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Zieba & Partners: A New Plan in Poland

Zieba & Partners: A New Plan in Poland

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On January 25, 2018, CEE Legal Matters reported on the split of Polish powerhouse Kochanski Zieba & Partners into two new firms: Zieba & Partners and Kochanski & Partners. CEELM sat down with Zieba & Partners founders Rafal Zieba, Adam Piwakowski, and Przemyslaw Kordel to learn more about the new firm’s plans for the future. 

CEELM: Zieba & Partners resulted from the split of Kochanski Zieba & Partners. Are all the lawyers at Zieba & Partners from KZP?

Rafal: Zieba & Partners comprises 12 partners, nine of which were partners at KZP and three of which were counsel and have recently been promoted. In total we have just over 40 lawyers in two offices – Warsaw and Krakow – as well as a number of business support staff.

Adam: The great thing is that clients will experience a team that knows each other very well and has worked together for many years. It’s also worth mentioning that nine partners were heads of practice/departments at KZP, namely Rafal (Zieba), Head of Real Estate; Ida Komorowska-Moj, Head of Corporate and M&A, Konrad Orlik, Head of Dispute Resolution and Compliance & Investigations; Tomasz Zaleski, Head of Tax; Pawel Gunia, Head of Infrastructure & Construction; Przemyslaw Krzemieniecki, Head of Capital Markets; Pawel Gruszecki, Head of TMT, IP, Personal Data Protection and Cybersecurity; and myself, Head of International Business. Lukasz Wolk was Head of the Krakow Office at KZP, a role now taken by Bartosz Kosek so that Lukasz can focus on client development and relationships. Przemyslaw Kordel, Head of Business Development, also previously headed the team at KZP. 

CEELM: How much KZP can we expect to see in Zieba & Partners?

Rafal: Because the people are the same, there will naturally be some influences from KZP in the new firm. However, as with any divorce, the ultimate reason for the split was differing opinions in the direction that the firm would take. Therefore, in many ways, Zieba & Partners will be very different from KZP. During our time at KZP, the firm doubled in size, in terms of both the number of lawyers and turnover, and it won a number of Polish and international awards for innovation, strategy, the level of service, and collaboration.

Przemyslaw: We hope to continue that level of success at Zieba & Partners. In the weeks, months, and years to come we expect new partners and lawyers to join the firm with differing backgrounds, and as such bringing new and different ways of thinking 

CEELM: So what lies behind the strategy of Zieba & Partners?

Rafal: Everyone that knows us well knows that we wouldn’t want Zieba & Partners to sit rooted in a specific position on the Polish market, and just rest on its laurels. We firmly believe that the international and Polish legal market must continue to evolve, and as such, Zieba & Partners will continuously develop to meet client demands.

Przemyslaw: We intend for Zieba & Partners to challenge the Polish legal market and confront norms and standards – setting an example instead of being a follower. This will include introducing innovative legal products to the Polish market in the same way that we have previously. By way of example, we have worked closely with litigation funds to bring their products to the Polish market. We wish to set the standard for educating young lawyers and plan to invest in this. We also plan to forge a very inclusive environment where all lawyers and staff, no matter their age, experience, or background, are empowered to feel part of the business, and are involved in important decision making. In doing so, we wish to create a hub for legal innovation and forward thinking. We have already established various important internal committees comprised of our younger lawyers, entrusting them and giving them early exposure to clients and contacts. These committees are currently exploring the various uses of technology and the products available on the open market, including those of the leading AI providers. While the use of legal AI is accelerating in other countries, Poland continues to lag behind due to two issues: language and the specifics of Polish law. We are helping the international legal AI community to overcome these hurdles. 

Adam: Zieba & Partners will also continue to work closely with those foreign and international law firms that do not have a presence in Poland, and we are very pleased that these relationships remain as strong – or even stronger – than before. This is especially important as it allows our various Polish clients to have access to best-in-class lawyers in foreign jurisdictions, while our own lawyers get to work with these same foreign lawyers. We believe it is important and we encourage our lawyers, at an early stage of their careers, to interact with our foreign friends and clients, to help them develop their own skill sets. 

CEELM: Will Zieba & Partners focus on any key practice areas?

Adam: Zieba & Partners will cover the full gamut of practice areas and services, but there will be four areas of key focus for us moving forward: Real Estate, TMT, Energy, and Banking & Finance. There is a remarkable overlap between these practice areas and niche focus areas such as Proptech, Fintech, Electric Mobility, etc., crossing the traditional practice divide.

CEELM: How will Zieba & Partners be different to other firms?

Adam: First and foremost, we’re aware that law firms have become, to a great extent, not the most pleasant places to work. Law firms have been stagnant and failed to move with the times at the rate of social change. The legal business is a people business, and it is our firm belief that by creating a happy and satisfying environment for our lawyers and staff, our teams will then go all out to ensure that our clients are happy and satisfied with the service provided.

Rafal: When we set out the blueprint for Zieba & Partners, first on the list was creating an inclusive environment where lawyers and employees were excited to be at the office on Monday morning, and leave the office on Friday evening feeling proud of their achievements. And if we have lawyers and staff feeling that way, clients will only benefit. At Zieba & Partners the emphasis will be on teamwork, and younger lawyers will have the opportunity to participate in a best-in-class education and mentoring program.

Adam: Over the years the client/law firm relationship has seen revolutionary change and there has been a dramatic shift in power from law firms to in-house counsel. Legal departments of companies exercise greater control over law firm billing and economics. The relationship has gone from one end of the scale, with the law firm being domineering, to the complete other end.

It’s gotten to the point that in-house counsel only turn to law firms to assist on transactions, and there is little-to-no interaction otherwise.

Having lawyers that have worked both in-house and in private practice, it’s our opinion that the client/law firm relationship should be more of a partnership, with the law firm being an extension of the in-house legal function. And that is what we will do differently at Zieba & Partners. We’re passionate in helping and working hand-in-hand with in-house teams by helping them to organize their budgets and legal spend, by finding alternate and innovative fee schemes, and by incorporating technology into the relationship, not for technology’s sake, but to enhance the relationship.

CEELM: But the first two of the three elements you listed for developing a “partnership” with in-house counsel – helping them organize their budgets and legal spend and finding innovative fee schemes – sound like they only come up when they decide to turn to you for assistance on a transaction. What can a law firm do in between projects to further that partnership?

Adam: First and foremost, the better you know each other, the better you perform as a team when that transaction comes along. Let’s imagine we’re representing a client in the food processing industry that wants to sell its business. It would be very helpful to know exactly what you’re selling. That could mean spending actual time on the factory floor understanding processes and getting to know the various stakeholders, because when it comes to drafting and negotiating the legal documentation, the lawyer will be much better placed to do so. I recently attended a new client pitch meeting. I was astonished to hear that the potential client had become dissatisfied with its previous legal services provider because the law firm in question did not understand its business, and despite a relationship spanning a few years, the law firm failed to remedy this. This was quite a large client account for the law firm in question – a client which was ultimately lost. Of course, then comes the question of cost. Clients don’t want to pay for their lawyers to spend time to get to know their business. That’s the dilemma. It’s my opinion that law firms should invest in their client relationships. Law firms spend a large amount of money on marketing, on attending various conferences, and so on – costs which are ultimately then forwarded on to clients in legal fees. There is also an internal conflict within law firms. Lawyers are expected to meet billing targets. These targets are based on the lawyer sitting behind his/her desk 24/7. There is a need to move away from this old school approach and that’s what we’ll be doing differently at Zieba & Partners. I believe there is much greater value for the client/law firm relationship by a lawyer getting out from behind their desk and spending time on the factory floor of a client, rather than attending a conference. 

Secondly, having worked in-house, I know that in-house counsel have an important role in reporting to senior management. External legal service providers can on occasion become more of a hindrance than a solution, and sometimes that can even result in the creation of a “them against us” atmosphere. It is important for in-house counsel and their external legal providers to be aligned and I believe to have open discussions about future projects, changes in law that may affect business, and external legal spend. Realistically, of course, these are discussions that are not going to happen during the mad rush of an important transaction. 

CEELM: You mention change, what other changes is the legal market seeing?

Adam: The legal market is much more dynamic than it used to be. This is especially true of the Polish legal market. In 2015 the average general counsel in Europe was 42 years old, but just three years later, in 2018, only 37. The average age of our partners is 38. Whilst age is but a number, it is true that there is a new generation of in-house counsel, and we believe it is important to have partners and lawyers that can interact and understand their in-house counterparts.

Przemyslaw: There is also a lot of discussion about technology and its future impact on the legal market. One of the great things about being a new law firm is that we do not need to worry about the time and high cost of changing existing technology (costs which are often passed on to clients), but from the outset we have a clean canvas upon which we can build, and as such we can make that giant leap into the future.

Adam: The Polish market is very specific and there is a lot of discussion about international firms leaving Poland, which will make the market even more competitive. While globally we’re seeing consolidation, in Poland the opposite is occurring, with a lot of split-offs and boutique firms being established. You have to ask why this is happening. We believe it is down to what was discussed earlier – generational changes and the general dissatisfaction of partners/lawyers in law firms. We don’t believe the process will be sustainable. Reiterating what was said earlier, by creating a fantastic working environment from the outset for both our staff and clients, we believe we are building the foundations for success.

CEELM: How difficult has it been to establish a new law firm in Poland?

Rafal: We started operating as Zieba & Partners on January 4th, 2019, just a little over two months ago. Time has flown, and we have been so busy that our start already seems like a distant memory. Since our start we have closed three real estate deals – including advising on one of the largest ever commercial leases on the Polish market – and three corporate bond issues, and we have been instructed on a number of M&A and litigation matters. Our TMT team has been working around the clock following up on GDPR audits and advising numerous Polish and international clients on cybersecurity issues. We have our clients to thank for the trust and faith placed in us and we look forward to continually supporting them, as well as the prospect of working with new clients.