South African Liesel Beukes is a dual-qualified lawyer and Content Marketing Manager at Schoenherr in Vienna, where she manages the firm’s highly-regarded annual RoadMap publication and assists lawyers across the firm’s 14 offices with marketing, business development, and press relations.
CEELM: Where are you from in South Africa?
Liesel: Johannesburg, born and bred.
CEELM: Run us through your background, and how you ended up in your current role with Schoenherr in Vienna.
Liesel: I studied law at the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg), went on to do my articles of clerkship as a trainee lawyer for two years, and qualified as an attorney in 2003. After practicing as an attorney for seven years, both in private practice as a corporate/m&a lawyer and in-house at an investment bank, my life changed course completely. My husband at the time was Bulgarian, and I moved to Bulgaria to teach legal English, then a year later I followed him to Hungary where – while he worked with a top US law firm, I worked as a legal recruiter in various CEE markets, and spearheaded the South African desk. In the process, I became acquainted with the best law firms, companies, and lawyers in the region. Traveling broadened my perspective on different legal structures, markets, and trends, and opened my eyes to different firm cultures, payment schemes, etc.
Fast forward to June 2014: I moved to the Czech Republic and joined Schoenherr in the capacity of a compliance and application specialist, a “frilly” title for doing conflict checks and client identification for anti-money laundering purposes. As a native English speaker and with my legal background, I soon started helping with proofreading and publications and helped with legal submissions in Prague and Vienna on and off.
I moved to the Schoenherr head office in Vienna nearly three years ago and became the content marketing manager here. My role includes publishing internal primers, more lengthy practice-focused publications, hand-books and guides, and online country comparisons and newsletters. One of my bigger responsibilities is coordinating the Schoenherr Roadmap – a yearly publication highlighting significant legal developments in our markets, created in partnership with a different artist or artists. Externally, I liaise with various legal publishers, and I do a lot of proofreading and editing. I generally assist with some press work, social media, and, here and there, with ad hoc tasks such as helping out with submissions to international directories. Last year I also started putting together and providing legal writing trainings for our lawyers. This is something I really love doing and hope to expand on.
CEELM: Was it always your goal to work abroad?
Liesel: Pretty much, yes. When I matriculated, I already had a hankering to leave SA. At that stage I had family in the UK and in New Zealand and I had travelled a fair bit, making me interested in seeing and experiencing more. Some of my friends were taking gap years but most of us jumped straight into our studies.
Initially, when practicing as a lawyer, I still wanted to go abroad, but my enthusiasm started to wane when I considered having to retrain as a foreign lawyer, and when I realized that the sheer logistics of a move would be mammoth, and the costs involved equally daunting. I eventually got around to doing the conversion exams to become a solicitor of England and Wales and qualified in 2008. I then started putting out feelers in London … and the market crashed. So life carried on in South Africa a while longer.
CEELM: You have a unique history, as both a dual-qualified lawyer and a non-European in a key marketing role with a highly-regarded CEE firm. How does your background help you in that role?
Liesel: It is always advantageous to have a legal background when in any support role in a law firm, especially a top-tier firm with many offices. Being a native English speaker and having taught English, coupled with a grasp of corporate law-related matters, helps me to see matters from (perhaps) a different perspective from some people in similar roles. I do not have a marketing background, however – so I rely on my colleagues in other ways and learn from them. I think that being non-European doesn’t necessarily always help in my role – in fact I think that being fluent in German, for example, would ease my work in some respects. All in all, having travelled widely, qualified as a lawyer in two countries, and seen law firms from various positions, both internally and from an external perspective, has certainly made my job simpler.
CEELM: What in particular draws you to a marketing role such as the one you have?
Liesel: I am genuinely happy working in law. Being in a position where I do what I am good at and enjoy my work is really a fantastic spot to be in. I am proud to work at Schoenherr – which is naturally a bonus when selling the firm. I love language and writing (even outside of the office), so having a job where I get to use these skills, and to market the firm – well, that is gold. Our marketing department is divided into a number of parts, each interconnected yet very different in many ways. I love that I get to work in each division in small ways. My work is interesting, the team is great, and the firm is top class. It has been ages since I practiced law, and there are aspects I miss, but all-in-all I am in the right spot – it’s a no-brainer for me. This is a fantastic job.
CEELM: How would colleagues describe your style?
Liesel: How on earth do can I answer that without blowing my own horn?! I asked my colleague Linn Hjelseth, our Corporate Communications Manager, and she said “meticulous.”
CEELM: You have lived and worked in a number of CEE markets, and of course you are familiar with the South African market as well. What differences stand out the most between the South African and CEE judicial systems and legal markets?
Liesel: The most obvious one is that in SA we have a common-law system from the British. Our origins lie in Roman-Dutch law and we have an adversarial trial system without juries, incorporating English procedural law. We also have customary law which is not codified.
In Austria, and I think most if not all of the CEE countries, codified systems dictate the law, whereas we rely on statutes, precedent, and the common law.
CEELM: How about the cultures? What differences strike you as most resonant and significant?
Liesel: Law firm culture differs from firm to firm even if comparing two boutiques, two magic circle firms, two regional firms, or your mom-and-pop shop down the road. Payment structures affect culture, and internal corporate governance and values affect the culture, as does collegiality, and the kind of management support provided to employees – not only lawyers. The firms’ integrity, gender divide, etc., also play a role in deter-mining firm culture. These I could talk about ad nauseum. But between SA and here, it’s much the same, taking into consideration all the bits and bobs mentioned above.
In general, outside of a work context, culturally South Africans are very open, very friendly. I have found people in most of the countries I have lived and worked in in CEE to be more reserved initially. This isn’t bad, it was just unfamiliar to me, and can be misinterpreted as rudeness. Of course, at the end of the day we are all human, and once you crack the exterior, we aren’t all that different. Our histories and cultures shape us, but maybe it is because I was raised to be very liberal and open that I go into situations without clinging to my understanding of life or having particular expectations of how people “should” be.
CEELM: How often do you get home? Do you have any plans to move back to South Africa?
Liesel: Over the past nine years I have been home at least once a year, but now that my parents have left South Africa to join my sister in Australia, I won’t be traveling back much. The political, economic, and socio-economic climate is not ideal, and my family and many friends have been affected by crime to the point where I don’t see myself moving back.
CEELM: Outside of Austria, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most, and why?
Liesel: That is a tough one. Probably Hungary or the Czech Republic. I still have so many friends in Budapest and visit there every other month. I love the ruin pubs and love cycling along the Danube. Prague was also home for some time, so I have a soft spot for that magical city.
CEELM: What’s your favorite place to take visitors in Vienna?
Liesel: Oh, there are so many! Naschmarkt for a good Turkish breakfast or brunch, followed by the Albertina, is a favorite. In summer there are great vineyards barely outside the city, and all year long there are fantastic restaurants and cafes around every corner. I love Miznon, which has delicious Israeli cuisine and is in the heart of Vienna – I always take guests there for a quick informal bite to eat. I have to pinch myself when I think that I actually live in this incredible city. It is beautiful and is slowly starting to feel like home. When I look back at my life, I can only smile. The trajectory has been so different from what I had planned or could have expected – but it has taken me to an infinitely better place in so many respects.