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Clear for Take-Off: (No) Sexism in Romanian Law Firms

Clear for Take-Off: (No) Sexism in Romanian Law Firms

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According to the 2019 CEE By the Numbers issue of the CEE Legal Matters magazine, almost two third of all lawyers and almost half of all partners at ranked Romanian law firms are women. As Romania’s population, economy, and (therefore) legal market are much larger than its chief competitors in both categories, its achievements in this area are particularly significant. Romania’s most prominent female managing partners insist that, indeed, sexism, in the Romanian legal industry, is essentially a non-factor.

Beginnings

Manuela Marina Nestor started practicing law “back in the old days, before the 1989 revolution.” Back then, she says, she and husband Ion Nestor worked for RomConsult, “one of the first foreign trade state enterprises at the time.” Her work for RomConsult took her “all across Northern Africa and Western Europe, which gave me an amazing opportunity to learn about other cultures, economies, and ways of doing business.” Nestor credits this experience as critical in enabling her and her husband to launch Nestor Nestor Diculescu Kingston Petersen, which “immediately after the revolution offered legal services which went far beyond what was mostly done at the time.”

Working what she describes as “14/15 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week,” proved worth the effort. In true sic parvis magna fashion, NNDKP is among the most successful and well-known independent law firms in Eastern Europe. “I am very proud to have been one of the first to lead on this front,” she says, “back when the legislation of our country changed and allowed for independent law firms.”

A full decade after Manuela Nestor launched her firm, Miruna Suciu made her way onto the Romanian legal scene in 1999, starting as an associate with Musat & Asociatii after graduating from the University of Bucharest Law School. At Musat, she says, “I was lucky enough to have been exposed to large privatization projects, M&A transactions, and complex undertakings in the banking & finance sector.” She stayed at the prominent Romanian firm for over 16 years before leaving to start her current firm, Suciu Popa, with Luminita Popa, and she reports that, “the experience I gained by the time we founded Suciu Popa in 2016 gave us a good starting point.” She says that “the Romanian economy was doing great at the time,” which enabled them to hit the ground running. “We grew steadily each year, so the firm was already quite strong and very stable when the pandemic struck this March and the market became engulfed in a cloud of unpredictability.”

For her part, Oana Ijdelea, co-Managing Partner of Ijdelea Mihailescu laughs, “my story starts in what now seems to be ancient history.” Ijdelea, who recalls “wanting to be a lawyer since the second grade,” spent two years in the mid-2000s as an apprentice with Buzescu Ca, which she says “had high profile clients, [and] worked on some very important deals – all of which helped me grow very much at a young age.” Still, after two years, Ijdelea felt it was time to move on.

“In 2008, I started my own law firm and I had no clients,” she smiles. “I did a lot of ex officio work which led to me learning a lot more than I thought I would – and this kind of finished my learning experience.” In 2010, Ijdelea says, she was joined by a special colleague. “My father, Emilian, was one of the most respected business consultants in Romania. He participated in drafting many pieces of legislation in the immediate aftermath of the revolution – some of which are still in use today!” Ijdelea credits her father as a major influence. “This is what I think shaped my professional life and my ethics the most.”

Some nine years after opening the doors of her firm, Ijdelea decided to team up with Anca Mihailescu, who had spent the previous six years working as an associate under Manuela Nestor. “We met each other while she was still with NNDKP,” Ijdelea recalls, “working on an energy project on opposing sides. After she left NNDKP, we got in touch for lunch a few times and ended up deciding to give Ijdelea Mihailescu a go.”

For her part, Mihailescu’s path into law started in an economics high school. “Everybody in my class wanted to become an accountant but I quickly realized that it wasn’t for me,” she recalls. “A friend’s sister went to law school at the time, and this connection turned my attention to law – so I decided to visit the University of Bucharest’s Law School and see what it was all about.” She recalls that “the second I entered the building I had this weird feeling of being home. This was something that I wanted to do – I knew it.”

After graduating in 2008, Mihailescu spent a couple of months as a junior associate with Linklaters and, after the firm left Romania later that year, moved to DLA Piper. “Working in a law firm back then, handling the blowback of the financial crisis – that really made me who I am, professionally.”

In 2011 she joined NNDKP, where, she says, “I got a lot of exposure right off the bat, being involved in large M&A transactions, and I eventually ended up focusing a lot on Energy.” After six years, Mihailescu says, she felt that “it was time for me to move on to other, uncharted challenges.” Less than a year later she partnered up with Oana Ijdelea.

A Conducive Climate

From 1947 until 1989, Romania was a deeply communist state, well behind the Iron Curtain. The fall of Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime brought many changes and improved many areas of life – but they made sure not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. “Communists had many sins,” says Manuela Nestor. “But from the point of view of promoting women, they had a completely egalitarian attitude.” Nestor is aware that this is “not something one finds very often, these days, looking at more developed, Western liberal democracies.” According to her, “even back then, we never felt that being a woman is something which presents an obstacle to achieving a high-ranking position.” Indeed, she reports that the majority of judges, prosecutors, and public officials in many administrative departments were women – “which is still the case today.” As a result, she says, “I found it only natural that I could lead a firm with my husband, so I had no hurdles that I can speak of.”

Suciu also says that she also moved forward with her career, free from gender-based difficulties or challenges. “I have to say, when it comes to this particular subject, I never had any obstacles.”

For her part, Anca Mihailescu is not so sure. She agrees that Romania is well ahead of many Western countries in this regard, but she says that a recent experience has opened her eyes to subtle forms of discrimination that, in previous years, she might have waved off or ignored. “One year ago, in June of 2019,” she says, “I attended a conference in New York where I had the opportunity to listen to a seminar about the #MeToo movement. Hearing how women are sometimes treated in business, as lawyers especially, was a very shocking moment for me, I almost could not believe the stories to be real.” She returned from the conference paying new attention to the issue, she says. “Once I came back to Romania I started going back through my entire life, to see if anything of the sort had ever happened to me.”

“I’ve never heard of any horrors happening here, anything akin to what I heard at that panel in New York,” Mihailescu continues. “Things seem better here, but I’m not sure how much.” She’s not in denial, of course, and she concedes that growing up she occasionally encountered “macho men” who played to what she describes as “patriarchal Eastern European archetypes,” but she says she “never paid much attention to them. It was as if there was a wall I erected to keep all of these buffoons out.” She credits this wall for helping her shut out distractions, but she admits that, perhaps, “because of it – I hadn’t really noticed if anything bad was going on.”

Indeed, her shield protected her from some resistance to her plans coming from an unexpected source, as, growing up, her “very protective” father tried to her dissuade her from her intended path. “He didn’t feel I should go to law school, or be emancipated in such an extreme way,” she says, “which was not such a good thing to experience, but it didn’t stop me. I had my wall.”

On reflection, Mihailescu suggests that she may simply have been overlooking some of the particular obstacles thrown in the way young women pursuing professional goals. “Life was probably not as easy and good as I’ve led myself to believe,” she says. “I realize now that women do face problems and challenges.” And, she says, the mental barrier she used to protect herself, “may not be the best thing going forward. I believe that little girls and young women should be aware of what exists out there and not be expected to accept this as a normal thing.”

But she insists this shouldn’t be framed only as a women’s issue. “These things can happen to men too – the harassment, the abuse. This is a matter of combating abusers. The best way to do that is to raise awareness of the issue.”

While increased awareness is important, at the end of the day Mihailescu says that “working in a large, international firm – which I’ve had the good luck of working for a big part of my professional life – has its benefits.” She believes that large law firms accentuate the business side of things to the degree that any friction is frowned upon, let alone anything along gendered lines. As a result, she too says that, “never has any of my male colleagues ever made any comments that were in any way inappropriate.”

Clients, not Colleagues

Of course, the ways women are treated as employees can be different from the ways they are treated as employers, but here as well most prominent female managing partners in Romania wave away inquiries about sexism, with many insisting that the only problems came from clients, rather than colleagues – and even then were more related to age than sex.

“Honestly, I never had any issues – I always found it easy to work with men,” notes Suciu. “Perhaps, when I was younger, I may have had problems handling clients – but that was a business experience thing, never a gender issue.” This was especially true since, when she and Luminita Popa founded Suciu Popa, “around 70% of my colleagues in the firm were women – though since then we have brought in several male attorneys, which brought the ratio to 50/50.”

Manuela Nestor has a similar perspective. “The difficulties in managing men never came to me from my employees or colleagues, but rather from clients, sometimes,” says Nestor. “Some clients, depending on their own specific cultural background to a degree, have a tendency to see me as a woman first and as a lawyer second.”

She remembers an anecdote from her early days, while still at RomConsult, that toughened her. “In 1985, we made a trip to Libya for business. All of my colleagues at the time were men – engineers and technicians – I was the only lawyer on the team. Now, being a 26, blonde, blue-eyed girl on an all-male team going to Libya was a baptism by fire,” she laughs. “It was funny to see how the other side of the negotiating table worked around the fact that they had to talk to a woman all the time.” She says that, in order to attend a formal dinner at the end of the trip, she insisted on being “considered as if I were a man – all the other women attending were seated on the far side of the room, near the kitchen.”

Still, Nestor makes a point of clarifying, “this sort of gender bias – it never existed in Romania.”

Oana Ijdelea, reports that she has had “delicate situations, although not recently.” She explains that “I think that I am a beautiful woman – and when you are young, and you dress nicely – people sometimes did not give me much credit, thinking that I was not capable.” She says that she was “very eager to prove myself and move beyond these trivialities.” She continues. “I think that the bigger obstacle is that people tend to equate age with knowledge, which goes against you when you are young.” Regardless, Ijdelea says, she learned to block out and ignore such reactions, and they happened less and less. “These days,” she says, “nothing of the sort could never happen.”

Ijdelea Mihailescu agrees. “The men with whom we do business are goal-orientated, the business stakes and the legal complexity of the projects are usually very high,” she says, “so there’s no room for transgressions. Then there is also the matter of selecting your circle, and choosing to work with people with whom you share basic principles of life.”

The Infamous Work-Life Balance

Whether or not they are challenged by unwarranted assumptions, working women who are mothers often have extra demands on their time. The highly-prized “work-life balance” that so many lawyers struggle to find can be especially difficult for female lawyers with children to achieve – perhaps particularly when those lawyers also manage highly successful law firms.

And, of course, manage other women. “Our firm is 55% women,” Nestor says. “So it is, at the same time, not an easy place to run and an extraordinary place to run.” She continues. “Lawyering is a way of life, more than a profession,” she says, and this difference often has unfortunate consequences on the personal lives of those who choose it. “This is a difficult subject,” she says, “but many of the most successful lawyers are divorced. The drive of the work, the enormous pull it has – it often proves to be too much for people to balance successfully.” She describes herself as unusually fortunate in this regard, having started NNDKP with a husband, who understood that “there would be tough moments, sleepless nights spent in the office, having to choose work over private obligations like family events – often.”

Still, Nestor reiterates that she chose this life, and she says that her firm’s management makes it a point to make sure NNDKP’s employees are aware what’s ahead of them, in addition to offering special forms of assistance – though, she says, the driven lawyers they work with are generally uninterested in taking advantage of them. “For example, we have parental leave as an option our employees can take – but people do not want to leave work,” she says. “This has nothing to do with gender. We are actively creating programs that encourage people to stay home, or work from home so that they can have more family time – but they still wish to come to the office.”

Miruna Suciu says that her firm too goes out of its way to support employees trying to find a work-personal-life balance, and that she and her colleagues are “very understanding and supportive of partners and employees being able to take their kids to school, to the doctor, or meet any other family obligation. This is required in order to keep the team and the individuals engaged and recognized for far more than their work title.” This mindful approach, she believes, leads to better results. “People will feel included and they have the chance to grow more genuinely attached to the firm values.”

Interestingly, Suciu says that one of the upsides of the current COVID-19 pandemic may be that “people have become more tolerant and understanding of the fact that their business partners, consultants, and service providers have lives outside of work, especially with all the online meetings where kids keep barging in.” These occurrences serve to bridge the gap to “perceiving more clearly that employees or business people have a personal life and that they need space for that – space that often times is blurred by office work and tasks – and a balance must be struck.”

She knows the challenges well. “I’m a mother of two children – 10 and 11 – and sometimes it can be tough to manage them, along with managing a firm,” she says, as her kids crash the interview and laughter fills the room. “We also have two dogs, a cat, and a parrot – so imagine all that!” She says that she takes her kids to the office once in a while if “no other safe option is at hand, but this obviously cannot be a profession-wide solution given the client-facing nature of the work.”

Keeping on top of all the demands of both the law and motherhood, she says, requires “all the help you can get,” but, she says, “you also have to love what you do.”

“Everything changes with parenthood,” Oana Ijdelea adds. “I’m not a parent myself, yet, but I understand that each person has an individual approach to how they ought to balance this role with their business one.” And Ijdelea believes that the kind of support Manuela Nestor reports getting from her husband is critical, whether coming from a spouse or other family members. “I have to be the only woman that’s happy that her mother-in-law lives with her,” she laughs.

“The perfect balance between the professional and the personal does not exist,” Anca Mihailescu says, “but the trick is to constantly try to achieve it.” The key, she says, is not always to divide your time equally, but to remain aware when the demands of one have started to overwhelm the other, and to address imbalances when they arise. “This leads to a symbiotic relationship between home and the office,” she says, “and that way you won’t feel guilty for neglecting either.”

“We must foster understanding here, and I think Romania is doing rather well on this front,” Mihailescu concludes. “Little girls growing up should have this idea in their minds that they can succeed, that they ought not to feel less capable or less important because of their gender.” To do so, an understanding of the societal pressure that exists on mothers to stay at home and take care of their children is important, and that “rearranging the duties around the kids [and] giving the fathers more importance in the entire process of raising a kid [will] make people feel better and be better parents and better lawyers.”

Ultimately, Suciu insists, Romania’s track record in such issues is admirable. “The legal market is pretty balanced here, in terms of gender diversity,” she says. “A lot of girls go to law school and become great lawyers later. What is different is, when you compare Romania to other longer established markets, this part of the world seems to be less exclusionary towards women, and there are little-to-no promotion gaps, wage gaps, hiring gaps … we’re doing quite well.” She smiles. “But of course many things can still be improved.”

This Article was originally published in Issue 7.6 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

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