HP Legal Hajdu & Partners was established in Budapest in 2008, in what feels like a different age. Celebrating 15 years in business, Partners Laszlo Hajdu, Reka Versics, and Steven Conybeare reflect on the firm’s early days, share some lessons learned, and toast to 15 more.
CEELM: Tell us how it all started – what were the early days of your firm like?
Hajdu: We all came from international law firms with international backgrounds. However, we always had the strong desire to start something of our own, a venture that we could build for ourselves. Establishing our own firm meant entrepreneurial freedom, allowing us to decide on our client base, our strategy, and which transactions to work on. We aimed to play in the same league as the international firms but with greater flexibility and tailored advice to meet specific needs.
We knew the first few years would be difficult, starting in a small office. Being on our own also meant that we lacked the support of larger firms from cities like London or New York. Nevertheless, we were committed to maintaining the essence of our business and never giving up.
Conybeare: When considering the beginnings of the market, there was a very specific context in Hungary. When I first visited Budapest in 2004, large London and New York firms were dominant. As the deals became smaller and less lucrative, these firms gradually withdrew, leaving behind remnants of their businesses. Consequently, there were many highly educated and trained individuals locally.
We saw that there would be an increasing demand for lawyers who understood the business of law and the positive benefits of maintaining relationships with international firms – foreign investors were coming in and local investors were also aware that they had to comply with globally recognized standards for running businesses. As a result, there was a real opportunity for local lawyers to step up and satisfy the growing demand for more sophisticated clients.
Versics: Such changes opened new opportunities for boutique law firms like ours. While international law firms may follow different strategies, we were always interested in helping clients in a more holistic manner, providing legal support while understanding the local mindset, which continues to involve thinking outside the box and solving problems creatively with a similar level of professionalism.
CEELM: How has your firm evolved over the years and what were the main difficulties you had to face?
Conybeare: The key challenges experienced in the initial period were twofold: one was external, related to attracting clients, and the other one was related to the internal management of a new law firm.
Attracting clients is crucial for any law firm – being excellent lawyers alone is never sufficient to succeed as, without clients, we were merely good law professors at best. In our case, we relied on our relationships with people primarily through our old firms, but that was not enough. Personal branding has been crucial for us throughout the period when a successful international law firm was no longer backing us. We realized that every conversation we had with clients, colleagues, or counterparties was an opportunity to create a meaningful connection. It was not just about the firm or the brand, but about the individual lawyer, as clients are more likely to build long-term relationships with someone they remember and trust.
Hajdu: Internally, it was important to find like-minded individuals who shared a similar mindset. However, it was challenging to find people who were ready and willing to work in this way. Therefore, we focused on finding legal professionals who thought like entrepreneurs and shared our vision of creating something new and different.
Versics: Even before joining the firm, I was guided by a key factor in my career: I have heard many times from businesspeople that lawyers lacked a comprehensive understanding of what business truly entails. Their general comment was that lawyers simply wrote legal jargon without grasping the specific needs or goals of the clients. I wanted to be a lawyer who not only knew the law but also understood what my clients aimed to achieve and with knowledge of how to help them do so effectively. This thinking is what I found in this firm and what we are building together.
CEELM: Looking back, what are the significant lessons learned from these challenges?
Conybeare: Recently, it dawned on me that lawyers essentially lease out their minds to clients, whether they enjoy it or not. As a lawyer, one must possess two key factors: an excellent ability to listen and comprehend what the client wants, and the legal knowledge to ensure their objectives are successfully met. Although not every client will be a good match and vice versa, it's about selling intangible services. This is where one must distinguish oneself from the competition. While investing millions in marketing is an option, one's appearance, communication style, and behavior are what ultimately matter when interacting with clients.
Additionally, part of the excitement in our line of work is working with international law firms as counterparties in negotiations. They tend to enlist junior lawyers who specialize in various areas such as tax, labor, property, and banking. However, to successfully close deals, it is always beneficial to have someone who has a comprehensive understanding of the entire transaction. While expertise is undoubtedly essential, it is this overview, with an overarching comprehension, that ultimately drives the deal.
Versics: In my experience, the most important tools of a good lawyer are effective communication and listening skills. There are plenty of smart lawyers in this industry; why clients come to us is our ability to understand their needs, identify their problems, and propose a practical solution that will bring their businesses forward.
CEELM: On the flip side, what was your first major win, either in terms of projects or the team?
Hajdu: It wasn't until after seven or eight years that we finally achieved satisfaction with our client base, reputation in the market, and competitors’ acknowledgment of us as a top-tier finance and corporate firm. Our success came from accumulating numerous small victories, including securing our first major mandates and learning to work effectively as a team. Despite the most recent challenges presented by external factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, sanctions, and political changes, our ability to adapt and overcome these obstacles has solidified our confidence in our abilities. And our clients’ trust in us.
Versics: From my perspective, a mandate or a big project isn't necessarily required for success in the job. The ultimate victory is when the client recognizes our capabilities, and we develop a productive working relationship. This is the triumph that I would value above all else.
CEELM: Finally, tell us a bit about HP Legal’s strategy for the next 15 years.
Conybeare: For me, success lies in identifying the areas where we need to excel, anticipating changes on the horizon, and recognizing where lawyers can be productive and useful. Compared to ChatGPT, which provides answers but lacks the ability to ask questions, we focus on assimilating and assembling all the facts our clients have, listening to their needs, and distilling those into higher value-added services. IT professionals are automating every process they can, and where we can add value is not simply by generating automated answers, but by understanding and generating the right questions to ensure we have the full picture. We have been ahead of the curve on this for some time, and it gives us a competitive edge.
Hajdu: AI will take over some tasks, including in the legal profession, and businesses will change accordingly. However, there will always be a need for lawyers who can think like both lawyers and businessmen, offering sophisticated, complex, and structured advice in a manner that clients can understand.
And, for example, while clients may not need lawyers to set up a company in the future, they will need them to offer strategic advice, take advantage of new models and structures, and put together a team of legal, IT, and financial experts to provide complex advice. This is what we need to understand and apply in the future, moving beyond contract writing and the basics of data protection and compliance to a more sophisticated, business-oriented way of thinking. As far as we can see, this approach is being applied by big US and London law firms, and we are basing our strategy on this same approach to ensure our future success.
Versics: What we do best here at HP Legal is adapt to new challenges, may those be digitalization, economic changes, or the expansion of new industries. Our goal is to continue this approach and look for like-minded young lawyers who share our way of thinking.