On June 29, 2022, CEE Legal Matters reported that Oppenheim elected new members to its management board, with Istvan Szatmary becoming the firm’s new Managing Partner, while Jozsef Bulcsu Fenyvesi and Aron Laszlo undertook non-executive roles. We spoke with Szatmary, Fenyvesi, and Laszlo and discussed the process of transition, the firm's new agenda, and upcoming plans.
CEELM: Tell us a little about Oppenheim's history. What events preceded the change in the management board?
Laszlo: The firm was founded by Klara Oppenheim in 1989. It was a time when new possibilities opened in the market and there were only a handful of lawyers that could provide services meeting Western standards. As its first foreign relationship, our firm became affiliated with the Austrian law firm Heller Loeber Bahn in 1989. Through a merger, this became Bruckhaus Westrick Heller Loeber, which in 2000 merged again with Freshfields, Deringer Tessin Herrmann & Sedemund, resulting in Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. This merger was an important milestone for Oppenheim, both professionally and culturally, as we learned a lot during the Freshfields period. This arrangement worked very well until 2007 when we decided to found our own firm and we became Oppenheim as we know it today. All the lawyers at the time of the transition stayed with us, including founding members Klara and Ulrike.
At the moment, we have a satellite office in Vienna, with two lawyers who practice in Austria. There, we mostly concentrate on Hungarian businesses operating in Austria.
Fenyvesi: The previous management had been in office since 2007. They had the enormous task of re-establishing and re-inventing the firm and building international alliances. This was a huge challenge in itself because we had to replicate all the infrastructure provided by Freshfields and provide the same level of services to our clients. Still, they were able to establish a firm that operated well independently and kept its reputation of excellence.
Eventually, the former management thought that some refreshment was needed, especially from our young Partners. Aron and I had worked with Oppenheim for a long time, and we were already practice heads meaning that we took some responsibilities for managing the firm, already. When Istvan joined, we knew that he had experience being on a management board of a large group of companies.
Following the change, Istvan became the executive member of the management and we undertook non-executive roles. The idea is that Bulcsu and I aim to carry on with the traditions and the culture of Oppenheim and to further develop the Oppenheim business, while operational functions are in Istvan’s hands.
CEELM: Why did you decide to appoint a person to an executive role from the outside?
Laszlo: Istvan joined Oppenheim as the ACT (Antitrust, Competition, and Trade) head, but the day he joined we saw that he sees things differently, pointing out how structures and processes could be improved for smoother operations. He has an analytical mind and we realized that he could be a very good choice for setting up these new processes. When we started talking about the new management, everyone agreed that it would be a great choice to involve him. And Istvan was ready to take the call.
Bulcsu and I understand the spirit, history, and culture of the firm very well. Bulcsu has been with the firm since 2005 and had also been long involved in the human resources committee, dealing with new hires, salaries, bonuses, etc. As for myself, I joined the firm in 2002 as a student, left in 2005, and came back in 2014, but have always remained a member of the firm’s rock band Tokyo Ukulele, so I have been in the midst of the Oppenheim spirit for over two decades. I have also taken on more and more managerial duties over time.
Szatmary: I had the privilege of seeing Oppenheim from various angles over the years. I saw them as direct competitors on opposite sides of negotiation tables and also as a client. I always thought that this firm operated according to the highest professional standards. After joining Oppenheim, I received strong signals that the firm would be ready to utilize my know-how in the day-to-day management of an organization, as well. It was critical that the previous management was open to changing the system of the management, and that this was an intentional and thought-through process. The message to the community within and outside the firm was that Oppenheim has taken yet another decision that is different from the processes you had seen on the market. A fundamental pattern among Hungarian law firms is that founding partners have been running firms for decades and their best young lawyers may have an issue with trying to find their own way up. Oppenheim’s management was smart enough to see that it could happen to us as well. What they did is actually quite unconventional on the market, but we have always been and will always be a unique and unconventional firm. This has always defined the spirit of the firm and both the former and new management acted within it.
Fenyvesi: I should add, we are very thankful for still being able to rely on the experience and advice of the former management.
CEELM: What was at the top of your agenda – the first thing you started working on?
Szatmary: First, we had to clearly define the core principles of our operation, i.e., that we all believe Oppenheim stands for as a brand, keeping in mind that our personal brands come second and that running a firm is not ruling the firm. We had to figure out how we should work along these lines.
Fenyvesi: We also had to look at the firm’s current settings and operations from HR, financial, and organizational aspects. We personally talked to everyone, including those not directly involved in legal work, to find out what we can learn from our people and to set our priorities. Now we are ticking off boxes along the way. We want to retain an open-door policy for all our staff members.
Laszlo: We have many ideas on how to improve the operation but we also have to bear in mind that Oppenheim has always had a creative, easy-going atmosphere, where young lawyers wanted to work. We want to keep this relaxed atmosphere.
CEELM: Does the firm have any new messages, something that Oppenheim didn’t stand for in the past?
Szatmary: We believe in continuity in terms of the history and the spirit of Oppenheim, so there is no big change in the messaging. Oppenheim’s brand image grew very organically. If you look at it from a helicopter view, our key message is our ability and willingness to lead rather than to follow.
Laszlo: The main message indeed has not changed: lead, don’t follow. We will definitely have to face the challenges affecting our profession including digitalization, AI, and, the changes affecting traditional lawyering in general. We would like to embrace the opportunity to tackle these issues to stay updated and assure the sustainability of our operations.
A secondary message for the legal community could be that a change in management can be a smooth process. The same firm is just run by different people, with former management members still involved in many decision-making processes – we all together make up Oppenheim. It has been a smooth transition and we are ready to show the world that this works as well.