CEELM: Run us through your background, and how you ended up in your current role with Karanovic & Partners.
Alexander: Born in Belgium, I grew up travelling the world for my father’s work, typically moving from one country to another each three to five years. This gave me, before the age of 18, living and school experience on three continents and in some of the most amazing countries, including France, Germany, Australia, the USA, and Canada. With the desire to reconnect with my European/Belgian roots, I decided to return to Leuven to study law at the university which, alongside AB-Inbev and its Stella Artois, keeps Leuven’s world fame standing untouched. Needless to say, the international outlook and environment of the university contributed to my desire to return to Europe. The itch to move around, however, prevailed and I spent a fabulous Erasmus semester in Reykjavik, Iceland. Intrigued by Iceland and the high North, I returned to Reykjavik immediately for an LL.M. program after obtaining my initial LL.M. in Leuven.
When the time was ripe to put theory into practice, I ended up in 2005 in Central Europe, joining Czech firm Peterka & Partners, which was in an expansion mode. After a short stay in Bratislava, I moved in 2006 to Kyiv to establish the firm’s Ukrainian office, which I soon afterwards led as Managing Partner until returning to HQ in Prague in 2013 to focus on the firm’s global international relations and strategic clients. In 2017 I left after 12 great years to join Karanovic & Partners. I was at that time well aware of Karanovic & Partners’ very solid reputation and unparalleled track record and awards, and I was delighted to learn that the firm’s ambitions were aligned with my own. Moreover, having worked in Central Europe and CIS previously, working in South Eastern Europe would be a fit addition to my Eastern European adventure.
CEELM: What exactly is your role at Karanovic & Partners?
Alexander: Whereas I am truly an M&A lawyer by training, I have focused during the last six or seven years primarily on strategy, law firm development, and international relations-building and development. I greatly enjoy combining my legal skills and experience with traveling and relationship-building to further the growth of the firm, generate new clients, and represent the firm at international forums such as the IBA or on a B2B level. This, in a nutshell, is what I do within the already well-developed structure of Karanovic & Partners. Whereas Karanovic & Partners has worked very hard to become an established and highly reputable brand among top tier law firms and the general counsel community in key hubs such as London and Vienna, I aim at extending this worldwide. Concretely, I travel about half of my time, primarily within Europe, North America, the Far East, Australia, and South Africa to meet our key clients and prospective clients, law firms, private equity firms, banks, M&A advisors, and other contacts who would facilitate investments into South Eastern Europe. In addition, I spearhead several initiatives within the firm, such as our Nordic desk and French desk, and play an important role in defining and implanting the future growth strategy of the firm.
CEELM: You certainly have moved around the world in your studies and professional career. Was it always your goal to work abroad?
Alexander: My upbringing was marked by moving around Europe and the world, so I have never known anything else. Cliché as it may sound, one often hears from people who have often moved from place to place and country to country that this becomes a way of life in itself, and I can fully corroborate that and I genuinely feel a physical restlessness when staying too long in one place. I would not say that working abroad was my goal, per se, but rather a drive to discover new countries and cultures and work in different places, while building an exciting career listening to my wanderlust.
I always encourage youngsters, both the students I coach and young professionals, to experience living and working abroad. I am a staunch supporter of further extending international exchange programs such as Erasmus and making them accessible to everyone.
CEELM: How would clients describe your style?
Alexander: Alexander Poels – the truly international lawyer. Joking aside, there have been clients with whom I have had a certain chemistry and flare from the get-go, and other clients, with whom I have never established a deeper personal bond, apart from intense cooperation, countless hours of negotiations, and numerous glasses of a certain type of liquid that was not allowed in the US during the 1920’s. There have been cases where I developed close bonds with clients that I worked with on simple matters years ago, and other cases where I would slip into oblivion for the clients soon after closing. What is unanimous, though, is that the clients tend to describe me as a lawyer with a great eye for detail and cultural aspects who has excellent business practices and a broad mindset, and who is very diplomatic in his approach – a good candidate for a UN position basically. I like to believe that my clients perceive me as being considerate of their counterparties, even in the heat of negotiations, where I would never lose respect and compassion for the other lawyers or in-house counsel, while being persistent in achieving the client’s desired result at the same time.
CEELM: There are obviously many differences between the Belgian and Slovenian/Balkan judicial systems and legal markets. What idiosyncrasies or differences stand out the most?
Alexander: The Belgian legal system has gone through a long and steady evolution similar to most mature Western European legal markets; naturally, current Belgian legislation is greatly influenced by and engrained with EU law. Whereas the Slovenian legal system has also recently embedded EU law, it is clear that, given recent history, the evolution of the Slovenian (and, in general, the Balkan) legal system has happened in jumps rather than the gradual linear process that occurred over the last 250 years in Belgium (or what is today Belgium).
The Balkan legal systems (and certainly the Slovenian legal system) are rather closer to the German legal system, whereas the Belgian legal system is essentially based on the French one. This is reflected in an overly formalistic practice in Slovenia and the Balkan markets, whereas the Belgian practice is clearly less formalistic.
This being said, the concrete regulations in place are not that different. As laws in Slovenia and other Balkan countries are more or less aligned with EU laws, especially in terms of corporate and compliance rules, I do not see many differences, except sometimes as regards the interpretation of certain regulations.
The greatest difference I see is in respect to public law. Although a small country, Belgium is a federal state with three tiers (Federal, Regions and Communities) and seven different parliaments, currently showing signs of a clear transition into confederalism. Compared to the sheer complexity of governance in Belgium, the configuration of even Bosnia and Herzegovina is a children’s game.
CEELM: How about the cultures? What differences strike you as most resonant and significant?
Alexander: What strikes me most after spending close to two years in Slovenia is that Slovenes manage to strive for excellence and achievement beyond what larger Western European nations achieve and to let themselves slide into pitfalls and traps at the same time, which even far less developed nations tend to avoid. Good examples of the former are Slovenia’s excellence in terms of management of nature and green economy, its safety record (it’s the sixth safest country in the world), its excellent living standards and health conditions, its child-friendliness; examples of the latter are a succession of questionable governmental decisions and policies, a latent level of shady politically-motivated undertakings or at least the perception of corruption (the country is ranked only 32nd in the latest Corruption Perception Index), dodgy privatizations, and outright debacles (think of the recent bankruptcy filing of Adria Airways).
This dichotomy is somehow also transposed into Slovenian culture and results in extreme swings: when Slovenia became European basketball champions in 2017, it was perceived as if Slovenia had won the World Cup in football. In general, Slovenes take any achievement (in sports or in other fields) – even if it would not be worth mentioning in any Western nation – as if they had conquered the entire world. Slovenes sometimes are slightly inclined to believe that the whole world is watching and taking notes. Slovenes also seem to genetically lack a sense of humor. We Belgians on the other hand have a patented sense of self-humor and hardly ever take ourselves too seriously (though that might be a consequence of living so close to the Dutch); it is probably the reason why we were insouciantly able to give to the world inventions such as plastic, the saxophone, the contraceptive pill, the world wide web, asphalt, electric trams, and the stock exchange principle, as well as celebrities including Peter Paul Rubens, René Magritte, Audrey Hepburn, Tintin, and the Smurfs (the latter two can most certainly not be beaten by any Slovene!). Oh, and don’t forget that Belgium is the only country in the world producing beer worth naming ...
CEELM: What particular value do you think a senior expatriate lawyer in your role adds – both to a firm and to its clients?
Alexander: I believe that my partners in the senior management of the firm would be better suited to answer this question. However, I believe that with my Western European and overseas upbringing and education and prior professional experience in CEE, I am able to bridge a cultural gap that sometimes may exist between Western clients and local Balkan lawyers, to translate the expectations that Western clients might have into a local context, to add a sense of nuance to local issues a Balkan firm faces on a day to day basis, to soften some of the most outspoken and often potentially-perceived-as-harsh characteristics of Balkan legal traditions, and to share patterns and developments that CEE went through ten years ago and that are now occurring in the Balkan region with my colleagues. By putting my Western European background and credibility in the equation when promoting our firm abroad, I believe that many prejudices which are still often connected to the Balkan region can be countered more easily.
I also believe that the firm benefits by getting access to new and different types of clients by getting the firsthand experience of someone who has seen the transitions in CEE in the past that are currently occurring in the Balkan region, and by tapping into the personal network of global contacts I have established over the last 25 years of studying, researching, and working in different regions and settings.
CEELM: Do you have any plans to move back to Belgium?
Alexander: Go back to Belgium with its mega-traffic jams (the other day I spent 2.5 hours on a 40 km stretch between a client in Antwerp and a client in Brussels), its constant political squabbling, its full urbanization, and its highest mountain at 694 meters? Thanks, but no thanks, for the time being. Although one can never exclude the possibility of it happening one day, I have spent only a small portion of my life in Belgium and I feel both emotionally and professionally much more attached to several other European and non-European countries. That being said, it is nice being Belgian.
CEELM: Outside of the Balkans, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most, and why?
Alexander: Just to be clear, as the question relates to countries other than the Balkan countries, I am barred from answering Slovenia or any other Balkan country. I have been fortunate to work in numerous CEE countries and to have travelled in all CEE countries very extensively. I greatly enjoyed spending five years in amazing Prague and have had the chance to get to know many unique places in Prague and the Czech Republic far off the beaten tourist tracks; I loved the vibe in Bratislava, a city which often struggled for its position amidst Prague, Vienna, and Budapest but managed to develop into a unique charming city; I always felt a great excitement when planning to visit or spend a prolonged time in Poland or Romania and have always been positively enchanted by Hungary and Russia, as well as the mysteriousness of Belarus.
However, my heart was truly captured by Ukraine, a country of unparalleled natural beauty and potential, warm and hardworking people, exquisite cuisine, and a sense of relativity and down-to-earthiness that I have not found elsewhere in CEE. I worked in Ukraine during probably its most thriving years since its independence and continued to visit the country during its recent periods of difficulties and turmoil; the people I met and talked to have never failed to convey a very positive and solid impression and a genuine eagerness to build a proud and solid nation. I have traveled extensively throughout Ukraine, visited both its main hotspots and many small towns that hardly ever see foreigners strolling (or driving) by, seen true hardship and struggle, as well as the most exhilarating joy and happiness by people who have materially hardly anything. I make a point in returning to Ukraine at least twice each year and even though sometimes I spend merely 48 hours there, I always feel rejuvenated and reenergized when boarding a plane at Boryspil airport back to the West.
CEELM: What’s your favourite place to take visitors in Ljubljana?
Alexander: I have taken a lot of pride in showing Ljubljana to my friends and family from abroad. The capital of Slovenia has a lot to offer as a small town with a long and fascinating history, and even more fascinating architecture and landmarks.
Among my favorite places is the lesser-known Railway Museum. I genuinely enjoy this small, somewhat off-the-radar and underfinanced museum which is most of the time void of any other visitors. Another favorite to show foreign visitors to Ljubljana is the famous 32 km barbed wire walking path, which follows the barbed wire which the Italian occupying forces established in 1942 to ring-fence the city that was a stronghold of resistance fighters; the path is scattered with commemorating posts and is a great avenue of tranquility and connectedness with nature.