Thomas Hruby was born in Montreal, Canada, where he attended McGill University, from which he received his B.A., B.C.L., and LL.B. degrees. He was admitted to the Bar of the Province of Quebec in 1983 and practiced law in Montreal. He obtained a Master’s degree in law from Charles University in Prague in 1991 and was admitted as a fully-qualified Czech advocate by the Czech Bar Association in 1992. In 1993, he opened the Prague office of the Montreal law firm Mitchell, Gattuso and he subsequently joined the Prague office of Linklaters & Alliance. In 2001 he started his own practice in Prague, and he was joined by Jiri Buchvaldek in 2006 to form Hruby & Buchvaldek.
CEELM: Run us through your background, and how you got to your current role.
T.H.: I was born in Montreal, Canada to parents who immigrated there in 1950. I grew up in Montreal, studied law there at McGill University, was called to the Bar of the Province of Quebec, and I practiced law there … until I moved to Prague. In 1989, the Velvet Revolution changed the course of history in my parents’ homeland, as well as the course of my life. I started to work on the restitution of my family’s properties in the Czech Republic in 1991. It quickly became evident that my mother’s restitutions would be complicated and time consuming. I started coming to this country with great frequency. So I decided to offer my services to friends of my parents, most of whom also had properties here which they wanted to have restituted. The restitutions of most (though not all) of my clients were much quicker than my family’s. Soon they were redeveloping, leasing, and selling their properties, buying other properties, etc. By the autumn of 1992, I had more clients in the Czech Republic than in Canada, so I decided to move here “temporarily.” I moved in the summer of 1993. I opened my office here and restitutions and restitution related matters blossomed into a full-blown commercial, corporate, and real estate practice. Eighteen years after I first moved here, I bought a flat in Prague, which I now consider home.
CEELM: Was it always your goal to work abroad?
T.H.: No. I was very happy in Montreal. Despite the fact that many of my anglophone friends had moved to other Canadian cities and abroad, I remained a “Montreal patriot” and fully expected to work there throughout my professional career. That, combined with my parents’ experience, taught me never to say “never.”
CEELM: Tell us briefly about your practice, and how you built it up over the years.
T.H.: I have been practicing law for nearly three and a half decades. I started as a “stagiaire” or articled clerk at a largish francophone firm in Montreal, where I was immersed from morning to night in civil and commercial litigation files. I later worked for a small firm where I became the trademarks expert, in addition to general commercial and corporate law matters. In the Czech Republic, my focus moved toward real estate. In the early days it was primarily the restitution of real estate; later all aspects of real estate law fell within the purview of my practice.
My practice as it is today started to develop in 2006, when Jiri Buchvaldek joined me. Together we have built up a boutique law firm which is able to assist businesses with most legal problems they may encounter.
CEELM: Do you find Czech clients enthusiastic about working with foreign lawyers, or, all things considered, do they prefer working with local lawyers?
T.H. Our firm has a mix of both Czech and foreign clients. I am fairly confident in saying that all of our clients are enthusiastic about working with us. There are so many lawyers in Prague, both local and foreign, that our clients would move to other firms if their enthusiasm were to wane. All of our lawyers, including myself, are full-fledged Czech advocates. I bring to the table the added advantage of having practiced in two legal systems on two continents for more than three decades. I have some clients who refuse to deal with anyone else but me, which is flattering. However, all of our lawyers are very capable. I suppose that those clients who continue to call me do so for one or more of the following reasons: (a) I not only have many years of legal practice behind me, but also the general experience which the school of life has taught me over the course of more than six decades, (b) I am able to converse with them on a wide breadth of topics in a number of languages, and (c) I try to make them feel that I am there to help them reach the right decision, not to make the right decision for them.
CEELM: There are obviously many differences between the Czech and Canadian judicial systems and legal markets. What idiosyncrasies or differences stand out the most?
T.H.: While the Czech market is fairly unified – although regional differences do exist – and the Czech legal system is uniform, one cannot say the same about Canada. It is a vast country with ten provinces and three territories spanning six time zones. Each province and territory has its own set laws, which exist side-by-side with those of the country’s federal government. Three quarters of the Canadian population lives under a legal system loosely defined as the “English Common Law” system. However, the Province of Quebec, which is home to one quarter of the country’s population, has a legal system very similar to that in continental Europe. It is a codified system. The principle of stare decisis is not a part of the law of the province. Because of the Anglo-American legal environment in the midst of which Quebec finds itself, judicial decisions carry much more weight than in continental Europe. It is a system that I have come to consider the best of both worlds. You have a code, which is the backbone of the legal system. Specific laws govern specific situations not covered by the civil code. However, the courts are constrained, if not by law then by the weight of tradition, to respect prior judicial decisions of higher courts and to allow themselves to be influenced by previous decisions of the same court. This adds a certainty to the legal environment that is somewhat absent in the Czech Republic.
Another difference between the systems in the Czech Republic and Canada – and here I am able to talk about the whole country, whether it be Nova Scotia or British Columbia, Quebec, or the Northwest Territories – is the manner in which judges are chosen. In Canada, with a few exceptions, judges are selected from among lawyers with many years of distinguished practice at the Bar, whose nomination to the Bench is considered an honor. They come to the Bench with not only a vast knowledge of the law but rich experience in the school of life. In the Czech Republic – with the exception of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court – judges are generally selected from those law students who: (a) have graduated from a recognized Czech faculty of law, (b) have successfully completed “judges’ school,” (c) have had some experience as judges’ clerks, and (d) have attained the age of 30! The decisions of lower courts often reflect the wisdom and experience of these “seasoned” judges. This renders appeals, extraordinary appeals, and constitutional complaints almost commonplace.
CEELM: How about the cultures? What differences strike you as most resonant and significant?
T.H.: I find that many Czech lawyers still think that they are the fonts of all wisdom and knowledge and that the client is a simpleton who needs to be told what to do by his lawyer. Clients do not need or want to be “talked down to” by their lawyers. In Canada, lawyers have long ago learned that their role is to assist the client in reaching his goals, not to tell a client what his goals should be and decide how these goals will be pursued.
Paradoxically, I also have the impression that lawyers enjoy a higher level of respect in the Czech Republic than they do in Canada. However, I may have reached this conclusion because when I practiced in Canada, I was a young lawyer. When I moved to Prague, I was a little bit exotic. Foreign lawyers were not all that numerous, and foreign lawyers who spoke Czech and were fully qualified as Czech advocates were very rare indeed. As time went on, my grey hair probably helped me acquire even more respect.
More generally, the fact that lawyers in the Czech Republic are addressed as “pane doktore” or “pani doktorko” helps to create and maintain an aura of respectability, which “Jim” or “Jane”, or even “Mr. Smith” or “Ms. Jones” simply cannot muster.
CEELM: What particular value do you think an expatriate lawyer adds – both to a firm and to its clients?
T.H.: Lawyers who have experience in other legal cultures are able to view problems through the eyes of that foreign legal system. This helps the firm and its clients avoid misunderstandings when dealing with foreign counterparts. Experience in a foreign jurisdiction also brings a fresh outlook to dealing with purely local matters, even if local laws apply exclusively.
CEELM: Outside of the Czech Republic, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most?
T.H.: I very much enjoy visiting Austria, Croatia, and Slovenia.
CEELM: What’s your favorite place in Prague?
T.H.: I walk my dog almost every evening through Riegrovy Sady in Prague’s Kralovske Vinohrady district. There are few places as magical as Riegrovy Sady on a spring evening, when the scent of lilacs or linden trees permeate the park, or on a clear summer’s evening with the lights of the city twinkling below and on Petrin Hill and Hradcany across the Moldau, or on a foggy autumn evening, when the park is transformed into a myriad of softly glowing oases of hazy light separated by misty darkness, or on a snowy winter’s evening, when the boughs of the trees and shrubs bend under the weight of freshly fallen snow and my dog becomes a galloping, barking snowball.
This Article was originally published in Issue 3.6 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.