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From Estonia to Bulgaria CEE Attorneys Pursues an Ambitious Strategy

From Estonia to Bulgaria CEE Attorneys Pursues an Ambitious Strategy

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Zdenek Tomicek and his colleagues at CEE Attorneys  believe their new firm’s structure and style are the key to its rapid growth across CEE.

For Zdenek Tomicek the goal was always clear. From the day in March 2015 his eponymous law firm in Prague announced that it had tied up with Slovakia’s Fox Martens to create CEE Attorneys, his plan – as declared at the time – was “to provide superior legal services to its clients in the whole Central European region through a group of cooperating law firms.” 

A year and half later Tomicek and CEE Attorneys are well on their way to reaching that goal, with member firms now in five countries and more on the way.

Humble Beginnings

Tomicek began his career in DLA Piper’s Prague office, where he spent his first six years focusing on international arbitration. He was seconded to DLA’s London office for six months in 2011 and says that, after returning to his native Prague, he began to feel constrained. DLA, he reports, was less interested in the new ideas he had picked up abroad than he had hoped, “so I decided to change the environment.” He moved to PWC, he says, “because I was always interested in doing more than just law, but also business and tax.” 

Despite this interest, he didn’t spend much time at PWC, he admits with a smile, conceding that, “after a year I decided to start my own practice.” Still his time in the Big Four bore fruit, as six months later fellow PWC lawyers Jiri Kocik and Lukas Petr joined him at Tomicek Legal.

Surprisingly, in light of its status only a few years later, that smaller Czech firm didn’t begin with pan-CEE ambitions. “Our plan wasn’t originally to be international,” Tomicek says, “but we got more and more requests to do work in Slovakia.” Deciding they needed a dedicated relationship firm in that neighboring country, he got a list of potential partner firms from a former DLA Piper colleague. “We shortlisted two,” he recalls, “and from those two we decided to start working with one of them.” 

Michal Martinak – the Managing Partner of that firm, the former Fox Martens – describes the proposition Zdenek made to him as compelling. “We really liked the idea,” he said. “We thought it was a great step to expand to other jurisdictions and to be able to be presented to our clients and to future clients as an international network or firm, and it was an effective way for us to expand.”

“The other reason we joined,” Martinak recalls, “is that because of the close geopolitical connection between the Czech Republic and Slovakia and the fact that there’s no language barrier, a lot of the businesses here are very connected to the Czech market. So we were quite sure that we would be the most beneficial party when it comes to this, because a lot of businesses are run from Prague, and we knew those guys had a good connection to the Czech market.” 

It didn’t take long for his bet to pay off, Martinak reports. “We have benefited from the very beginning.” 

And the partnership with Fox Martens worked so well, so quickly, that it lit a fire for Tomicek. “Once we started working with them,” he recalls, “we thought ‘this is quite nice, this is working quite nicely,’ and we thought ‘why not be more international?’”

Tomicek immediately turned his attention to Poland. In considering his options, Tomicek recalls, he went to dinner with Andrzej Szmigiel of Poland’s SPP Legal Szmigiel & Papros one night, “and we started to talk, and I felt his enthusiasm about being part of this kind of international network.” The feeling was mutual, Tomicek laughs. “From the middle of our negotiation I was quite sure about him but I didn’t want to tell him because he’d feel strange about that, so I waited another week, when I had returned to the Czech Republic. Then I sent an email saying we had decided on you guys.” 

Szmigiel’s recollection is similar. “I went for a nice dinner with Zdenek in a Greek restaurant, I took one of my clients with us, and gave Zdenek a nice tour of the old city of Warsaw, because I really felt that this project interested me, and I would love to join them. I wasn’t playing games, and I told him expressly that that I thought this was a great idea and we would be honored to join them. I did my best to convince Zdenek that I’m the right person. And thanks maybe to my enthusiasm – and I had organized everything, and had a client with me from a big real estate corporation – and Zdenek thought that maybe I’m a good guy.”

The announcement that the former SPP Legal had joined the new CEE Attorneys network was made in mid-June, 2015.

The momentum was obvious now, and in its press release announcing its new member, CEE Attorneys reported that “intense negotiations about cooperation in other countries are under way.” Sure enough, in November 2015 Lithuania’s SKV Law firm became the firm’s first Baltic member, following the recommendation from CEE Attorneys’ client Europateka. According to Daina Senapediene in Vilnius, SKV Law joined CEE Attorneys because “a lot of our clients are international, not just local. And we’ve already been working with other countries for many years. When we thought about our strategy, we understood that we could not become part of a German law office, because we have a lot of differences, like prices and economic situations. And therefore we thought that all these Central and Eastern European countries are similar, and we can have the same rules and prices for our clients. And after a year I can see that this is working, and our clients are very happy.”

Most recently, on September 1, 2016, the firm announced its fifth member, Romania’s Boanta, Gidei si Asociatii, which – like CEE Attorneys’ first member – has its roots in the Big Four. “Most of us gained our experience in the correspondent law firm of PwC Romania,” says Romanian Partner Sergiu Gidei. “We worked there for many years, then in 2011 we decided to start our own law firm.” Although they didn’t know Tomicek at the time, a common friend put them in touch with Andrzej Szmigiel, and when everyone met, “we found the necessary chemistry between them and ourselves, and the fact that Zdenek was in PWC and we were in PWC provided some chemistry.” 

Gidei explains why they joined the young firm. “It was nice for us to do what we want, but working in this way we reached a limit, and to surpass this limit we needed to join forces with a company from abroad. It’s not just in terms of clients, because we have clients here, but also because of brand visibility. In terms of experience exchange, it’s important also for people resources; when you are part of some kind of regional network it’s much easier to attract talented people. Right now we are some kind of spin-off from a big firm, with a small name. If you want to have talented junior people, they want to be part of a brand. Putting all these things together, it was the perspective that after five years we needed to enter a new phase in our development.”

Szmigiel, in Poland, says of his new Romanian colleagues that “they are really really, really great people, with the same philosophy and point of view as us.”

A Productive Model

Tomicek and his colleagues believe that CEE Attorneys offers the ideal model for firms, allowing each office to maintain its independence while sharing those costs and marketing opportunities where economies of scale and centralized decision making make the most sense.

Unlike the firm itself, the various CEE Attorneys offices have no plans to grow substantially. According to Tomicek, for instance, although he hopes to grow his office to 15 lawyers in time (it now has eight), he has no desire to get bigger than that. “Our plan isn’t to be another Havel, Holasek,” he says, referring to the Czech Republic’s largest firm. “It’s not our plan; it’s not our goal.” Similarly, Daina Senapediene reports that her office in Vilnius has seven lawyers (up from the five they had when they joined last year), and Sergiu Gidei says his office in Bucharest has eight lawyers. Andrzej Szmigiel’s office in Poland is the firm’s largest with some 15 lawyers.

Tomicek believes the size of the offices is an advantage. “Clients say, ‘with you we know we’re be a big focus, but with the major firms we’d be one out of hundreds.’”

All five CEE Attorneys offices stipulate that each client will pay the same fees across all network offices, regardless of which firm is doing the work and which jurisdictions are involved. “As far as I know,” Tomicek says, “we’re the only firm that does that.”

Still, there is no profit sharing within the firm. This, Tomicek insists, is a critical element of the appeal. “The most important thing for them is we are not taking their independence. They are still the owners of the firm they built, they can still decide about the people they want to hire, about the companies they want to work with in the local market, and so on. This is really, I think, the most important thing. And this is why the Polish and Lithuanian and Romanian offices joined us. They had built their offices in those markets, and they didn’t want to lose their independence in joining us.”

Martinak, in Slovakia, agrees. “We like the fact that we retain our independence; the Slovakian market is our own, and we are still the same Partners.” 

Despite their distinct financial and operational independence, the now five member offices of CEE Attorneys have agreed to abandon their former names and operate exclusively under their shared brand. For Tomicek, this is the second critical part of the CEE Attorneys strategy. “I met a firm once which is not now part of CEE Attorneys,” he recalls, “and it was a typical law firm, very strict and conservative. And the partner said, ‘we’ve been working under our brand for five, ten years, and it’s going well. Let’s work together, let’s cooperate, but let’s keep our own brand. And I knew this was something I didn’t want. Because then you’re not creating your own law firm, but administering a network.”

Tomicek and his counterparts in CEE Attorneys’ various offices are committed, at this point, to a genuine egalitarianism. They don’t use the term Managing Partner, preferring instead only to select one Partner from each office to serve, when necessary, as “Decision-Making Partner.” Beyond that, the senior lawyers at CEE Attorneys insist they are uniquely accessible and available to their clients. “We are partners because we own the law firms,” Tomicek says, “but we are not senior partners like at the major law firms, where it can be difficult to get to them.”

And Tomicek is enthusiastic about his colleagues. “I actually believe this feeling is more important than any references and stuff like that. Of course all of that, and client feedback, is very important as well. But you don’t want to cooperate with someone you don’t like.”

Andrzej Szmigiel, in Warsaw, shares Tomicek’s commitment to a strong social bond with his colleagues, calling it “a great idea, and a great pleasure, and a great advantage, to work with people from other offices, from other countries, from other mentalities, cooperating together and building something together.” Szmigiel says, “it’s really perfect synergy to build something. It’s really an amazing thing that I have friends 700 km from Warsaw and 1500 km from Warsaw, in Bucharest, and all of us each day are thinking how to build something and in common to develop something.”

Gidei, in Bucharest, sums up the ethos of the network nicely: “So this is the natural path to growth. A network of small to medium law firms having the same philosophy, less bureaucracy, willing to provide best services, to undertake complex and sound projects, to be close to clients, and so on. That’s the philosophy.”

In short, Tomicek explains, the ultimate decision for firms invited to join CEE Attorneys is simple. “The main thing they have to consider is if they are ready to lose their identity and use the CEE Attorneys identity. If they are ready for that, then there’s a lot of advantages for them, because they will become international. They will get new clients, and have a better opportunity to hire better lawyers.”

A Successful First Year

Although CEE Attorneys has only been in existence for a little more than 18 months – with several of its members joining only in the past year – the results have been impressive. Tomicek claims that the Prague office has seen a 150% increase in clients over the past two years, from 98 in 2014 to 255 now.

“I think it’s been even more successful than I expected,” says Szmigiel. “I have always relied on myself, so my point of view was that I would try to do my best to help my friends develop, and I would use this network to improve myself in Poland. I didn’t expect to get something from them. But it appeared that, thanks to Zdenek Tomicek – his mentality and his business acumen – I get a lot of clients and business opportunities. And so definitely I got more than I expected from the network.”

Martinak, in Slovakia, shares the sentiment: “Otherwise it would be very hard for a mid-sized law firm from Slovakia to approach Polish clients if we didn’t have the ability to communicate in Polish, or have this kind of one-network offer. So clients are quite glad they can communicate in their language with the local office and manage the affairs from there.”

And though Gidei and his Romanian colleagues have only just joined the network, Senapediene, in Vilnius, has already seen the benefits. “I’m very happy about Romania joining us, because it looks like Romania has a very similar attitude to Lithuania, and we’ve already found a lot of the same and interesting projects, and we’re already working on some projects.”

Having now whetted their taste for expanding the firm across CEE, the Partners at CEE Attorneys are now going full speed ahead. Tomicek says that the firm now has two plans for growth. The first, which he expects to be complete within the next two years, involves the opening of offices in Estonia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Latvia. The second, running simultaneously but with a looser time frame, involves Ukraine and Russia. But their expansion plans are hardly written in stone, Tomicek says, and he and his colleagues remain open to other proposals or suggestions as well.

As the legal markets of CEE transform, with more international firms departing and more regional firms taking their place, there is, at the moment, no firm outside the Big Four covering the region “from Estonia to Bulgaria.” If the growth of CEE Attorneys in its first 18 months is any indication, that may not be true for much longer.

By Zdenek Tomicek, Michal Martinak, Daina Senapediene, Sergiu Gidei, and Andrzej Szmigiel, CEE Attorneys

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.