On July 25, CEE Legal Matters reported that Rastko Petakovic was appointed Senior Partner at Karanovic & Nikolic (KN), the first non-founding Partner to gain the title.
Petakovic, who first joined KN’s Belgrade office in 2005 as a trainee, established the firm’s competition team in 2007 and became a Partner in 2010. CEE Legal Matters sat down with Petakovic to learn more about his appointment and his plans going forward.
Congratulations on your most recent appointment. What does the title of Senior Partner mean within KN and how will it influence your role going forward?
R.P.: Thank you! I am really excited to have been given this opportunity to continue contributing to this outstanding firm. I think this promotion is a good blend of recognition and responsibility: the firm’s recognition of what I have done so far makes me feel proud of the achievement, and the responsibility it has given me makes me ask the question, “What’s next?” Because being a Senior Partner means having a seat at the top table and being able to influence the strategic direction of the firm. And that is what’s next – I want to contribute to raising the firm to the next level. Although we have been and still are a really successful legal practice in this region, I believe we can do even more for our clients, and I will give it my all for us to do just that.
To what do you attribute your success at the firm, and what were the main supporting elements within the firm allowing you to achieve this new position?
R.P.: A mix of qualities and a lot of luck over the years. Above all, I am a lawyer, and I still enjoy arguing a case before the Competition Authorities and pulling an all-nighter working on a complex deal structure. The joy of using all your legal and personal skills to resolve a complex legal matter is the reason why I studied law in the first place. I still feel a rush whenever I get that ‘eureka’ moment and solve a problem for a client. Ultimately, loving what you do makes you focused on delivering results for clients, day in and day out. To stretch the metaphor from the beginning, when you collect enough XP points, you get leveled up.
But the other part of your question is key here. To succeed you also need the right environment, where consistency and results pay off. So I was very lucky to begin my career at Karanovic & Nikolic where we focus on professional development and supporting each other. Long before we established our team for Learning & Development, you could walk into the office of a Senior Partner and ask for help. That one-on-one time was key to my personal development, and I truly appreciate the time and patience given to me as I learned the profession. Since then the firm has developed a structured approach to career progression and helping lawyers thrive. The two main elements that make this possible are the people and the company culture, both of which have developed and matured during my time here – over ten years. It’s this combined potential and support that makes me confident we can always reach that next level while enjoying the journey along the way.
How did the other four Senior Partners affect your career?
R.P.: The firm was established in extraordinary times by extraordinary people who are all still active in the day-to-day operations. Each Partner has helped me in a different way. When I first came to the firm I was a trainee on Dejan [Nikolic]’s team, so my legal formative years have been affected mostly by his approach to work – which was putting the client first (I cannot emphasize this enough). Patricia [Gannon] influenced me most on how to identify and grow a business – to see opportunities where others don’t. Dragan [Karanovic] brings stability and structure to the work, and he is excellent at planning and executing – qualities which I value highly. Milos [Vuckovic] is great with people – he is very focused on investing in people and helping them maximize their potential. All are different and bring a unique set of skills to the table, which has been the key behind our success. They are all world class professionals and great lawyers, and the combination of their diverse qualities is what many firms look towards when establishing their top team.
What were the most significant and exciting challenges you faced during your time with the firm?
R.P.: The most challenging and the most exciting situations have happened with my clients: sometimes it’s negotiating a complex Phase 2 decision or waiting for the court to decide on the case involving a largest fine ever or negotiating a deal that hangs on a thread. Again, so many times I was lucky enough to secure a great deal for the client, which is hugely personally rewarding.
To be fair, from time to time we have faced internal organizational challenges too. We are rigorous, and we hold our teams to the highest standards, which sometimes results in pressure. We hire the very best students from the law faculties and top professionals who are able to work in a top achieving environment, and we expect world class performances from them. It comes as no surprise then that some people learn along the way that they do not share the same vision or way of doing things, and that is when we have to go our separate ways – which is completely normal. Sometimes, these kinds of developments are capable of evoking strong feelings and reactions, and handling that can often present a challenge.
What would you say is different about Karanovic & Nikolic?
R.P.: Karanovic & Nikolic is a unique firm from this region as it has clearly emerged from this part of the world, and, by working with lawyers across borders, it has a top reputation for being open-minded and relevant to the business community investing in the former Yugoslavia.
I also think it’s the values. If you look at the people who are loyal to a company or firm, most often you will see that they share the values and feel as if they belong to the culture of the organization. I like to explore new things, find new ways of doing things, and KN people are open to that – and the firm is the same. I am ambitious, and so is KN. Being a lawyer in itself demands being a strong individual, but while working with clients who expect a full range of services we have to work in teams and have low to no tolerance for what is less than an excellent performance. We were the first firm to develop defined practice areas of experts and we are starting to work in cross-functional teams and industry focused groups where all of our specific know-how merges and results in some completely new and “edgy” ideas. This is the wide-bodied spirit I like about KN.
How would you describe the importance of the work that you do?
R.P.: Top tier internationally-minded law firms are an essential part of the investment ecosystem. An aspect that rarely anyone considers is the role that commercial law firms play in attracting foreign investors to the market. Essentially, leading commercial law firms are the investment infrastructure in any country, together with blue chip companies. Clients look into a number of factors when deciding where to invest – the economic situation, political stability, rule of law, and market opportunities and advisors, as well as the overall support given to them. They require sophisticated and internationally-minded advisors to guide them through the process of investment, and that is what we do. If we are able to give them the standard they are accustomed to in their home country, and sometimes go above that, then we are doing our job right.
Additionally, for over 20 years we have taken a proactive role abroad, positively raising the profile of the country and the region in general, explaining all the issues outlined above, and encouraging often prejudiced investors to explore possibilities. In this way we play the role of economic ambassadors, and I think it should be noted that billions of euros have been invested through deals KN advised on – and at least 100,000 jobs have been created or retained as a consequence.
In announcing your appointment, Karanovic & Nikolic reported that you “played a key role in 2015 in expanding the firm’s practice in the region.” Can you explain what that role was and what lessons you drew from that experience?
R.P.: Last year was a great one for the firm, as we grew quite a bit both within specialized teams and also new markets such as Slovenia where we cooperate with a fantastic team of lawyers who have had an extraordinary first year. Speaking from my own experience, as you can see, it’s so important to align the company’s vision with the vision of the people with whom we wish to cooperate, and that was the main focus of my involvement with our expansion. Having it happen with the right people, in the right places, at the right time, is just great to be part of.
On a lighter side, you’re obviously a huge tech fan. What are your favorite pieces of technology, both for work as well as leisure?
R.P.: Yes, I am a huge tech fan and am known in the office to be very open to how technology can change our lives and the way we work. The firm clearly recognized this as they gave me a cool hover board as a promotion gift and I have been having fun with it in the office! I am the type who queues for the new iPhones, new Harry Potter books, and any type of gadget one can try. I live with my family in the countryside, which is a wonderful de-stressor, and I enjoy flying my drone and recording amazing 4K videos of the beautiful scenery with it. This summer we had the most amazing teambuilding event where I put my drone to work, shooting and editing a video for the Competition team’s entry into our film competition. Although not quite Oscar standard yet, I was pleased with the result, and we had a few laughs along the way.
This article was originally published in Issue 3.4 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.