CEE is a highly-fragmented market. What sounds like a dull geographical statement actually highlights the main challenge of being a lawyer working in a regional CEE law firm.
Being a cross-border transactional lawyer means it is never enough just to know the laws of your home country. Of course, lawyers qualified to advise in countries others than your own will be available to assist, but ideally you should also be up to date yourself, with, for instance, how long it takes to transfer shares in a Romanian srl;
the newest developments in capital maintenance rules in Slovakia;
and the current state of Serbian capital controls. It means testing legal boundaries in countries where you can’t even understand the menu. And it means trusting lawyers who may be far younger than you – or leading lawyers that could be your parents.
A few things I’ve picked up on my journey:
Presence Matters. Never mind skype, facetime, and whatever other new great pro-gram someone just launched – nothing beats an old-fashioned face-to-face meeting. Whether this means relocating for a week to sit next to your colleagues to finalize a submission or flying in for just one meeting, the time and effort is totally worth it.
Mozemy? No one expects you to negotiate in the local language, but learning at least a few words in that language really is a matter of courtesy. After all, a lot of the lawyers I have met working in the Balkans speak three languages fluently (so beware: German, French, or whatever “secret language” you use to discuss strategy with your client in front of opposing counsel in, might in fact not provide much protection).
Same but Different. Nothing annoys an Austrian lawyer more than reading, “this is the advice we received for Germany, can you please confirm it is the same in your jurisdiction?” The same holds true for CEE. Yes, some of the countries may have been unified not so long ago, and yes, some of them have copied substantial parts of German, Swiss, or Austrian legislation, but there remain distinct differences between them, and they have evolved in different directions.
Generational Conflict. Being a trainee in a reputable international firm has its perks –but it definitely has its challenges too. One of these is coordinating foreign lawyers that are your seniors in age and experience. Conversely, being a senior lawyer and having to answer to a newly-graduated lawyer who has very little experience in civil law jurisdictions is equally painful. A little bit of understanding for the other side goes a long way. After all, they bring the hot-shot big-name transactions. And, after all, they help you to make your client happy.
Size Matters. When I first started working in CEE, having a lawyer in another country answer a legal question with, “not sure - however it is solved in Austria is probably how we would do it,” made me furious. After all, I was asking a senior attorney, so I expected a clear-cut answer.
With a few notable exceptions, CEE countries are small. This means fewer international firms bother to have an office in these, and the overall legal market can be rather in-ward-looking and slow to incorporate international best practices. It also means there are not as many precedents as in larger markets and not so many legal professionals writing commentary after commentary on each exotic legal question. Finally, it means that a lawyer can never specialize as much as, for example, a lawyer working in a Magic Circle firm can. The markets are simply not big enough. For a lawyer coming from a bigger and more specialized market, understanding this is absolutely crucial. It means you have to inform your client that there may not be a simple yes or no answer. But it also dares you to be creative and test boundaries by introducing legal arguments and best practices from other countries.
So, in a nutshell: be respectful, hear your foreign counterparts, make sure you really understand local circumstances, and accept the limits for what they are – an opportunity to challenge the status quo.
By Miriam Simsa, Partner, Schoenherr