With Baker McKenzie’s Budapest office celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, we spoke with Partners Zoltan Hegymegi-Barakonyi and Akos Fehervary to learn more about the firm’s track record in the country as well as what we can expect with the former passing on the Managing Partner role to the latter this July.
CEELM: With Baker McKenzie’s Budapest office celebrating its 35-year anniversary in 2022, how has the legal market changed over the years?
Hegymegi-Barakonyi: Baker McKenzie’s Budapest office was established in 1987 as the first western law firm behind the iron curtain, and is one of the most successful firms since then. In the early 1990s, during the large privatizations and opening of the market economy, more than 25 international firms were present in Hungary. Though only a few of these firms had the intention to stay longer and expand their operations beyond those transactions. Baker McKenzie, however, wanted to be a full-service firm, serving clients even after the wave of privatizations and the transformation into a market economy were over. Due to the long-term focus, we developed capabilities beyond pure major transactional work, and, once that decreased, we had the resources to service other areas, such as disputes and general corporate and commercial work.
Fehervary: Indeed, we can be proud of and build on our office’s great history. Nevertheless, the rapidly changing business environment, different client demands, new industries and technologies, as well as our drive for great talent requires us to be able to quickly adapt to such changes and even be ahead of the curve to be successful in the market. Over the years, the changing market led to a new perception of what “lawyering” means. It’s not enough anymore to know the law and draft a contract well. Rather, one should understand the market and industries and provide excellent service to achieve the highest level of client satisfaction. It requires a completely different mindset, skills, and attitude, for which we have always been training our colleagues.
CEELM: Looking back, what were the biggest challenges that the firm had to overcome over the years?
Hegymegi-Barakonyi: We faced the same difficulties as other law firms, such as the financial crisis, the pandemic, etc. We are proud that we have had highly-ranked practices in many areas and provided a full service, meaning we could always balance things out. Specializing in different industries helped us to have a kind of safety. Another reason for our continued success is our strategy to hire the best local talents and a focus on the successful transition of generations. We didn’t have any big mergers or lateral hires, instead, we focused on homegrown talent.
Fehervary: We didn’t experience any drastic internal changes or turbulences. Quite the opposite, the organic growth and the broad coverage of every aspect of business law have helped us even during the more difficult times. We have developed new practices over the years to cope with new challenges, such as compliance, tax, data privacy, and energy. Another major factor was having a combination of foreign and local clients. Having strong roots in the local market – 50% of our clients are local – gives us a better balance than some other similar firms have had.
CEELM: Others also aim to have roots in the local market – what helped you succeed?
Hegymegi-Barakonyi: One of the primary factors is our long-standing deep relationship with our clients. Also, talent has always been an important focus of our firm. For instance, Baker McKenzie organizes nationwide competitions for law school students and many of them come to us to work in the end.
Fehervary: The other reason is the ability to serve every type of client with every kind of operation. Our attention to industries in addition to legal areas is also a distinctive factor, as is the fact that we are often pioneering legal technologies. As a result, we were awarded the International Financial Law Review’s Law Firm of the Year – Hungary title for the second time in a row in 2022, which honors the most innovative cross-border M&A and Banking & Finance transactions.
CEELM: Akos has taken over the position of Managing Partner from July 1. What prompted the change?
Hegymegi-Barakonyi: I made this decision of stepping down after nine years of holding the position of Managing Partner. This is already a record-long tenure at our firm. During the past nine years, I was dealing with client matters as well, especially in competition law, but your focus can never be the same as an MP. Akos joined the firm in 1997, so he knows everything about our firm. Four years ago, he became a principal and thus got into the management of the office and, during the pandemic, he was very actively involved in all strategic decision-making processes. Thus, we thought the time is right for the change. It is a great feeling to pass the position to a colleague that I fully trust.
CEELM: Akos, how are you planning to cope with the additional challenge of also being in charge of the firm?
Fehervary: Definitely, it is an additional challenge but I very much intend to keep on advising clients, in addition to the management of the office. Ultimately, Zoltan and the Partners did a great deal to transform the office into a modern, well-operating company by establishing certain functions, policies, and procedures to operate as a successful firm.
CEELM: If you could look forward to five years from now, what would be your mission statement?
Fehervary: My aim is to continue building a highly business-minded and solutions-oriented system, taking into account technological and industry-focused challenges. The legal profession is becoming a mixture of legal and business advisory, good legal work now requires understanding business motivations, financial aspects, tax, audits, etc. There is a very fine line between what is “legal work” and what is not, and we must be able to assist our clients with a holistic approach. Our firm must be a space where the best talents are eager to work, and which is an attractive, diverse environment for colleagues, irrespective of their age, gender, or orientation.
CEELM: Zoltan, what would be one nightmare for you, once you pass over the keys?
Hegymegi-Barakonyi: First, I look forward to finally sleeping. Jokes aside, everything that Akos mentioned was important to me for years. With current geopolitical movements, we will especially need to focus on our clients and the challenges they face. If our clients’ business is booming, they will need help in investing, while during financial difficulties, we need to provide support on sanctions, restructuring, disputes, etc. In a nutshell, whatever keeps our clients awake at night, should keep us awake as well.
Fehervary: I feel the need to stress that Zoltan is not disappearing. We will still be partners, working in and leading the same office. I know that I can rely on his knowledge and experience, while he will focus more on his competition and IP practices and strengthen the firm through that.