Helena Kokot is the Director of the Legal Affairs Department at the Zagreb International Airport. She joined the ZIA in 2014 after 12 years in the telecommunications sector with Croatian Telecom and T-Mobile Croatia. She got her law degree from the Faculty of Law at the University of Zagreb in 1999.
CEELM: Why did you choose to become a lawyer?
H.K.: When I was a little girl I dreamt of dancing, acting, and writing, and I was making regular pocket money during my school days as a local journalist. I do not know why, but I never felt that these interests were serious enough to become my occupation. At the same time, I could picture myself doing “right and meaningful things” and “fighting for good against wrong.” I did not realize that not all lawyers defend human rights or are litigators in cases to help the weaker party, which a child usually sees in movies, but it felt like this would be worth my time and education. Once I finished law school and started practicing law, I soon realized that my need for justice helped to understand why a legal norm or a rule in fact entered the legal system, what the purpose of the law was, and how I could apply it or challenge it in order to solve or avoid problems – and how I could explain this all to clients to be on the right track. I have been guided by this feeling and understanding in my everyday work as a lawyer. Of course, there are some rules that really frustrate everyone, but isn’t it, at the same time, the beauty of this job – to find the right solution for your client no matter what the legal frame is?
CEELM: You started your career in a law firm. How did you adapt to working in-house?
H.K.: In some way the first years of working as in-house lawyer, after three years of going to court and different legal bodies every day, was a new start for me. At first it seemed even easier to work with no “real legal problems” – or so I thought – because I finally had the chance to prevent problems by legal work, advice, and control of business, unlike in a law firm, where lawyers deal with already-created problems and are stacked with client projects or breached regulations by clients.
I think this impression was possible because I started to work in a green-field mobile operation, just kicked-off by a major telco incumbent in Croatia. The mobiles business had the great opportunity to start from scratch, with no inherited past, no unsolved proceedings. The legal work was concentrated on putting due and efficient care of all legal aspects and of challenges in the setup of a new organization (in concurrence of the market share and trust of customers), on creating and building competitive products, services, and mobile infrastructure, and on solving disputes with partners or customers in an amicable and partnership way. I remember these years as demanding, creative, and thrilling, so I guess it was a challenging and motivating adaptation.
CEELM: What are the biggest challenges in leading the legal department of an international airport?
H.K.: The biggest international airport of Croatia is, as of end of 2013, operating under the business model of long term concession partnership between foreign investors and the Croatian state, where the pre-defined milestones of the concession plan are approved and expected by the concession grantor, lenders, and shareholders. This is quite challenging in a growing industry that requires coping with increasing amounts of traffic and airline and passenger demands at the same time.
Timely construction of new airport facilities and managing airport operations within such milestones need to be to the benefit of all these stakeholders and in an absolute legal compliance, not only with regulations, but with the concession and financing agreements.
On the other hand, constant commercial and traffic pressures require specific legal guidance, solutions, and support in all restructuring projects the concessionaire is implementing to the inherited organization, in human resources and equipment, in order to increase the airport’s efficiency and competitiveness in the country and in the region.
From the beginning of the concession, the legal department was managing, preparing, and implementing the tenders, negotiations, approval processes, and closing of sales, as well as the restructuring of other companies under control of concessionaire. The legal department supported different processes in the construction phase of the concession and in settlements with the contractor and different permitting bodies on various issues that occurred and could have delayed construction.
For the timely opening of the new passenger terminal the lawyers were involved in all tenders for providers of airport activities and tenants. My legal team was at one-point handling numerous negotiations in parallel with different parties to close all the contracts related to the new terminal before its opening. In addition, our lawyers were helping make and implement terms and policies for airlines, passengers, and other airport users, as well new insurance schemes. We also have specific legal regulatory issues to tackle in the area of air traffic regulations, and we already have new projects on the horizon to continue increasing airport efficiency.
CEELM: What skills are most critical in your line of work?
H.K.: We need to handle a variety of legal subjects, providing not only regular legal support to airport activities and management, but also coping with all required additional concession projects. So, we need to have – and we do have – lawyers able to handle different legal items simultaneously and to manage our time and daily priorities with our dedicated involvement in separate projects. In this line of work research and writing abilities are critical, as is logical reasoning, attention to detail, an ability to ask the right questions, and good communication skills, and maybe most importantly, an orientation to the best results in the available time.
CEELM: What lawyers most inspired or educated you at the beginning of your career? What did you learn from them?
H.K.: Those who are ready and able to put their time and energy into solving and fixing complex legal situations. They are intrigued by it and they do not quit, as they are able to look at a problem from many angles to finally find the one that corresponds to the best possible legal solution. And those lawyers who are willing to pass their knowledge to others to get even more back. Such legal minds and attitudes motivate me to push my limits and not to forget to share new experiences and understandings with my colleagues.
CEELM: How do you relax after a long day at work?
H.K.: Mostly with my family, although when it comes to my kids, it is again active relaxation like playing football in the park or doing other outdoor activities. When I find real free time for myself only, I take it for classic activities like reading, working out, or just spending my time meeting friends in the city to chat, catch up, and maybe go to a concert or movie together.
CEELM: What one thing would people be most surprised to know about you?
H.K.: Small things, like I am a true fan of the old Nick Cave music and roller coasters. I also love long trips – my favorite times for day-dreaming. Such things nicely go together for me.
CEELM: If you hadn’t become a lawyer, what other profession would you be doing? Why?
H.K.: Looking back at your first question and my reply, I guess I might have been a journalist or something in the acting business. But actually, I do not know, I never thought too much about it. If it had to be something different, I wish it could be something to discover my new me.
This Article was originally published in Issue 5.5 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.