An interview with Tristan O’Connor of CMS, about his path from Australia to Czech Republic.
CEELM: Run us through your background, and how you ended up the in the Czech Republic.
O’Connor: I’m an Australian qualified lawyer. Before coming to Europe, I worked at a boutique law firm in Sydney for three years doing transactional work. I wanted to get some international experience so I contacted a recruiter who came back with a suggestion to work in the Czech Republic. My younger brother had previously done some medical training in Prague and was very positive about his time here. I did some background research on the position and the firm and came across Helen Rodwell, our Managing Partner, who struck me as being very impressive woman with an impressive profile. I was lucky enough to meet Helen in Australia and after completing a few interviews and an exam I decided to accept the position and move to Europe in August 2019.
I had never travelled to Central and Eastern Europe before landing here. My first impressions were great, it was a rush. Part of the reason I came to Europe was to work on some of the bigger transactions and this happened almost immediately. Within the first week or so we started working on an large acquisition in the pharma space with a high enterprise value, much bigger than anything I had previously worked on.
I also spent some time working in our Kyiv office and travelled between the Czech Republic and Ukraine. It was an exciting time for me, getting exposure to two different cultures in two countries and I found it all very interesting. At the time I didn’t know anyone who had travelled to Ukraine before. I’m really happy to be working in Prague now. I’m in a good team and it’s a fantastic city.
CEELM: Was it always your goal to work outside of Australia?
O’Connor: I was always interested in other cultures and working in different countries. I had lived in Japan and Thailand before and really enjoyed the experience. For a transactional lawyer, Australia is a great market with a lot of interesting work. But the deal sizes are smaller and, as you might expect, cross-jurisdictional work can be a bit harder to come by. Here, I’ve had a chance to work on deals across multiple jurisdictions, from Germany to Russia and everything in between. It would be difficult to replicate that experience in the Australian market.
CEELM: How would clients describe your working style? What about management style? How do you think it varies from the “common” Czech one, if at all?
O’Connor: I think, and it’s true of CMS in general, that we’re attentive and responsive to our client’s needs. So I hope our clients describe our working style in this way. I find it easy to chat and get along with people, so I guess clients might find me friendly and conversational.
An important part of my role here is project coordination. We work with specialised local teams in different countries and try and harness their expertise to achieve a result. Australians are generally pretty outgoing and proactive communicators. Because a lot of our work takes place across multiple jurisdictions, I think this approach really helps. Being a good communicator, being able to work with different personalities and get along with people from different countries, that’s an important part of what I do here. I guess Australians can be pretty relaxed too, so maybe this helps dealing with some of the pressure that comes with M&A work.
CEELM: Are there any significant differences between the Australian and Czech judicial systems and legal markets? Which stand out the most?
O’Connor: I guess because Australia has a common law system and the Czech Republic’s is civil law based, you would expect to find significant differences. And sometimes there are differences. It’s a relatively minor one, but it took some time getting used to the different document formalities and certification processes over here, which changes with each jurisdiction. But actually the transactional law concepts are surprisingly similar between Australia and the Czech Republic. Conceptually I think if you can do a transaction in Australia or the UK, you can do it in the Czech Republic. Of course it helps if you have a really good team of Czech lawyers, which we do. Being familiar with common law principles can be handy because a lot of the transaction documents we work with are governed by English law.
As for the legal market differences, there is a cross-border flavour to the work we do here. I find that compelling and, given the Czech Republic is a key regional jurisdiction, we get quite a lot of this kind of work. Enterprise values are larger and the deals are bigger here, which comes with added pressure and complexity.
CEELM: How about the cultures? What differences strike you as most resonant and significant?
O’Connor: I think in Australia we’re a little bit more laid back. It might be easier to strike up a conversation with someone in a café or bar in Australia. Here, sometimes you need a degree of familiarity before you engage someone in conversation. On the other hand, Czechs have a quirky sense of humour which I really like and an outstanding work ethic, whether it’s at work or on the sporting field. And at the end of the day, we both enjoy having a beer and a chat. So we might have more in common than not.
CEELM: Do you have any plans to move back to Australia?
O’Connor: I do. I will always think of Australia as my home. But I don’t have any current plans of moving back, so I guess you could call it an indefinite arrangement. Covid has made it a bit more difficult to travel back home, with Australia essentially shutting its borders, and I haven’t been back since moving here. I’m sure my nieces and nephews have grown a head taller since I’ve last seen them. But Prague is a beautiful city; visually it’s amazing, it’s just the right size for me, and it’s generally just an easy place to live. So that helps.
CEELM: Outside of the Czech Republic, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most, and why?
O’Connor: That’s a tough one. I really enjoyed being in Kyiv. I’m interested in World War Two history, and there’s quite a bit of that in CEE. They’re some great museums in Kyiv and I really liked Lviv, which is a little town in the west near the Polish border. I’ve been to Poland to see some historical sites as well, which was great. And I’ve just returned from Budapest. I really enjoyed the vibe of the Seventh District in Budapest, with all the cafes and pubs. It reminded me of Berlin. And I liked the House of Terror museum there too. So, if I had to pick, I’d say Ukraine as a country, but probably Budapest as a city. Prague is still my favourite though. That’s an easy one.
CEELM: What’s your favorite place to take visitors in Prague?
O’Connor: If you’re doing just the one thing in Prague, then you’d have to go across the Charles Bridge and make your way up to the castle. But if you’re just going out for a few drinks, you can’t go wrong with Naplavka – it’s a trendy bar district, with boats moored on the river so you can move from one boat to the next. It always makes for a great evening out in Prague.