Bob Wessels: professor emeritus of International Insolvency Law at Leiden University and expert counsel to the European Commission
What led you to focus on cross-border restructuring and insolvency?
A small cross-border matter between The Netherlands and the UK in early 1992; a UK administrator demanded the transfer of some assets (as “owner”), while The Netherlands at that time applied a strict territoriality doctrine.
What is the most satisfying aspect of the practice?
In my specific practice (providing legal opinions and cross-border advice) the challenge of “inventing” innovative approaches to unsolved queries, as well as meeting so many people from other countries.
What has been the highlight of your career to date?
Defending my PhD at Amsterdam University and being appointed as a full-time law professor in the same week in 1988; it sounds odd to US ears, as I was also a partner in the legal Services group one of the most global of firms, Ernst & Young, for 13 years.
What was the most memorable case or project you’ve ever worked on and why?
A BVI case in which a company had a legal dispute with a Dutch corporation, pending in a Dublin court, with me sitting in my Dutch office and providing expert information via video link to the Irish judge.
Where is the most interesting place your work has taken you?
New York (and so many other interesting places).
What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your career so far?
Writing and periodically updating my 10-volume series Wessels’ Insolvency Law – or Insolventierecht – since 1999 (approximately 4000 pages).
If you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to yourself when you were starting out, what would it be?
Combine academic work with legal practice from the start (I’m pretty sure the opposite is just as true).
What do you predict will be the hottest topics in cross-border insolvency and restructuring in the next five years?
Cross-border groups of companies, including their tax matters.
How are things different in cross-border restructuring and insolvency now to when you started practising?
In 1992, Dutch and EU insolvency law was a jungle. Liquidation processes nearly everywhere. Territoriality was king. There have been changes in the air since 2002 and many have been implemented, including reorganisations and slowly coordinated recognitions (in English, you would use the old school term “modified universality”). So in the EU, harmonisation is setting in; globally the C-word is out (C for “global convention”). International insolvency law should be like businesses: different markets, clients, methods and technology demand changes every day. As long as regulation is in the hands of sovereign states though, the law will lag behind five to 10 years.
Can you identify some “crisis” points in the history of cross-border insolvency and restructuring that have had a significant impact on how things are done? How have they changed things?
In the EU, the regulation of 2002 changed the scene with courts and practitioners following slowly. Constant and ongoing changes in the rules make lawyers uncomfortable as they are slow adaptors. So the “crisis” is ongoing: the small appetite for embracing legal-cultural change and underdeveloped forward-looking thinking.
If you could introduce one piece of international legislation, soft law or a certain process to help facilitate cross-border restructurings and insolvencies, what would it be and why?
Do away with a state’s monopoly on courts and create mechanisms (a combination of judges in one court or arbitration) with similarly “enforceable” output. Not on a state’s budget, but with businesses picking up the bill themselves for their inability to find workable solutions.
If you had not been a lawyer, what career would you have liked to pursue?
Pop-singer or professional squash player, but I would never have got to the top.
Tell us something about yourself that most people wouldn’t know.
That since 2015 I am a certified “Dordtoloog”, having a degree of knowhow and expertise on the history of Dordrecht, a city in the west of The Netherlands where I live, and which used to be the equivalent of a capital of Holland in the 13th to 17th centuries.
If you could have dinner and conversation with anybody – in history, or alive today – who would it be and why?
The painter Rembrandt. How can you produce such magnificent work and be an egoist and a crook – he went bankrupt in 1656 – at the same time?