Interview with Alex Cook of Clifford Chance Prague.
CEELM: Can you run us through your background, and how you ended up in your current role with Clifford Chance in Prague?
Alex: A long story. I am half English, half German – born in a place called Rinteln, in Germany, to an English father and German mother. My father was a career soldier stationed in Germany at the end of the 60s and into the 70s and – which was not uncommon for British soldiers in Germany – married a German woman. We moved to England in 1977 so most of my formative years were spent in the UK. I was a bit of a swot at school, especially at languages – first Latin and French, then in later years German and Russian. I was not brought up bi-lingual in German, but when I started German at secondary school in my third year I insisted on speaking only German at home. I am quite annoying like that. Luckily my German teacher also taught Russian, which was quite rare for a school like mine in a provincial backwater (Lincolnshire – sorry anyone else from that part of the world!).
I loved Russian, worked really hard at it and within 15 months of starting the language from scratch was sitting the entrance exams to read Russian and German at Oxford University. I told you I was a swot! I was the first of my immediate family to go to university, but it just goes to show that if you are interested in something you are likely to go far. A life lesson which still holds very true.
In any case, studying Russian at university (including a year in Moscow) was the first step on a circuitous route to the Czech Republic. Nearing the end of my studies the inevitable question arose about what to do next. Someone mentioned City law firms and so I did some research. It seemed to me that getting a professional qualification would be a good idea, and law seemed to be particularly attractive. I only applied to one firm, in the end, as that firm seemed to have a stronger focus on Russia and CEE at the time (even though I was tempted by another firm’s swimming pool at Aldersgate).
So I joined Allen & Overy (rather than Clifford Chance) with the ambition to work in their Moscow office one day. Fast forward a few years to 1998 when I was one week from a secondment to Moscow. I bumped into the then-managing partner in a corridor in One New Change – to be told that going to Moscow in the middle of a financial crisis in Russia was perhaps not the best idea. Plan thwarted. Soon after, however, I was offered a secondment to the Budapest office, which I duly accepted. I ended up spending six fantastic years in Budapest, married a Hungarian woman (sound familiar?), until an opportunity came up towards the end of 2004 to develop and lead the corporate practice at Clifford Chance in Prague. Almost 16 years later I am still here, managing partner of the office and leading the corporate team in CEE.
CEELM: Was it always your goal to work outside of the UK?
Alex: Yes it was! Given my background it was always clear to me that I would spend at least part of my career outside the UK. Little did I know when I first agreed to the Budapest secondment that I would become part of the CEE furniture.
CEELM: Tell us briefly about your practice, and how you built it up over the years.
Alex: I am an M&A lawyer – more of a generalist rather than focusing on one particular sector or product. Working in a small office naturally requires a bit more flexibility, so we tend to have broader practices than our colleagues might have in the larger offices. As I allude to above, I came to CC Prague attracted by the idea of helping to develop the corporate practice, not exactly from scratch but from a fairly low base. The office had been known more as a finance practice and had decided to become full service and to build out its practices to be more in line with the offering of the firm as a whole. So when I first arrived it was all about getting to know the market, meeting people, lots of lunches, dinners, events, etc. and also getting to know people within the firm. Gaining the trust of my new colleagues in CC, especially in London and the larger European offices, was just as important for developing the practice as making new local contacts.
At that time a significant portion of corporate/M&A work was acting for some of the firm’s major clients – financial investors (PE and infra) and strategic corporates – looking at deals in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and wider CEE region. Over time we built out our domestic practice, especially with the arrival of my Czech Corporate Partner, David Kolacek, in 2008.
Unique to CEE, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have a number of strong financial investor groups who increasingly look across Europe and indeed globally for deal making. Developing relationships at some of these groups has been an important aspect of developing our practice and moreover has allowed us to export a significant amount of work to the wider firm. As an English-qualified lawyer my role is also very much regional, so I work a lot with our other CEE offices in Warsaw and Bucharest and also with Moscow and Istanbul. I also maintain ties with local firms in other CEE and SEE jurisdictions where we do not have our own office. In my career to date in this part of the world I have worked on deals in probably every jurisdiction of the CEE/SEE region.
CEELM: How would clients describe your style?
Alex: If the legal directories are to be believed clients call me a “heavyweight,” which I think is a bit rude! I can be a bit tough in negotiations but I believe also pragmatic. I would hope therefore that clients view my style as being assertive and commercial.
CEELM: There are obviously many differences between the English and Czech judicial systems and legal markets. What idiosyncrasies or differences stand out the most?
Alex: I have clearly been here for too long as nothing springs to mind immediately – other than the obvious differences between common and civil law and the quirks in the court systems of each. What I would say though (and I know that this does not answer the question) is that when I first started working in Budapest the typical civil lawyer would tend to be quite focused on telling clients what the law prohibited them from doing, whereas now – at least as far as my colleagues are concerned – the advice is very much solution-oriented and commercial. Moreover, the level at which many of colleagues can draft and negotiate in English is truly astounding.
CEELM: How about the cultures? What differences strike you as most resonant and significant?
Alex: Ditto really, everything has merged into one. I am probably more struck by the differences when I visit the UK, and as I have not been for almost a year now, those differences might be more pronounced when I do go. The usual stereotypes: the too polite, tea drinking, apologetic English who love to queue, talk about the weather, and secretly judge you behind your back. All true, of course.
CEELM: What particular value do you think a senior expatriate lawyer in your role adds – both to a firm and to its clients?
Alex: I hardly regard myself as “expatriate,” to be honest. Nonetheless I see an important aspect of my role as ensuring that we remain connected to the global firm and the global practice areas. We are not just a local office but part of a network which works together to deliver the best to our clients. Naturally, this manifests itself best when we work on multi-jurisdictional deals with colleagues from many different offices. Also, I am English-law qualified and quite a large number of our matters are governed by English law – so that helps!
CEELM: Do you have any plans to move back to the UK?
Alex: Never say never, but not really! I have spent most of my life outside the UK now, I am half-German, married to a Hungarian, living in the Czech Republic, and my kids are the very definition of “European.” Who knows what might happen in the next few years or where we might be, as things can change very quickly. But for now we are enjoying living in the wonderful city of Prague. There are probably very few better places to live than Prague (and Budapest, of course).
CEELM: Outside of the Czech Republic, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most, and why?
Alex: Obvious answer – Hungary! But we are spoiled in this region with so many great countries to visit – Slovenia and Croatia being right up there, but plenty of others.