I began practicing law more than 30 years ago. It runs in my family and I guess this is how I acquired my affinity towards it. Even during the communist period in Bulgaria, being a lawyer was among the few relatively independent professions – unconstrained by political, financial, and other pressures. This is another major reason I became a lawyer. The rule of law is something I was born and raised with.
I set up my firm in 1988 and it was definitely not an easy task, given the state of affairs in Bulgaria back then. Among other things, the communist regime consistently insinuated that the law – and the legal profession – would soon become obsolete. Nevertheless, I strongly felt this was my vocation and, like many fresh out-of-school graduates, I was full of optimism and a desire to build something from scratch. At that point, legal work consisted of civil, family, and penal cases, but strictly between physical persons. Company law was not really a thing yet. I recall there was a great deal of respect between colleagues, as well as from the younger generation towards the older one. This is something I rarely see these days.
Democratic changes in Bulgaria in 1989 had an impact on every aspect of life. Thanks to market liberalization, more law firms began emerging in the early 90s. Economic transformation opened the door to corporate law, albeit slowly. Foreign investors were still scarce. The 90s were an altogether difficult period – with ongoing transformation, a lack of investment initiative, and low revenues for law firms. While privatization in Bulgaria formally began earlier, in practice the first significant wave took place in 1996-1997. It was a turning point for legal work and a push for the expansion of law firms – today’s leading firms began standing out right about that time. Insolvency procedures emerged as another major source of work.
The second and most important series of privatization procedures took place in the early 2000s, when some of the largest enterprises were transferred into private hands. International financial consultants and law firms were also engaged in these transactions, which was a unique opportunity for local law firms to partner and exchange know-how with well-established experts.
Bulgaria acceded to the EU in 2007, which was another cornerstone for the legal market. European integration meant a boost in foreign investments and participation in the single market. Moreover, it created plenty of legal work related to compliance with EU legislation. EU law established itself as a common practice area among local business law firms.
Perhaps one of the most exciting periods in terms of legal work came after 2010. There were plenty of large-scale and complex projects in many sectors and it was a truly great time to be a business lawyer. Not only because of the dynamic workflow, but also because it was a time of intensive learning and polishing of skills. The more the market grew, the better you had to become to remain competitive and respond to ever-more-sophisticated client needs. Economic, demographic, and technological demands were pushing for a major transformation of our profession.
The start of this decade has forced us all to face the unprecedented consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The legal market may have experienced fewer disruptions than other sectors, but there is definitely a negative impact – and this trend will persist. Bulgarian firms have seen an increase in employment and dispute resolution work, while deals and projects have understandably been put on hold. It goes without saying that if the businesses of our clients suffer, ours suffers as well. I believe now is the time for utmost mobilization, flexibility, adaptability, and empathy. Technology will be critical for our profession. Although the sector is among the more conservative ones – especially in Bulgaria – everyone will either have to embrace innovation or simply become irrelevant. That said, technology will not entirely replace people. Attracting and nurturing young talent is crucial. It seems to me that the Bulgarian legal market is still somewhat oblivious to the qualities and potential of younger professionals. They need to be encouraged and pushed to the forefront – we may be surprised at how much they have to show.
By Yavor Kambourov, Managing Partner, Kambourov & Partners