Managing Partner Diana Dimova reflects on Kinstellar Sofia’s fifth anniversary
Rolling Up Sleeves and Carving Out Space
Kinstellar – the regional firm formed in 2008 from Linklaters’ former offices in Bucharest, Budapest, Prague, and Bratislava – opened its office in Sofia in November, 2014. Kinstellar’s Managing Partner in Sofia, Diana Dimova, says the decision to open in Bulgaria was not difficult. Bulgaria was an important part of the firm’s regional strategy from the beginning, “so it just made sense to set up a presence here.”
And there was little doubt what kind of work the firm would be pursuing in that Balkan nation. “We had a clear vision from the outset in terms of what the firm would be,” she says. “Positioned for big ticket work and focusing on larger M&A, financing, and projects matters.”
Of course, Kinstellar wasn’t the only one with that plan. “When we opened five years ago, the Bulgarian market was already very saturated,” Dimova recalls. “It was a very competitive environment with both strong local and international firms present on the ground with a much longer history.”
Competing for that top end work, Dimova says, required both talent and experience, at both the local and regional levels. “The original team was comprised of quite experienced professionals,” she says, “but of course a big part of its performance is a result of the support and the culture of the firm at a regional level.” According to her, Kinstellar’s structure as a fully-integrated firm “was a key factor for us as we had the ability to draw upon the experience of an already-existing solid team.” This experience manifested itself, she says, both in institutional knowledge and specific client relationships.
In employing those tools, Dimova says, the firm’s management was committed to achieving consistent results for clients, both over time and across borders. “Kinstellar’s proposition is that a client’s experience should not be too different in multiple jurisdictions, and our priority is to ensure that our clients have the same perception of the product regardless of the country they work with us in.”
In fact, she insists, a reflection of that commitment to consistent service can be found in the firm’s overall structure, which does not include a specific head office.
“Law firms spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to differentiate themselves from competitors,” remarks Dimova with a smile. “I think, generally, each firm has its unique selling propositions, but ultimately client choices tend to be circumstantial: relationship with the client, track record, background knowledge on the deal, cost, and so on.”
Attitude and Awareness
Still, when pressed, Dimova admits she believes her team is special. “If I have to point to one factor that really set us apart,” she reflects, “it is our entrepreneurial spirit. We were all coming in with a mindset of starting something new together and being committed to making it successful – and you could really sense a real level of ownership throughout the team.”
And that mindset shaped her team’s strategy, she says, which involves “a real focus on client relationships.” Aside from a commitment to quality, effective communication, and availability, her team strives to identify opportunities for existing and potential clients and bring them to their attention. “We work hard to help our clients understand where there are opportunities in Bulgaria,” she explains. “We are constantly monitoring what’s going on and are always talking to investors and other key stakeholders in any potential deal before it shows up on people’s pipelines.”
That sensitive radar paid off recently with the 35-year Sofia Airport concession awarded to Kinstellar client Meridiam, the Paris-based investor and asset manager specialized in developing, financing and managing long-term public infrastructure projects, working with the Munich Airport. According to Dimova, the firm had been focused on winning a role in the EUR 3.9 billion project “well before the procedure was announced formally by the Bulgarian Government,” and she speaks with obvious pride in her team’s success. “There are more than 1500 national and EU legislative acts applicable to the airport as an infrastructure project. Between that and the wide range of stakeholders, a lot of coordination was needed to make sure everything in the bid ran smoothly.” As a result, she says, “working on this kind of a deal required a lot of teamwork, and, most importantly, dedication.”
Dimova says there’s more big work to be had in the country, pointing to some major projects in the pipeline for 2020, such as the planned Belene nuclear power plant and several important gas and road infrastructure projects. “This is of course good news for law firms as it will provide a lot of work for a lot of players,” she says, though she sighs the country isn’t where she would like it to be. “When you read about the TMT sector in Bulgaria, you are amazed by the progress that the country has made over the years. Salaries are growing and you hear amazing success stories, even at the global level. However, when you look at sectors such as healthcare or education in the country, the contrast is stark. We cannot have real progress without them and we need to get involved more on these fronts.”
Accordingly, she says, Kinstellar participates in several educational initiatives in the country, such as a partnership with Teach for Bulgaria (TfB), part of the Teach for All network operating in 36 countries. “TfB is a highly professional and knowledgeable NGO,” she says, “run by Harvard graduates, which is developing, with the support of leading local business aplayers, a platform providing access to quality education to all children, regardless of where they live, which school they go to, and what the financial ability of their parents is.” She is proud of her team’s partnership with TfB, now beginning its fifth year. “I believe more people should be involved in projects and initiatives like that,” she says. “We cannot afford to be just spectators and need to be proactive in solving issues in our communities.”
Five years on, and despite the challenges inherent in a competitive market, Kinstellar’s bet has paid off, Dimova smiles. Although her team of fee-earners has grown from 7 to 17 in that time (with more coming soon), she waves away questions about headcount. “Are we looking to add a few more people?” she asks. “Sure. But my main driver is not to have the largest team in the country. Team size is simply not an ambition for us. The main focus for me is to develop the existing team because we have excellent lawyers and all have potential to grow.” She smiles. “We had to build a team and a brand from scratch, but it was, and it continues to be, a great journey, and I am proud of the team that works with us and the projects we have worked on so far.”