Jeffrey McGehee is an American lawyer living and practicing as a Partner at Squire Patton Boggs in Prague. He received his law degree from Baylor University in Texas in 1989 and moved to Central Europe in 1996.
CEELM: Run us through your background, and how you ended up in Prague.
J.M.: I am a Texas native (born and raised) and worked as a young lawyer at a large firm in Dallas. After a few years, I was pretty bored with the practice there and ultimately decided to try and work abroad (speaking no foreign languages and, as every recruiter told me, with “quite limited” travel experience). It was 1996, and fortunately there were opportunities for expat professionals in Central Europe. I was able to find a job in Prague with Squire Patton Boggs (then Squire, Sanders & Dempsey) and have been with the firm ever since.
CEELM: Was it always your goal to work abroad?
J.M.: When I started working, I don’t think I even knew that working abroad was a thing. But a year before I moved to Prague, I was put on a rare international project for my Dallas firm and ended up spending about 6 weeks in Taipei. I loved both the challenge of working in a foreign business environment and the culture shock of living somewhere very different. I was immediately hooked and went back to Dallas having decided an overseas assignment was my goal.
CEELM: Tell us briefly about your practice, and how you built it up over the years.
J.M.: My practice is business transactions (both corporate M&A and real estate), usually involving foreign law or an international counterparty. I have been fortunate to have a great diversity of projects over the years, both substantively and geographically throughout CEE. Practice growth, of course, arises from the business relationships you develop over time, just as it does anywhere else. The challenge as an expat in a market like the Czech Republic is that foreign interest ebbs and flows over time, and foreign players in the market change often, so you must constantly be developing new contacts.
CEELM: What do your clients appreciate most about you?
J.M.: I am generally interested in learning about a client’s business or industry, which I think is appreciated by the client and also important to providing them the best possible legal advice. Like most good lawyers, I try to be practical and commercial. And with experience comes the ability to quickly separate the wheat from the chaff and not to become fixated on minor points at the expense of the client’s ultimate goals.
CEELM: Do you find Czech clients enthusiastic about working with foreign lawyers, or — all things considered — do they prefer working with local lawyers?
J.M.: I guess that depends on the individual client, but I don’t think most care. Clients simply want the best, most effective counsel available to them. If I wasn’t resident in Prague or elsewhere in the region with substantial experience here, then I guess nationality might be a factor but really only in that it would relate to relevant experience. And with deals involving a cross-border element (which is the majority of my work), I think being an American lawyer is an advantage.
CEELM: There are obviously many differences between the Czech and American judicial systems and legal markets. What idiosyncrasies or differences stand out the most?
J.M.: While Czech law has evolved, it remains more formalistic than US law and less forgiving of technical errors or omissions. There is more uncertainty in Czech law; it’s newer and not as extensively developed and court-tested as US law, which is a large part of the reason practice here has been very interesting over the last 20 years. Americans are very litigious, which leads to longer contracts attempting to address every possible risk scenario. There are pluses and minuses to both systems.
CEELM: How about the cultures? What differences strike you as most resonant and significant?
J.M.: Czechs are generally more reserved – just listen to a group of American tourists roaming Prague. They are more formal in personal and business relations and tend to be more respectful of institutional hierarchy. I think Americans are sometimes better at creative thinking and trying to find solutions “outside of the box,” but the gap has definitely narrowed over the years. I would still give Americans the advantage when it comes to customer service.
CEELM: What particular value do you think a senior expatriate lawyer in your role adds — both to a firm and to its clients?
J.M.: Many of our deals are governed by laws other than those of the Czech Republic, in which case I have more experience than the majority of Czech lawyers. But even on domestic transactions, I believe an expat adds a slightly different (and useful!) way of thinking and approach to issues. For international clients, the Czech Republic is often an unknown market. As an American, I provide some intangible comfort to that “foreignness” as well as help explain the differences (and the reasons for them) between the Czech legal process and that with which a client is familiar at home.
CEELM: Outside of the Czech Republic, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most?
J.M. All of them of course! I do think each country has something interesting to offer people who like to travel and enjoy different cultural experiences (especially when you get to work there – you get a very different perspective). That said, my children are half-Slovak so I have a special relationship with our neighbor to the east.
CEELM: What’s your favorite place to take visitors in Prague?
J.M.: For me, Prague is a city that is most enjoyable when you just roam about – incredible architecture, cobbled streets, spires everywhere, a castle on a hill. It is exactly what an American imagines when he thinks of Europe. So I typically take visitors to places where they can see the city – current favorites (given spring weather) are the Letna and Riegrovy Sady parks where you can escape the crowds, have a lovely view of the entire city and, of course, drink any number of beers.
This Article was originally published in Issue 4.5 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.