A decade ago, I was a Competition Law PhD scholar at the City Law School in the London borough of Islington sitting at my desk and watching a beautiful sunset over St. Paul’s Cathedral and thinking about career alternatives and opportunities in front of me.
Pursuing an academic career in the legally and socially stable environment of England or becoming a lawyer in Montenegro, the country of my origins? The latter meant moving back to the Balkans, which I think it would be fair to say have in the last few centuries been a synonym of instability, and which even now, in 2018, still have the real potential to be unstable. I picked the Balkans route, which, obviously, was the more challenging – but at the same time brilliant – experience.
One of the first lessons that you learn as a corporate lawyer in the Balkans is that nothing can be taken for granted here. The countries in the region are still not fully effective democracies, as enforcing the rule of law remains problematic and accountability channels are still dysfunctional, and the soundness of their financial system remains a big issue.
While growing to encompass the Balkans remains one of the EU’s most important projects, it seems that the focus of this project for many years was on creating formal institutions and harmonizing Balkan countries’ legislation with the acquis communautaire instead of consolidating local democracies. As a result, lawyers in the Balkans are used to working in an environment where judicial security is lacking and where the efficiency of the judiciary is highly questionable. Indeed, in its country progress reports the EU Commission usually points out that progress in strengthening the independence and professionalism of the judiciary in the Western Balkans countries is urgently required. This is not a very comfortable environment to be professionally engaged in, you must agree. Unsurprisingly, then, the day-to-day work of a lawyer in the Balkans is very different – and in many aspects more complex – than the work of a lawyer in Western European democracies.
On the other hand, being a lawyer in the Balkans means taking an active part in the transformation of a region. It also means contributing to the reversing of the negative image that the Balkans sometimes have in the West. And, of course, it means sending the message that lawyers in the Balkans may well be as competent, professional, and trustworthy as their counterparts in the EU.
The famous quote of Thomas Chalmers, the Scottish mathematician and a leader of the Free Church of Scotland, that “it has been said that there is nothing more uncommon than common sense,” must have its origins somewhere in the mountainous Balkans. Indeed, to my surprise, I have seen much of what I considered to be basic common sense etiquette and many manners of professional conduct broken over the past decade. But this brings me to my next point: All these challenges represent nothing else but the great and unique opportunity to build a successful legal practice in the Balkans: an opportunity that you cannot find easily elsewhere, especially not in the developed legal markets of other Western democracies. So, my point is that in the Balkans, to be successful at running a legal practice, you need to not only know how to practice law and how to run a business, but you need to know how to turn the Balkan weaknesses into your own strength – something that is not taught in law school and which lawyers rarely get much training on. You need to be and practice in the Balkans to master this new skill.
And when you succeed in that, you will be rewarded with the Balkans’ beautiful nature, its gaping canyons, rugged mountain ranges, placid lakes, and stunning coastlines. Ultimately, it’s a great place for a lawyer to settle in and find a perfect balance between professional and private life. I made the right choice back then in Islington. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be..
By Vladimir Radonjic, Partner, Radonjic/Associates
This Article was originally published in Issue 5.2 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.