that’s hard these days.
Lindsay: Yes, I would imagine that it is. I mean, all that we’re hearing in the US is that the Netherlands is one of the best places to work and to live. So, are you finding that you’re able to compete on a global scale in the Netherlands, but perhaps being in the north is more difficult than if you were in one of the more central or southern cities?
Peter: Well, I didn’t know. The Netherlands, well we are a very small country. If you compare it to some of the bigger countries or even some of the bigger cities, there are cities that have the size of the Netherlands. So, we’re a small country. We travel to Amsterdam, for example in an hour and a half, two hours. So, in my opinion, there’s not much difference between working from the north or working in Amsterdam. Still, it’s hard to explain to young people basically that the city we live in is a good place to live. It’s nice and green and there’s plenty of space around to do other things than work. I think that’s one of our main selling points to young people, the work life/balance, which is pretty good. But we were speaking, it was the last global ILN meeting where we were speaking about the war on talent and it’s a thing that we … I came across a lot of lawyers who are suffering with the same problems even from bigger firms or bigger countries.
Lindsay: Yes, absolutely. That’s true. I mean, I think it’s a global issue for sure. The generations are changing, so that’s not something that anyone is going to solve anytime soon, unfortunately.
Peter: I’m afraid so. I’m afraid you’re right.
Lindsay: Yes. So, can you talk to us a little bit about the current state of the market and what that means for you and your clients?
Peter: Well, for me personally in my practice area, I think we’re in the aftermath of a perfect storm maybe. It’s the pandemic combined with the consequences of the war in Ukraine. A lot of companies are suffering. I think in the next couple of months, there will be a lot of insolvencies and companies in financial problems, in dire straits basically. So that’s what we’re facing. Our Dutch government took some measures to save companies, but now we’re seeing the other side of those measures, and companies have to start paying their debts, have to start paying their taxes. It’s a busy period. And it’s ironic because in a way it’s sad for the companies that are suffering all those problems from … But for me as an insolvency practitioner, there’s a lot going on at the moment.
Lindsay: Absolutely. I had a similar conversation with one of our lawyers from London, and here in the US we didn’t take similar protections against a lot of bankruptcies that much of Europe took, so he said there were a lot of companies in Europe and the UK that didn’t fail that probably should have failed. So obviously it protected companies that needed to be protected, but at the same time there was this natural progression for some businesses that should have happened that didn’t happen and is now happening, which is what you’re seeing that we-
Peter: Yeah, I think it’s the same. Yes.
Lindsay: … in the US didn’t experience. Yes. So, I think It’s really an interesting time for what you’re going through as an insolvency lawyer. So that-
Peter: There’s a lot of companies in the gray area, sort of ghost companies that were tagged along by the protective measures, but there’s even companies that were relatively healthy that are suffering from high energy pricing, the rise in employment costs. And that, combined with the measures, well it’s massive.
Lindsay: And I’m sure the inflation as well. I mean, the inflation numbers that you’re seeing in Europe are just unbelievable.
Peter: Yes. Well back in the … I wasn’t born then, but I think it’s about early ’70s that were the same economic period at the moment.
Lindsay: Yes, absolutely. I would agree. I wasn’t born then either, but from what I’ve heard, it must have been very similar.
Peter: We see it mainly in retail where there’s a lot of people working, and that’s hard at the moment.
Lindsay: Absolutely. It’s interesting, because I had a conversation recently with my dad, who as you know is the previous executive director of the ILN, and he said he thinks it’s a shift in the way the market is doing business. So, we used to have a lot of retail stores that were in person, and now because the marketplace is shifting to being more online, we’ll see that what you’re doing for point of sale or what people want to see in person is more things like services, so nail salons, dry cleaners, those types of things. But you’re not going to see as much shopping. So, all shopping will really move online. I think that’s an interesting point. So, It’s more of a shift in what the marketplace is doing and less of a reaction to the overall economy. So, it’s what we’re moving towards as a full market.
Peter: Yes, I think you’re right. I think the recent circumstances have accelerated that in a way. So that’s what we see, is this shift came faster than it would have been without a pandemic or without the war going on.
Lindsay: Yes, absolutely, because people are forced to order online just by the nature of needing to be at home and because of the war in Ukraine. So that absolutely makes sense.
Peter: Yep. And we see a lot of shift in real estate as well. I mean, buildings like our own are used in another way than it used to be. So, in the real estate area, there will be a lot of changes as well. Yes.
Lindsay: Absolutely. It’s interesting because a lot of the real estate lawyers I’ve spoken to have said that commercial real estate remains hot, which I find very interesting. And I know in the US, it’s still both residential and commercial real estate are very hot right now too. So, I wonder how long that will continue, but It’s got to be for varying reasons. But yes, I agree with you. I think It’s shifted how they’re being used and for what, but that I think will change over the next 10 years.
Peter: Yes, yes. I think you’re right. Yep.
Lindsay: So, what would you say is the biggest area that’s related either to your practice or the legal industry in general that you’re curious about?
Peter: For me personally, I think it’s the way the environmental issues will impact on the legal industry. In the place where we are, north Holland, energy and transport is a big sector, and you see a lot of changes there. I think that’s a very vibrant thing to witness There’s a lot going on, a lot of development, there’s a lot of new technology going there. So, in my opinion, it will be environmental issues and the way we adapt to new rules and new laws that will be in place shortly. That’s a big thing, I guess in the next couple of years.
Lindsay: Yes, I agree. I think it’s really interesting because a lot of people are slow to adapt until they’re forced to, or especially in the legal industry, obviously clients lead the way. So, it’s whatever clients are really requiring of their law firms. So, I’m curious to see what changes will come about because we’re required to, but I think that’s another area where the pandemic has really forced us to make changes. People are traveling less, doing more Zoom meetings, more Teams meetings. So that’s already changed how much our carbon footprint has altered. Again, the real estate market I think is shifting in that way too. So, it is a really interesting field. I agree with you.
Peter: There’s a lot of other changes needed to infrastructure and to actually, well for example our Dutch electrical system can hardly cope with all the new ways we get our energy. So, in construction, in building, all of those sectors will be hugely influenced by this change, I guess.
Peter: I think for me as a company will not … If you don’t adapt soon enough, I think that’s the new reason for insolvency.
Lindsay: Yes. So that I think is a great way for you to also be an advisor to your clients, to help point them in the direction of ways to avoid insolvency. Yes.
Peter: As I said, I’m working on both sides of the medal and advising on how to prevent financial distress. One of the things that will be colored in by ESG in the next couple of years, I’m sure about that. Yes.
Lindsay: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, switching gears, tell us something interesting about yourself that most people don’t know.
Peter: Well, that’s a hard question. That’s a hard question. I think there’s quite a lot of people who know me who know this, but I think if I hadn’t become a lawyer, I think I would be owning a two-star Michelin restaurant. I think that would have been my other career if I wasn’t an insolvency lawyer.
Lindsay: That’s fair.
Peter: My wife Rebecca always says I have an unhealthy relationship with food. But in my opinion, it’s a very healthy relationship and I enjoy it very much. And definitely the ILN meetings are always a good thing to go to because you always take care of the right place to go. I enjoy it very much.
Lindsay: Good, good. I’m glad to hear that. We do have some good ones coming up for our next meeting in a couple of weeks, so we’ll have to see what you think about those.
Peter: Well, I checked them out already.
Lindsay: Oh, good. I figured you had. So, what’s your favorite thing to cook?
Peter: Well, I think It’s more traditional, traditional French, French/Italian, Mediterranean style, as long as it matches with the right wine. Then it’s good.
Lindsay: Of course, of course. Who has been your biggest mentor over your career?
Peter: We have this system that if you start as a lawyer, you work under the wings of somebody who mentors you. In my case, I started working as a lawyer for a firm in the east of Holland, and there was somebody who was working there for about 10 years, and she taught me how to write basically, how to make legal arguments and how to build a legal argument. I think until today, I find she’s the one who influenced me the most in my legal career.
Lindsay: That’s wonderful. And writing is really an important skill. I mean, I think it’s often underestimated.
Peter: It is, yes. And nowadays, I try to work as a mentor for the people who start in my firm. That’s always one of the first thing I try to teach them how to structure an argument.
Peter: How to structure a letter or a legal document or even an agreement. Drafting an agreement is about the same process as a legal argument. I think it’s underestimated in law school that the skill of writing is one of the most important things we as lawyers have as what we do all day.
Lindsay: Absolutely, absolutely. What would you say is something that most people misunderstand about your field of work?
Peter: Well, I think that’s not too difficult to answer because as I said, half my time I’m working as a bankruptcy trustee. I think the public opinion on bankruptcy trustees is that they want to earn as much money off the backs of the creditors. So, I’m always happy to explain people how it works, that there’s nothing that you stake. The bankruptcy trustee gets nothing because we’re not publicly appointed. Our fees are paid out of what we sell, and the purchase price of the goods is what we get our payment from. So that’s one of the big misunderstandings I like to clear out the way.
Lindsay: Yes. I’ve known a few bankruptcy trustees in my time. It’s interesting to read articles online about it and people really get very fired up. They really don’t understand how it works.
Peter: That’s true. I don’t know if that’s the same in other jurisdictions, but in the Netherlands I think it’s almost a sport to hold the bankruptcy trustee liable for almost everything, and it’s strange to see that you get used to it, coping with that.
Lindsay: I can understand because, and in your experience I’m sure it’s the same, that there’s a lot of emotions whenever there’s a bankruptcy, because it’s people’s jobs and there’s a lot of feelings that are involved. But of course, it’s not the bankruptcy trustee’s fault that this has happened and it’s your job to just move people through this process. But it’s really amazing how much they need this figure to blame.
Peter: Of course. But otherwise, I understand it, because I used to work in a lot of bigger healthcare insolvency cases, so I had to lay off a lot of people working in healthcare, and that goes with, it’s a consequence of the insolvency. You wind up the company and you lay off the employees, and that’s one of the things you have to do. But still, you have to do with compassion in a way. And on the other hand, there’s good employment … There’s insolvency schemes for employees in the Netherlands that will take care of the payment of the wages. So, it has a lot of impact, but the financial damages are not that big.
Lindsay: Right, of course, of course. So, what is the most important lesson that you’ve learned over your career?
Peter: That you as a lawyer, have the obligation to be curious. Always be curious, always dig deeper into a case and find the one threat you have to start pulling to find a solution. So, for me, that’s the most important lesson, always be curious, always ask for the why and how did that work, what happened? And always be receptive for those kinds of signals.
Lindsay: That’s great. I really like that. Can you tell me about a client that may have changed your practice?
Peter: Yes. It was a client who was referred to me by one of the other big firms in the northern Netherlands. They were working as a bankruptcy trustee in a certain bankruptcy. They produced a creditor who had a big environmental issue with the bankruptcy trustee and the trustee said, “Well I can’t solve it for you. If you refer you to PlasBossinade.” And that case was the entrance for me into a specific specialty area I’m working on a lot now, and that’s the combination of environmental law and insolvency law. The question, who is obliged to clean up the soil after you wind up a company, for example. So that’s a very specific area of practice, and that came to me by that one client. So, that was nice.
Lindsay: That’s great. What does being part of the ILN mean to you?
Peter: For my practice and for my firm, is important. In a way, you have a lot of lawyers on speed dial if you want. So, it’s very easy to reach out to your ILN counterparts all over the world. I very recently was in a complicated insolvency case, and it was very easy to reach out to the ILN office in London, the ILN office in Norway. And that’s the convenience of, to be able to do that easily is an extra for your clients and for us. So that’s a very good thing, and I really like the meetings, but that goes without staying, I guess.
Lindsay: I’m so glad to hear it. One final question as we wrap up. I always like to ask this of everybody. What is one thing outside of work that you’re really enjoying right now?
Peter: Well, it’s going to be autumn in the Netherlands, and I think the thing I like most in this time of year is I have this house with a garden and a nice fireplace, and to sit there with Rebecca and viewing our house and garden. So, I enjoy that the most at the moment this time of year.
Lindsay: Nice. I love that. Yes, that’s great. Well, thank you very much for joining us. This has been really great.
Peter: Thank you.
Lindsay: We will be back next week with our next guest. For all of our listeners, thank you so much for joining us as well. Please take a moment to rate, review, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. And thank you very much.