According to Tomasz Zalewski, Managing Partner in Poland of Wierzbowski Eversheds Sutherland, the Polish legal market is facing fundamental changes driven by the dramatic increase in the number of professional lawyers in the past couple of years, the implementation of the GDPR, and the digital revolution itself.
“While in the past the bar limited the number of candidates, now that the Ministry for Justice is managing the exams, everyone who can pass the initial exam may attend the trainings, and then may sign up for the final exams. Thus, the number of professional lawyers in Poland has increased dramatically – each year we see around 2000-3000 new legal advisers and advocates,” says Zalewski, adding that while at the beginning the law firms were displeased about the increase, seeing it as a potential threat, in recent years they’ve started to accept it. According to him, “I think that we very often overestimate the power of change on a short-term, and underestimate the consequences in the long-term. This is exactly what happened in Poland.”
In terms of the effect of this increase, Zalewski says that the country has seen “a dramatic increase of in-house lawyers working for different companies.” He adds: "While in the past only the biggest companies hired own representatives, today even the small or mid-sized firms have their own professionals. This means that day-to-day cases are handled internally.” When asked if there could be another reason behind the rise of the number of in-house lawyers — perhaps that companies are trying to decrease the cost of legal advice — Zalewski agrees that it is possible, and that both factors can play an important role in this matter.
Zalewski claims that this has led to an increase of new law firms on the market. “Many of them now are small to mid-sized, working with 10, 20, or even 30 lawyers. They were established completely from scratch, and quite often these firms are managed in a new way. They are able to make quicker decisions, to react faster, to adapt better to the changing conditions of the market. Taking all these in consideration, I think we can say, that in Poland, we are living a quite interesting time from the point of view of market competition,” he says.
Zalewski says that this year was quite good for M&A, even stronger at the end than in the beginning. His firm experienced a greater demand for legal services as well, although for now he says it is difficult to judge the exact cause. According to him, it may result simply from some transactions that took place on the market in the past months – so purely economic reasons – or it may be only true from the point of view of the major cities. “I don’t know exactly if this trend reflects in other regions as well, for we mainly operate in Warsaw and in major economic centers in Poland. This much I can say: that the increased demand for legal services is not only transactional driven, but there are other sources as well feeding the demand. One of them is the GDPR and its implementation, for as we know, all EU countries should implement it before May 2018. In Poland, there is a lot of buzz over this regulation and on its consequences for companies. Some companies have started to implement [the new rules] quite early, some of them are still waiting, and others will probably start to follow up with it early next year."
Zalewski believes there is a solid awareness on the importance of the regulation in Poland, and that and Polish lawyers are well educated on data protection matters. “On the other hand, I believe that the discussions around the GDPR also reflects on another tendency of the current market: In the past lawyers handled all implementation processes concerning data protection because this kind of compliance was an area dedicated to lawyers. Data protection meant that a lawyer should prepare the procedure, should advise the client on how to obtain the needed documentation and process all personal data. Generally speaking, they were required to make sure that every company is in compliance with the law. But now, the discussions are based on the assessment of risk-probabilities that may occur along the process. It has become an area which requires some technical knowledge about the environment, about the threats, about cyber-security. And I think that now lawyers understand quite well that if they want to advise and support their clients efficiently, they need this technical background as well." In Zalewski's opinion this trend, which started a few years ago, has accelerated now, and is reshaping Poland’s legal market.
“Clients don’t just want legal advice, or just information about the law," he says. "They want the support of lawyers through the entire process. In data protection you cannot help your client just by ensuring legal advice, or interpretation. You must know more, or you must use someone who knows more,” Zalewski says. Asked about what other areas may be reshaping as well, he turns to environmental protection – also a highly technical field — but ultimately, he says, all areas of activity that are connected somehow with digital transformation will sense the changes on the market.
“We can see that because of the digital revolution, all industries, all companies in the world are changing the way they operate,"Zalewski says. "Highly-developed IT systems and tools handling their communications and internal processes. At the beginning it was thought that it would only effect certain areas of business activity, but now it is fair to say that we can talk about the transformation of all business activities." He believes that this transformation means that all advisors and consultants, including lawyers, must now be informed of the technical details and solutions of their clients' infrastructures. He concludes: “You cannot advise on electronic communication, on encryption, on cyber-protection, or on virus-related matters, if you don’t know at least from a technical point of view the design of the technology. The source of analytical advice is the knowledge of facts. If you don’t know the facts, you cannot advise. But to know the facts, its not enough to just base on your general world knowledge, you must also base your judgement on an expertise of the digital world. Without this we cannot be good lawyers.”