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A Bar Fight: Controversial New Voting Restrictions Adopted by Belgrade Bar

Controversial New Voting Restrictions Adopted by Belgrade Bar

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On September 24 the Belgrade Bar adopted a new bylaw, controversial both in its effect and in the manner by which it was adopted, limiting the voting and participation rights of lawyers at major commercial law firms in favor of criminal lawyers and solo practitioners. Leading commercial lawyers in Belgrade are, unsurprisingly, not happy.

Background of the Bylaw

Speaking several months ago when the bylaw was still in draft form, Karanovic & Nikolic Senior Partner Rastko Petakovic described it as problematic: “If you are a member of a large law firm you will no longer have the right to vote, and if you want to nominate anyone to take a leadership position in the Bar in the future from such a firm you will only be able to nominate one lawyer.” In Petakovic’s opinion, the law would discriminate against lawyers in firms in favor of lawyers who operate as solo practitioners.

“There are ongoing disputes between the Boards of the Serbian Bar and the Belgrade Bar,” according to Karanovic & Nikolic Founding Partner Dragan Karanovic, “which saw long campaigns carried out by the Belgrade Bar trying to impede the progress of the legal practice.” Karanovic believes that the Belgrade Bar is animated by bias against business lawyers. “[The Bar Board Members] simply do not recognize that the nature of firms has evolved and there are commercial lawyers in the market now as well who are just as much legal professionals as criminal lawyers.” Indeed, he maintained that his controversial August 1, 2016, removal from the table of lawyers at the Belgrade Bar was politically motivated [in the interim, the removal was successfully contested and he was re-added to the table], noting that “I am not personally targeted as much as I think this is more about what we stand for”.

Nikola Jankovic, Senior Partner at JPM Jankovic Popovic Mitic, believes that the voting limitation bylaw reflects a Bar threatened by the appearance in the city of larger and more successful law firms. “With the rise of the business lawyer – with us launching in ’91, Karanovic & Nikolic in ’95, and a good number that followed,” he said, “those currently running the Belgrade Bar realize that between the largest 10-15 law firms, there are enough lawyers to amass considerable voting power.” 

And that voting power alarms Aleksandar Cvejic, Board Member and Secretary of the Board of the Belgrade Bar Association, who said of the controversial new bylaw before the September 24 vote that “we simply don’t want to see a Bar that is owned by a handful of firms.” Instead, Cvejic said, the draft bylaw was designed to control the ability of large firms to push their own interests over the objections of others. “The voting limitation is meant to counterbalance the risk that huge law offices might privatize the board and end up in a situation where a few law offices retain power within it. They have 200-300 lawyers who can vote, which amounts to a considerable say in terms of who ends up in the Board, which could be problematic.” The Bar’s Board’s concern was, he said, shared by “other lawyers as well.”

In defense of the bylaw, Cvejic insisted that lawyers working under employment contracts at firms are, in reality, a different beast: “We [the Bar Association Board] are of the opinion that those lawyers under employment are not lawyers anymore – they are employed by lawyers and have lost their independence as a result.” He noted that this loss of independence “is not in accordance with our law,” and added, “our position is that if lawyers are Partners, that is fine, but if they are not and are simply employed by a firm, they are not independent, and we believe that is essential to the vote.”

Jankovic dismissed the underlying assumption that he and his peers “can, or would, influence [their] younger lawyers as to how to vote.” He added: “We should, but we are not really interested in this. I don’t want to lose time, energy, and money coordinating these things.” Jankovic conceded that the actual impact of the bylaw might be limited as, “in reality, most young lawyers in Serbia, if they work for a larger firm, will likely not do so under an employment contract – rather a contract of mutual cooperation.” Nonetheless, he agreed that the voting restriction is “highly discriminatory towards big law firms,” as, in addition to limiting the votes of attorneys employed by a law firm, “all unlimited partnerships [are] allowed only one member on the [Bar’s] Management Board, Supervisory Board, Disciplinary Prosecutor’s Office, and Disciplinary Arbitrator’s Office.”

Overall, Jankovic believed the proposed bylaw reflects an unfortunate conservatism: “We have here an issue of two worlds, one representing an old, conservative, closed society of vested interests and another, new, young, modern, transparent, aspiring, and willing to embrace new trends on the legal market.” 

Expectations for Modification Leading Up to The Vote

It appears that not all members of the commission that worked on the draft bylaw agree on the propriety of the voting restriction. One member of the commission, requesting anonymity, told CEE Legal Matters prior to the vote that “the Governing Board of the Belgrade Bar will present a draft proposal of the statute that, as I believe, does not provide effective mechanisms for fair election procedure. There are no guarantees for transparency of the election process, and it limits voting rights.” He reported having proposed a number of amendments to the draft bylaw “in order to establish grounds for a fair election process, based on effective tools for supervising elections and unlimited voting rights for all members of the Bar,” and he insisted that “we will have open discussion on Assembly meeting where I will present my standings and arguments.”

A number of commercial lawyers expressed a similar confidence that amendments would be made to the bylaw before its adoption. Views on the initial draft were “rather divided,” Stankovic reported before the vote, and he noted even within the “conservative” side, it appeared that only a few members were pushing for passage without amendment. Jankovic agreed that he did not expect the initial version to go through without modification.

And leading up to the vote, there was considerable effort to mobilize the lawyers of the city into joining the September 24 assembly and making their voices heard. As part of this movement, one group of Belgrade attorneys reached out to about 400 colleagues employed in commercial law firms with a call to action using the email address “This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.”, claiming in its subject line that “it is time for better standards in the Serbian legal profession!” (That email in full at the end of this article).

The “Unprecedented” Vote 

Nonetheless, despite the expectations of Jankovic and Stankovic and the call to action which saw some 490 lawyers participate at the September 24 assembly, the bylaw was adopted without significant amendment. Karanovic, for one, was outraged. “The President of the Board presided over the General Assembly in a manner many consider scandalous. In a violation of due procedure, after the General Assembly adopted the initial draft in principle while announcing [its intention] to discuss and vote every single proposed amendment afterwards, the President announced the end of the session and proclaimed the statute adopted without discussing the amendments and despite the outcry of the lawyers present at the meeting.”

While insisting that the situation would not impact JPM Jankovic Popovic Mitic, “as we neither need to nor intend to become involved in work of the Belgrade Bar Association,” Jankovic agreed that the procedure of the assembly was “unprecedented,” and he reported that several groups of lawyers had already called upon the Constitutional Court of Serbia to decide on the constitutionality and legality of the voting restriction. “To be precise, due to the conduct of the Belgrade Bar Association president, none of the Agenda, Minutes, and Amendments to the statute were discussed, clearly in violation of the required procedural rules.” 

It is not only the procedure by which the new bylaw was adopted that is being challenged. One Managing Partner of a leading law firm insisted that “limiting the right of an attorney at law to vote in the assembly of the Bar Association of Belgrade solely based on her/his membership in a partnership (established in accordance with the Attorneys at Law Act for providing legal services), represents an unjustified criteria for limiting statutory rights and is evidently in breach of the principles of the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia as well as the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.”

Nonetheless, Karanovic said, the upcoming elections for the new Belgrade Bar Association Board scheduled for December 3 this year (after being postponed from the original date of October 29), will, in all likelihood, be conducted under the provisions of the newly-adopted bylaw. “The current Board will try to organize and hold these elections under the new ‘statute’ as they see it adopted,” he explained, “prohibiting the lawyers working in law firms from voting.”

Many are expecting a contentious next few years. “We are likely to have a legal battle going on for years with no real resolution in sight,” Jankovic sighed. “Unfortunately, many Belgrade colleagues still have a significant knowledge gap regarding the legal services market. This is to some extent fueled by an irrational fear of competition and an inability to adjust to prevailing trends and partly due to an inadequate professional grasp of foreign languages and legal systems. It appears that years will pass until an average lawyer in Belgrade becomes fully aware of implications that business and communication flows bring to the legal services market – opportunities and challenges alike.”

Email:

Call To Action E-mail Sent To Belgrade Attorneys

We are inviting Belgrade attorneys to show up in great numbers and attend the meeting of the Bar Association of Belgrade (BAB) Assembly on Saturday, 24 September 2016.

As you already know, the Managing Board of the BAB, which is inevitably about to face the end of its mandate, is still not able today, just as it has not been able throughout its entire mandate, to respect the will of Belgrade attorneys. 

The Managing Board, contrary to the explicit decision of the BAB Assembly held on 23 April, 2016, changed the established date of the Assembly meeting which was scheduled for 17 September 2016, in order to present its own draft Statute to the Parliament instead of presenting the draft Statute of the Working Group which was formed by the Assembly precisely to draft the Statute that needed to be addressed on 17 September 2016.

Today, the Chairman of the BAB, Mr. Slobodan Soskic, when publicly addressing Belgrade attorneys, goes so far in spreading untruths that he even openly insults his colleagues of opposing understandings by labelling them a “militant group” that has the goal of taking away voting rights from their fellow attorneys.

Chairman Soskic is the one to advocate for the Statute denying voting rights to about 400 Belgrade attorneys who are members of commercial law firms. 

Chairman Soskic is the one to advocate for restrictive criteria when it comes to the right to stand for election to the bodies of the BAB.

Chairman Soskic is the one to lead the BAB for six years without a Statute, without control, and without any responsibility towards the function he occupies.

We want to change that. We want to reform the legal profession.

We want to throw out the “blank ballot” from the legal profession.

We want to ensure democratic elections in the BAB.

We want to establish the responsibility of the Chairman and the Board before the Assembly and the members of the BAB.

We want to restore the reputation of the legal profession that has been systematically collapsing because of internal conflicts and litigations in the courts, where the Managing Board and the Chairmen were alternating on the basis of court rulings.

We believe it is enough. It is time to have a better legal profession!

The Managing Board of the BAB, which, through its final decisions, just trampled upon the decision of the Assembly of BAB made on April 23, now invites the attorneys to come to the Assembly meeting and defend the voting rights of each attorney, while simultaneously spreading lies and insulting their colleagues without any reason.

This Article was originally published in Issue 3.5 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

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