Congratulations to CEE Legal Matters on its ten-year Anniversary. It’s an impressive feat, and it exemplifies what I love about the CEE region – if you can dream it, you can do it!
I first came to CEE as a young trainee lawyer in 1995. I was offered the opportunity to do a six-month secondment in one of Allen & Overy’s overseas offices, and took an ‘under the radar’ posting to Prague (instead of more ‘glamourous’ postings like New York). Prague in 1995 was enchanting. I had magical times touring the beautiful back streets of this gem, until I dragged myself back to London. I came back to Prague, and therefore CEE, in 1998. I never looked back.
While in Prague I actually started doing a lot of work in Slovakia (mostly privatizations in those days), and suggested to my bosses that we open an office in Bratislava – to my shock and surprise, they sent me to do just that, at the tender age of 29. It was supposed to be a three-year posting, and I am still here after 23 years, also with a posting to Budapest for four years in between, and opening an associated office in Bucharest.
Why do I love CEE so much? Well, CEE has just kept on giving – I have had fantastic opportunities over the years. It’s hard to believe what we’ve done. We’ve witnessed the stunning and rapid transformation of command economies into fledgling, and then fully-fledged, European economies.
We have taken part in the wholesale privatization of all key industries in most countries in the region – banks, insurance companies, energy generation and distribution, telecoms, and media. We’ve nurtured these countries while they joined the EU, and we’ve all worked incredibly hard to draft and interpret an amazingly wide range of laws to ensure catch-up and convergence, and in some cases improvement.
We’ve got up to speed with regulatory environments in all sectors. We’ve advised in connection with the transformation of all these countries, also in terms of massive construction and development, the building of new factories, offices, and logistics centers. We’ve watched foreign investors come and go, perhaps a little disappointed that some of the heady dreams of European homogenization from the early days didn’t quite work out.
We had all the ups and downs witnessed by Western economies (dotcom crisis, the GFC, pandemic, wars), but we did this at the same time as undergoing transformation and growth (economic and social) at a breakneck pace. We’ve watched countries like Poland and Romania emerge as regional powerhouses. We’ve watched amazing entrepreneurs from all the countries in the region create absolutely fantastic businesses, and then sell, go public, or just hang on and grow some more!
And all this was taking place as we, a community of bright-eyed and like-minded lawyers, got to grips with it all, with the most extraordinary learning curve. International firms held some hands to begin with, but we’ve witnessed the wonderful growth and success of hundreds of fantastic law firms and lawyers across the entire region. We’ve all made friends and we all share this common bond – it’s a constant enthusiasm to do more and do better, together.
As we now enter into the new ‘AI’ age, and are perhaps filled with some fear about that, we should also remember – what are we afraid of?! Just look at what we have dealt with and achieved!
I am just as excited about this new era ahead of us as I was back in those early days. I have made so many friends across so many countries (I have cupboards full of rakija to prove it too). And now I am making new friends across Eurasia as well!
I have traveled to nearly all these countries, mostly (but not always) having time to take a quick tour, taste local food and wines, and learn a little about local history and customs.
So, I can look back on over 25 years of all this – what a fantastic life so far! And I hope very much that I will still be here, with these same experiences and new ones, in ten years’ time to celebrate another ten years of CEE Legal Matters too!
By Hugh Owen, Head of CEE Legal Business Solutions, PwC