Anthony O’Connor came to Europe from his native Australia in 2006. As a Partner at Kinstellar in Budapest, he is both head of Kinstellar’s Hungarian Corporate/M&A practice and Co-Head of its firm-wide Private Equity practice.
CEELM: Run us through your background, and how an Australian lawyer became head of Kinstellar’s Corporate/M&A practice in Hungary.
A.O.: I moved to Hungary in 2006 to join White & Case’s regional private equity and M&A team. At the time, while I wasn’t actively looking for work in Hungary, the opportunity to live in a location so different from that I had grown up in, together with the assurance of continuing to work on large and challenging transactions, was too attractive to pass up. When I was approached last year with the opportunity to join Kinstellar and head their Corporate/M&A practice, it really felt like a very natural fit – a premier law firm operating in markets that I was very familiar with, the DNA of a London-market firm (approach to quality, client service, and a keen awareness of regional and international market trends), and the ability to drive strategy and leverage over ten years of experience in CEE. I am now handling a much more diverse mix of things in addition to my core areas of M&A and private equity, and I’m really enjoying that!
CEELM: Was it always your goal to work abroad?
A.O.: From early on, I have made decisions specifically with a view to being able to travel and not only work but pursue a career. This led me to focus on transactional practices and, in the beginning, move to Sydney for a few years and work with the private equity team at Baker McKenzie. I always envisaged working somewhere in Europe, but rather than follow the well-trodden track of Australians moving to London, I was determined to end up somewhere out of my comfort zone – that said, Budapest is home for me now, and very much a place of comfort
CEELM: Tell us briefly about your practice, and how you built it up over the years.
A.O.: I specialize in M&A and private equity and cover most of CEE, including Turkey and Kazakhstan. It’s quite a mixture in reality, from large M&A auction processes for international PE and corporate clients throughout the region, inbound investment into Hungary for what are often more small to mid-market M&A deals, to quite a bit of transactional real estate work with the recent activity in the local market here. Knowing these markets very well, in addition to having seen transactions throughout the entire spectrum of size and complexity, has meant I’ve built up a nice amount of experience. The practice has really grown off the back of clients needing a seasoned transactional lawyer who can guide them through the process and whose judgment they can trust, sometimes irrespective of the jurisdiction or governing law.
CEELM: What do your clients appreciate most about you?
A.O.: You might have to ask them that! What I can say is that quality, experience, and a firm but calm manner is what I try to bring to the table. I also don’t like playing games or wasting clients’ money, and instead prefer an open and commercial approach where we focus on what’s really important to the client.
CEELM: Do you find Hungarian clients enthusiastic about working with foreign lawyers, or – all things considered – do they prefer working with local lawyers?
A.O.: I’ve found myself doing quite a bit more work for Hungarian clients lately, particularly as a result of more outbound investment over the last 12 months. It really comes down to whether you can resonate with those Hungarian clients that place a high value on working with a lawyer who will do more than just carry out instructions but instead partner with them on a transaction and deliver on documentation, negotiation, and deal management. It’s never a binary choice, however: in Hungary and indeed the region, we have the ability to offer this, together with exceptional local law advice – it’s really an integrated approach, which results in a stronger offering overall.
CEELM: There are obviously many differences between the Hungarian and Australian judicial systems and legal markets. What idiosyncrasies or differences stand out the most?
A.O.: I was having a conversation about this with a Hungarian-law-qualified colleague recently – Australia derives much of its law from English law, and in that sense there is a huge amount of precedent to look at and interpret. This allows you to form a pretty comfortable view of the proper interpretation in a given situation. I don’t envy my Hungarian colleagues most of the time, as it seems there is much more uncertainty around legislative intent and interpretation in the Hungarian legal system. I keep telling them how things would play out under English law. I suspect they’re sick of hearing that from me.
CEELM: How about the cultures? What differences strike you as most resonant and significant?
A.O.: Hungarians have incredibly analytical minds, and that tends to bleed into all aspects of life, while Australians tend to be a little more laid back in decision making, generally taking a punt that it will all work out well in the end. My wife is Hungarian, and we have a two-year-old son – I put it down to his Hungarian side whenever he spends ten minutes staring at a box of Kinder Eggs trying to ensure he’s chosen the most perfect egg (or perhaps not the wrong one)!
CEELM: What particular value do you think a senior expatriate lawyer in your role adds – both to a firm and to its clients?
A.O.: I’m conscious that I’m head of the practice but not Hungarian-law qualified – with a top-quality team around me, it actually allows me to think more like a client, and very often question whether a particular approach or interpretation needs to be reconsidered. Additionally, having Australian and English law qualifications allows the team to leverage off my experience across the table from large London and New York law firms, ensuring that we have a practice at the cutting edge of the international market.
CEELM: Outside of Hungary, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most, and why?
A.O.: I’m going to stretch the definition of CEE, and say Turkey. My wife and I lived in Istanbul for two and a half years, and we both have some of the fondest memories from our time there. First and foremost, the people are incredibly warm and hospitable, but also the food is spectacular, the beaches are beautiful and we had the luxury of stepping outside our apartment into a world-class historical city.
CEELM: What’s your favorite place in Budapest?
A.O.: Budapest has an eclectic mixture of truly stunning architecture, often in the most unexpected places, like an apartment building covered with gothic statues in a small street of a residential inner-city neighborhood. It’s the striking beauty in everyday places that still amazes me about the city. I also do love a run up to Janos-hegy in the morning or late afternoon. To have such tranquility and natural beauty in a location so close to the city again reminds me of how unique this city is and how lucky I am to live here.
This Article was originally published in Issue 4.2 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.