A CEELM interview with Radu Boanta, Partner at CEE Attorneys Bucharest.
CEELM: To start, tell us a few words about CEE Attorneys' operations in Romania.
Radu: Our law firm started out in Romania in 2011. Two of my partners – Nicolae Ursu and Sergiu Gidei – and I were working as corresponding lawyers for PwC Romania at the time, when we decided to set up our own firm. In 2016, we joined the CEE Attorneys' family and became part of a network of law firms similar to our own in terms of size and type of clients they serve.
Currently, our firm has 16 lawyers and five counsels. We specialize in a vast array of areas, including corporate, M&A, data protection, capital markets, pharma and healthcare, real estate, agriculture, tech start-ups, regulatory, corporate, commercial, gambling. We take pride in our ability to take good care of our clients and to utilize our expertise to deal with many sectors of industry.
CEELM: That’s quite a large spread of practice areas. How do you handle it all with a relatively small team?
Radu: Our team is multidisciplinary, so they work across practices much of the time. Situations in which we need expertise that exceeds our own, like tax consultancy, for example, is when our Of Counsels step in and shine. The same goes for criminal law and white-collar crime.
We’ve set up shop in a way to have two broad divisions: Litigation and Consultancy. In both of these, our lawyers specialize in a plethora of practice areas.
CEELM: What were your team's main areas of focus traditionally and how, if at all, did change in 2020?
Radu: Our specific focuses during this period were: corporate and M&A, pharmaceuticals, real estate, dispute resolution, technology, in industries such as retail, agriculture, tech start-ups, financial services. The volume of work went up in all of these sectors. We were able to partake in cross-border projects in retail, telecommunications, industrial technology, and oil & gas.
The increase of work here is a reflection of the interest in these specific markets – and we’ve been surprised ourselves about some of them. For instance, we expected real estate to be less active this year, due to the pandemic, but it was quite the contrary – it remained very active and challenging!
Other areas were less affected by the pandemic, so it wasn’t that big of a surprise that they performed quite well. Retail was the most active one, followed by agriculture and financial services. These were not affected by the pandemic in any significant manner and businesses that operate in these fields used the opportunity to develop and grow this year via digitalization and novel communication systems that gave them a leg up.
While this might seem odd at a first glance, I firmly believe that it is natural. These industries are like organisms – they grow and evolve at their usual pace, and external shocks, like the pandemic, might slow them down a bit, but cannot stifle their growth.
CEELM: This past year has been difficult for many businesses. How did yours weather the storm?
Radu: We employed a strong continuity strategy to ensure that business continued as planned. We invested in the team, attracting one new partner in our Litigation department – Iulia Stanciulescu-Ilie – and two senior lawyers for our Consultancy department.
This, also, involved a lot of time management – splitting our time, working from home and the office, during the lockdown in Romania. We operated on a hybrid rotation system and put all of our efforts behind holding down key clients. Luckily for us, there was a lot of immediate work such as renegotiating rent agreements, dealing with employment law uncertainties, and the like. We stayed close to our clients and helped them manage these situations and ride out the initial shock.
All of this came naturally to us, regardless of the complicated situation. Our partners are very involved in all of the projects the firm undertakes and they devote a lot of their time and effort to understanding the client's needs in a precise and quick way and to communicating and offering solutions. This allowed us to respond to any and all vague, unclear, and hazy problems in a dynamic fashion. Simply put, we were there for our clients, day in and day out.
CEELM: Human contact and partner contact is a key element in this profession. How do you ensure this proximity to the client when you lose the ability to connect with them and catch up casually? How do you nurture this interpersonal relationship when you have to distance yourself?
Radu: There has been a lot of trouble when it comes to being close to someone and being there for them. Everything moved online so suddenly, but we adapted successfully.
While it may have been strange at first, having video calls with your clients while their children are running around in the background and things like that actually brought us closer to each other. This immediate humanity in the face of a shared struggle compensated for the lack of physical proximity. It is not the same as sharing time in coffee shops and restaurants for sure, but it was not subpar – the need for social contact and being in the presence of someone has moved online. In a way, same-but-different.
However, it has taken us more to be able to be there for our clients properly. I’d say that we spent around 30% more of our time than usual online or on the phone. While it has been quite an effort, it all came naturally to us. And, it continued, well after the lockdown ended.
CEELM: How do you believe the legal services market will be changed after 2020? Any trends you can see on the horizon?
Radu: Romania currently has a moratorium in place for credits, loans, tax duties, and the like. In some of these cases – at least for bank loan payments – the moratorium expires on December 31. So we believe that there will be a strong uptick in related cases. Looking forward to 2021, we expect to see an increase in litigation, enforcement, and insolvency, mostly in the SME sector.
Tax litigation for bigger companies is expected to be on the rise as well, for payment defaults, VAT, tax profit, and all things tax, in general. For the other industries, we believe that there will be a good development for real estate projects, as well as agriculture, pharma, fintech, financial services, and startups.
These trends, we believe, are more than likely to be present in 2021 and it’ll be up to us to pierce the veil of Covid and provide our clients with the best possible service.
CEELM: Finally, how are you preparing to adapt your own team to meet this new landscape, both locally and regionally?
Radu: Internally, we never stopped and don’t plan to stop our continuous expansion. We seek to diversify our client portfolio, especially for our Consultancy department, and further our involvement in the IT, fintech, and financial services sectors.
Also, we are looking into attracting other partners in key CEE jurisdictions and to develop cooperation with firms in Germany, Sweden, and Denmark. We wish to strengthen the ties we already have and to expand our areas of operation. For example, we even had a project with China this year and we wish to see further expansion.
Finally, we are investing a lot internally, in our lawyers and team members as well. We try to have day-to-day activities to improve the way in which the team works. We organize monthly training sessions with our team to focus not only on legal expertise but also on time management and intra-team interaction. Especially when it comes to multidisciplinary projects – we believe that team cohesion is improved and strengthened by having people share their experiences and insights with everybody else. Spreading knowledge and learning from one another is key.
As we plan for 2021, we believe that these avenues of approach to going forward will allow us to keep it a good year – as much as possible considering the circumstances.