CEELMDirect Profile Pick: A series of interviews with partners and firms with profiles on the new CEELMDirect online legal directory. Today’s interview: Darija Ognjenovic, Partner at Prica & Partners in Belgrade.
CEELMDirect: According to your CEELMDirect profile, you joined Prica & Partners in 2004 and became Partner in 2008. How has the firm changed in the almost 20 years since you joined it – and how has the Serbian legal market changed?
Ognjenovic: I’ve been in the firm for so long that I can easily compare the work to marriage – for better and for worse. Seriously, there were difficult times in the beginning, since we were one of the first law firms incorporated in the form of a company – at the time, it was rare in the market, unlike now, when most medium-sized and large law firms are organized as companies. What has changed the most during the last 20 years is the legal profession itself, namely, we became more and more business oriented. Instead of doing strictly legal work, we are now included in rendering business decisions by our clients and we have to make in-depth analyses of their industries. Having in mind that most industries have their own specifics, we need to gain respective comprehensive knowledge in order to meet clients’ needs to the highest possible extent.
Another massive change is the daily use of different IT tools, including numerous databases (legal, business, scholar, articles), and numerous programs which ease our work but, on the other hand, make it more uniform. It is obvious that in the legal market, unlike the role of lawyers in the past, we have become more and more sales-people who sell their product (e.g., agreements, due diligence reports, etc.) and compete with each other mostly based on pricing, instead of quality. Nevertheless, I still enjoy dealing with complex legal issues and structures, with the same passion as 20 years ago.
CEELMDirect: You lead the Prica & Partners Competition practice and are obviously highly familiar with Serbia’s competition authority, the Serbian Commission for Protection of Competition. As an expert, what is your view of the authority? Is there anything it could do better, either in its procedures or its rulings – or anything you think it does particularly well?
Ognjenovic: Since its official commencement of work back in 2005, the authority has been constantly improving, educating, and employing competent staff, and we are in most cases satisfied with its work. This is a rare institution where politics does not seem to influence the work of the authority and selection of the workforce to a high extent, which results in rather competent and knowledgeable officers. However, there is always room for improvement, and there are issues we believe should be changed – the most important being communication with lawyers and parties. The authority adopted very strict rules on meetings with the parties, mostly refusing to communicate, which we believe is not productive for either the parties or the authority itself. This leads to significant time loss and, at the end of the day, cost increases for the clients, and we hope that the authority will change its attitude in the future and loosen its rigid policy.
CEELMDirect: What with COVID, global inflation, and a major military conflict not too far away, this has obviously been a challenging past few years in Serbia, as across CEE and the world. In your opinion, how has Serbia weathered those storms – and is there something you think the country could or should do better going forward?
Ognjenovic: The government was initially slow to recognize the real danger of COVID, but eventually handled it pretty well, with only a few downsides. As regards the economy, it obviously suffers the consequences of COVID, as well as the military conflict in Europe. All in all, the situation is similar to that in neighboring countries.
Notwithstanding the above, what COVID did to the economy, society, and companies, including law firms, is enhance the awareness of the importance of mental health. It seems that most of us are becoming aware that we need to give space to lawyers to freely talk about their mental health and be certain that doing so will not affect their careers in any manner. Further, I think most of us have recognized that people need a space to disconnect, instead of being available via email 24/7.
Another issue is the wide use of working from home. It definitely enabled more flexibility, but on the other hand, made work present at home, so deleting or at least blurring the boundaries between work and life. It yet remains to be seen whether this will be a temporary solution only during the pandemic, but it seems to me that it will probably remain once the pandemic is over, due to productivity and especially cost effectiveness.
CEELMDirect: You have a Premium profile on the CEELMDirect platform. What potential do you think the platform has to help you and your colleagues?
Ognjenovic: We think having a premium profile on the CEELMDirect legal platform is a great marketing opportunity and are very glad that you launched the platform, since we are certain that CEELMDirect is the leading legal directory in the region, which makes it more important for our marketing purposes than other large international platforms. In addition, it is now easier to find the contacts of our colleagues in the neighboring and CEE countries, as we are mostly engaged in international/regional transactions.
CEELMDirect: Finally, are there any major or significant changes or initiatives underway at Prica & Partners you’re proud of and would like to tell us about?
Ognjenovic: We are proud that we have recently launched our Italian desk, intended for Italian clients, where we offer a wide range of legal advisory and solutions customized to the specific needs of Italian businesses in the areas of mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, investments, corporate and commercial law matters, business restructuring, etc. Our dedicated team of experts provides bilingual support to Italian-speaking clients.
We already established a Montenegrin desk a while ago, related to transactions concerning Montenegro, since we practice law there based on a bilateral treaty and are often engaged in transactions covering the Montenegrin territory. Due to such a heavy workload, we are now in the process of establishing a physical presence, i.e., an office in Montenegro. The process was delayed due to the pandemic, but we hope we will complete it in the near future. CEE Legal Matters will of course be the first to know.
In addition, although many firms decrease their office spaces due to working-from-home, we decided to invest in new office space in the Belgrade city center, right across from the old Royal Court, with nice views, in order to improve our work environment. We strongly believe that in order for the business to grow, we need to keep our people happy and satisfied.