I started my legal career back in 1993 as a student clerk, and over the past 25 years I have literally grown up with the firm. I’ve had the pleasure of advising clients during some of the most exciting periods in Czech history – from the “Wild Wild East” of the nineties, to EU accession, through the global financial crisis and recovery.
Looking back at the last 25 years, here are a few observations about what the transformation of the Czech market means to us as lawyers.
A Crowded Playing Field
In 1991, there were three international law firms in the Czech Republic, so as one of my first mentors said, each of us had a 33% chance of winning. Life was easy. No one was looking at costs, hourly billing was the only thing clients knew, and no one counted the hours.
Since then, many firms have come and gone, and today there are over 40 Chambers-ranked law firms in the Czech Republic, all fighting for a piece of the pie.
What separates the successful firms from those that fade away? First, you’ve got to be good. If you deliver value, clients will keep coming back. Second, you have to be dedicated. The firms which have survived are those which remained committed to the Czech market and kept going through the ups and downs of the economy. Finally, you need to be flexible and find ways to deliver services better, faster, and cheaper.
It’s hard to imagine how we survived before smartphones, but in some ways our lives as lawyers were simpler then. In the early nineties, no one in his right mind thought of giving legal advice by email. A fax came in on Monday, confirmation was sent on Tuesday, work was done the day after and sent to the client on Friday. In between, lawyers had plenty of time to think, discuss, bill time, and enjoy life.
Today, all this happens within hours, if not minutes. I have a client who forwards me an internal message with a question mark and expects to hear back within five minutes. If he doesn’t get a response, he sends two question marks, sometimes followed by an exclamation mark.
Clients expect us to be available 24/7, and they want an answer right away. As one of our clients said recently, “the worst thing a lawyer can do is say it cannot be done.” As lawyers at reputable firms, clients already assume we are good. Often what makes the difference between winning and losing is how fast we respond.
Knowing Where to Look
After the revolution, the laws in the Czech Republic were relatively easy to navigate, understand, and interpret. But as a result of legal reforms, Czech law has swelled up like a sponge and is often so complex that even some judges get lost. If you add the cross-border element into the mix, it is clear that practicing law today is significantly harder than it was before.
So do you need a photographic memory to be a good lawyer? No, but you do need a solid foundation of basic legal knowledge. You also need to know where to go to find information. That often means reaching out to a colleague in a different office or practice who has the knowledge your client needs.
Finding the Right Motivation
For law school graduates in Prague in the nineties, working for a large international law firm was the holy grail. Influenced by movies like “The Firm” and “The Devil’s Advocate,” we were keen to jump into private practice. Working long hours made us feel closer to Wall Street. We wanted to save the world and get paid for it.
Now, young lawyers want a more balanced life; they want to start families, and they don’t necessarily need to get rich. This is not laziness, as many of my generation claim – lawyers today have to work faster and deal with more complexity than ever before. Rather, they have different priorities and more choices, so they can afford to be picky. In addition to having more law firms to choose from, being a judge or a general counsel with a major corporation are now dream jobs for many young lawyers.
Good people are harder to find, so our job as leaders is to inspire and motivate them. In my experience, the best motivation for talented lawyers is still the chance to do interesting work for great clients, and the opportunity to learn from the best.
Love What You Do
As JFK said, “change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” As lawyers, we need to be open to change, but at the same time, keep doing what we do best and have fun doing it.
Perhaps in the end, all we need to do is keep trying to save the world and get paid for it.
By Ladislav Storek, Managing Partner, Dentons
This Article was originally published in Issue 5.6 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.