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Guest Editorial: A Decade-Long Journey Through the CEE Legal Landscape

Guest Editorial: A Decade-Long Journey Through the CEE Legal Landscape

Issue 11.3
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Ten years have passed since the day I picked up my diploma and embarked on my professional journey as a lawyer. Right from the start, I’ve been working for law firms deeply rooted in the region, offering continuous opportunities to collaborate with colleagues from different areas, engage in cross-border projects throughout CEE, share experiences, and, most importantly, observe the landscape in which we operate. While the past decade has shaped my own growth, it’s also been – in my view – a period of remarkable transformation for lawyering in CEE.

One of the main segments that I’ve noticed has changed throughout the years is simply the workforce marketplace. At the time I started my career, there was fierce competition among law graduates, all striving for positions in firms where we could both professionally grow and earn a salary. Today, a noticeable decline in the number of individuals opting for a law career is evident, and finding an adequate associate has become a challenge. Beyond still typically modest salaries, there is at least one more circumstance contributing to this situation: unlike other professions that have embraced a more balanced lifestyle, the legal sphere still clings to a culture where success is often correlated with extended working hours. Such a mindset has given rise to a surge in professional burnout as lawyers push themselves tirelessly to meet the demands of their roles and partners’ high-level expectations. Interestingly, such a mindset often transcends mere responses to external pressures; rather, it is fueled by an inner passion that we have for helping clients as we would help ourselves, even if it backfires as a burnout – it’s a glitch successfully surviving in the genes of each person who loves their work.

Legal work has changed as well, and I believe this applies worldwide. The comfortable focus on purely legal matters and completing tasks has now expanded to constant consideration of challenges such as those imposed by the usage of AI, sophisticated in-house teams, and the rising desire of clients to keep industry-specific professionals under one roof. Being “only” a lawyer is often not enough anymore; we are supposed to act as equipped business advisors and have a strong multi-disciplinary character.

We even dress differently. Once, a tie was a symbol of professionalism but today, if we need to dress up, it is acceptable to show up in jeans and a blazer, wearing sneakers. As work demands and professional challenges rise, physical appearance becomes more relaxed. Sometimes, thanks to virtual skills developed during the COVID-19 times, we are not required to dress up at all.

Despite all the challenges, I would say that in the past ten years of my experience, the perception of lawyering in CEE has drastically transformed. Most importantly, I have a feeling that we have gained more respect from our Western colleagues. In the past, teaming up with international law firms (usually involving merely locally supporting their large international clients) gave off a vibe as if we were the underdogs. There was a subtle skepticism, making it seem like their advice was a notch above, their templates more sophisticated, and our English-language skills could use a second look. Sometimes, it felt like they really believed that, in addition to the client, they needed to advise us as well. That was especially obvious at the associate level. 

Since then, things have taken a turn, and lawyering in the CEE has evolved. We’ve demonstrated our capabilities, refined our expertise, and now find ourselves on equal terms. Even the power centers are being reshaped and cities such as Zagreb and Belgrade emerge as legal hubs for large clients, challenging the traditional dominance of Vienna or Prague.

What changed for me personally is that most of my mentors through the years have become my true friends (Dora Gazi Kovacevic, Ira Peric Ostojic, Tarja Krehic, and others). I have met one of the most significant people in my life (Katarina Kezic) and learned to depart from my former law firm, with a quote shared by likely the most inspiring amongst us (thanks, Ron Given): the award for doing good is the opportunity to do it better. And I know it for sure: the next ten years, during which I will hopefully still be lawyering in the CEE, will be awesome.

By Ivan Zornada, Attorney-at-Law, Vrtaric and Partners in cooperation with Deloitte Legal

This article was originally published in Issue 11.3 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

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