As part of our year-long series of interviews with the bar associations presidents of CEE, we spoke recently with Maciej Bobrowicz, President of Poland’s National Council for Legal Advisors, at his office in Warsaw.
CEELM: To start, can you fill us in on your background? How long have you been in this role?
M.B.: Now I’m in my third term as the President of the National Council of Legal Advisors, after two three-year terms of office. The rule in Poland is that you should occupy only two terms. But luckily the rules changed recently, and now it is possible to take the position for a third time. I won that third election in 2016 – and this time it’s not a three-year term, it’s a four-year term, so I’ll keep it until 2020.
CEELM: And what did you do before you took this position?
M.B.: Basically, there have been two tracks in my career. Let’s start with the thread that led me to this position at the Council. If you wish to reach the position of the President of the National Council of Legal Advisors, you need to have some kind of experience in self-government; specifically, in the self-government of attorneys. That’s why we can call this thread the “self-governmental track.” I first needed to become a member of a regional bar association, then to become a member of the executive committee there. I occupied the position of the Vice President, and that allowed me to be nominated for the President of the Bar Association itself. After winning the elections and serving some time in the regional self-government, I was eligible to be nominated for the President of the Central Bar Association.
The second thread is my own practice. Naturally, I couldn’t set up my own initiative in Communist Poland. The only possibility was to work in state-governed companies. Yet, when the system changed from Communist to Capitalist, a door was opened to set up my own business. And precisely 23 days after the first rules emerged in Poland about the free market in 1989, my friend and I set up the first law office. I am not sure if it was the first office in Poland, but it was certainly among the first. It was in Zielona Gora in the West of Poland, and it was certainly the first one there.
CEELM: How did you end up in Zielona Gora?
M.B.: Let me first give you some context. I was born in Poznan, and I studied at the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznan. Naturally, I wanted to serve my apprenticeship as an attorney at law there, but unfortunately there were no places left. Please remember that we are talking about Communist Poland. At that time there were no law offices. If you wanted an apprenticeship, you had to work in a state-governed company. Unfortunately, no vacancies were available in Poznan. That’s why I was delegated to Zielona Gora. The first place that I worked was in a transport company, as a lawyer there. Then I was able to finish my apprenticeship in a different company – a construction company. Afterwards, I took and passed my professional exam.
And luckily after my exams came the change of the political system. That meant freedom – and that’s when I opened my first law office.
CEELM: Was Zielona Gora where you started your career on the self-governmental track?
M.B.: Yes, it began at the transport company, the very company where I started my apprenticeship. I joined the self-government there, and became the Secretary of the Zielona Gora Bar Association. Then I won the elections and was appointed as the President of that Regional Bar Association. After two terms of office at that position, I moved to Warsaw to the Central Bar Association.
CEELM: So you moved to Warsaw as a part of that self-governmental thread?
M.B.: Yes, that’s right.
CEELM: Were you serving clients in Warsaw as well?
M.B.: Not initially. When I first moved to Warsaw, I continued to work in my own law office in Zielona Gora. And then, after some time – although I can’t now remember exactly how much – I set up my new business in Warsaw, and that office in Zielona Gora just phased out. But for a while I was commuting between Zielona Gora and Warsaw.
CEELM: Ok, let’s move forward to the present. Are you working with clients now, or are you only involved with the self-governmental thread now?
M.B.: The majority of my time is spent on this self-governmental function. However, I do also run my own company, offering legal services as a solo practitioner.
CEELM: Let’s talk about your official role. Tell us about the relationship between the National Council of Legal Advisors and the National Chamber of Legal Advisors.
M.B.: Let me first talk about the National Chamber of Legal Advisors. It was founded on the 6th of July of 1982, So it’s 35 years old. This body was of course created in accordance with an act on legal attorneys, which was passed by the former government of Communist Poland. The function of this body is to gather all attorneys into one association. Consequently, if you want to be an attorney at law in Poland, you have to be a member of the National Chamber. Such an association ensures the maintenance of common professional standards.
In this sense, the National Chamber is the broadest body, and it associates 40,000 attorneys at law in Poland. The National Council is a kind of management board, which coordinates the actions and activities of the Chamber.
CEELM: How does one join the National Chamber? How does one qualify to practice in Poland?
M.B.: First you need to graduate from a 5-year course at a university. The education there is focused on theoretical aspects. Then, you have to take a test if you want to start your period of apprenticeship. This level of apprenticeship is crucial here, in order to establish who you really are and what legal profession you wish to pursue. There are, of course, different kinds of apprenticeships, depending on what career path – judge, legal attorney, prosecutor, etc. – you choose. These apprenticeships are organized by the regional bar associations, yet everything is under the supervision of the National Chamber.
CEELM: Are there different tests for different kinds of directions?
M.B.: Yes. There’s another distinction as well. If you want to be a notary or a barrister or a legal attorney, you work in a company, and everything is under the protectorate of the National Chamber, which provides the training and designs the tests. But if you want to be a judge or a prosecutor, there is a state school where you pursue that. And then of course afterwards you have to pass the professional exam.
CEELM: How difficult is it to pass the exam?
M.B.: President: Roughly, if you take the mean for the attorney’s section, the passing rate is about 75-80%.
CEELM: What would you say is the role and responsibility of the National Council of Legal Advisors?
M.B.: Let me give you some major tenets of the body. Basically, we first have to train the apprentices. We have to raise the qualifications of the members by providing trainings, conferences, and distance learning. We have to give opinions on normative acts. And of course we have to represent the 40,000 members of the National Chamber.
Of course, in order for the Chamber to work properly, we need to have a kind of monitoring system – a Code of Ethics. We have a disciplinary court, and a so-called internal prosecutor, and we can of course issue different penalties, up to being excluded from the legal profession.
CEELM: Many bar associations in Central and Eastern Europe are very conservative. They allow no advertising and no international law firms. Poland appears to be at the other end of that spectrum. In your opinion, is the bar association here liberal or conservative? What are your feelings about advertising and marketing? Are there any limitations here on it?
M.B.: Actually, the definition matters a great deal here, because there is a great distinction between a commercial advertisement and informing the public. The advertising of legal services is crucially different from things like bottled water or FMCG products, of course, where the turnout is really fast. As far as legal services are concerned, around 60-65% of clients are private individuals who learn about lawyers through word of mouth. And because that’s a long-term process, commercial advertisements do not really fulfill their aim in the same way they do for bottled water. It’s a different kind of commercial.
In addition, the context of course plays an important role. You would not consider it appropriate to insert a commercial of a law company on a controversial website, to use an example. There’s so-called “dignity” in the way you should conduct your profession. Let’s just act logically. In other words, you shouldn’t break certain rules of decency.
CEELM: But if someone wants to put an advertisement in a newspaper, for instance, that says “we are ranked in the first tier of law firms,” that’s not a problem here, right?
M.B.: That’s right. Basically we’re talking now about how to inform the public of your company. Of course, you can give as much information as you want. But be careful about emotional language and language that sets comparative values. You can provide information about prices or what you do, but you can’t say “we’re the best.”
CEELM: In some smaller markets, some believe that that allowing larger law firms to advertise is unfair to the smaller law firms. Is that true here? Do smaller law firms object to the ability of the larger firms to advertise?
M.B.: Basically, there is no feeling of injustice here. The thing is, with the bigger companies, you don’t really feel that they have to compete in commercials with the smaller companies. The bigger ones are submitted each year to the rankings, and if you’re a bigger company, you don’t really have to look for commercials, you just look for rankings. These are exclusive fields, so if you’re a smaller company, you don’t really feel the injustice, because you’re looking for different things – you’re looking for different kinds of clients, depending on how big you are. Also, in-house lawyers know precisely which law firms they need to work with. They don’t really need commercials.
CEELM: But, again, there are no limits on it.
M.B.: Yes, but remember that commercials will always be assessed with respect to the context in which they appear.
CEELM: Moving on, how does discipline work when a lawyer is accused of acting unethically? Is there a centralized committee, or do the individual bar associations handle it themselves?
M.B.: We have a Code of Ethics, which sets ethical norms for every attorney at law. If they are breached, the cases are investigated by a spokesman of disciplinary affairs, who is appointed in each of Poland’s 19 bar associations. If the spokesman concludes that there is some evidence that the Code of Ethics has been breached, the case is brought to that bar association’s disciplinary court. Of course, the lawyer is entitled to lodge an appeal against a sentence to the Higher Disciplinary Court in Warsaw.
CEELM: The last question is simple. Are things going well here? What’s your perspective at the moment?
M.B.: It’s difficult to define the problems – I’d rather talk about my projects. I’ve recently managed to organize a television campaign to inform the public about the very nature of a legal attorney, and we’ve managed to organize two fortnight campaigns on television that are just about to air. It is the first promotion campaign of this type in Poland.
CEELM: Are those commercials, documentaries? What do you mean?
M.B.: It’s a thirty-second commercial to air on prime time. One thing more. The National Council has received some competencies from the penal code, and we want to be able to share with the public that now we can do more.
In addition, there is another project. We have launched a Social Codification Committee consisting of prominent legal experts such as professors, judges, and solicitors, all working pro bono , to create an act explaining how laws should be enacted – how laws should be formed.
CEELM: Finally: You’ve been reelected twice. What do you think is your greatest strength as a leader?
M.B.: It’s a good question worth considering. You should ask the people who elected me.
CEELM: But what do you think your greatest strength is?
M.B.: Perseverance, faith in what I do, and passion.