Richard Clegg is a Partner at Wolf Theiss, based in Sofia, working throughout CEE/SEE.
A corporate and regulatory lawyer, he has particular specialization in the telecommunications, technology, and regulated industries and advises on transaction, regulatory, and compliance matters, often in sensitive or challenging circumstances.
How did you get to Bulgaria?
R.C.: I started working on CEE transactions in 2000 as an EU/competition lawyer in London and moved to Bulgaria in 2004 as a member of an Advent International management team to be the General Counsel of Bulgaria Telecom (now Vivacom). The post-privatization period was a time of dramatic transformation. We were privatized into a fully liberalized telecom market and launched the first NGN [Next Generation] network in Europe and Bulgaria’s third mobile operator. In some instances, by leapfrogging technology generations, we were pushing the boundaries of the then-prevailing European regulatory practice.
Was it always your goal to work abroad?
R.C.: My father worked overseas as a chemical engineer in Russia and the Middle East. Without doubt, his experience had a subconscious impact on my interest in working abroad. Saying that, living and working in London was itself, in many ways, an international experience, and one that gave me many opportunities to work on projects in other countries.
Can you describe your practice, and how you built it up over the years?
R.C.: Upon opening the Wolf Theiss office in Bulgaria my work was naturally quite diverse, albeit mainly transactional. Now, with four partners and over thirty lawyers, the office has strong governance, compliance, regulatory, energy, projects, disputes, corporate, and financing practices. This has allowed my personal practice to refocus on providing transactional, regulatory, and strategic advice in the telecommunications, technology, and regulated industries.
There aren’t many expatriate lawyers in Bulgaria, compared to other CEE countries. Why is that?
R.C.: The Bulgarian legal market remains relatively small. Many client companies and individuals may not be aware of or may not have experienced the value that legal professionals can bring to a matter or transaction. The lead time to a mandate can therefore be quite long and involve significant deal making and effort. It is an aspect of working in Bulgaria that I enjoy, and which can develop into strong relationships of trust. It also fits with the culture of Wolf Theiss, which combines academic excellence with entrepreneurship.
Do you find local/domestic clients enthusiastic about working with a foreign lawyer, or do Bulgarian clients prefer working with Bulgarian lawyers?
R.C.: We have always had a good number of Bulgarian clients. I always feel very privileged to be able to work closely with Bulgarian owners and executives and support them through what can be life-changing investment transactions or the expansion of their business into new areas and countries.
There are obviously many differences between the English and the Bulgarian judicial systems and legal markets. What idiosyncrasies or differences stand out the most?
R.C.: Having practiced now in Bulgaria for over ten years, I can see idiosyncrasies both ways. In the technology sector specific challenges arise under Bulgarian law, such as the rights of an IP owner to deal with his/her property. Under Bulgarian law, ownership over IP rights (including software rights) cannot be sold. Certain IP rights can be licensed but only for a limited time period. This means that transactions need to be carefully structured, for example through corporate restructuring, to ensure acquisition of full economic ownership over targeted software rights by a venture capital investor.
What particular value do you think an expatriate lawyer in your role adds – both to a firm and to its clients?
R.C.: Generally, as a foreigner, you are a guest in the country. It is important to listen to and understand the viewpoint or legal interpretation of a counterparty or regulatory authority. However, as a senior expatriate lawyer you have an opportunity to propose solutions or discuss experiences and alternative interpretations that may have worked in other countries, and I can think of many instances where a practical example from elsewhere has helped the parties find consensus. I also find that working throughout CEE gives the opportunity to discuss nearby practical examples, not only how liberalization took place in the UK in the late 90’s, but also how the Czech Republic or Slovakia is currently dealing with a particular issue, e.g., structural separation or national roaming in telecommunications.
Outside of Bulgaria, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most?
R.C.: I always enjoy visiting Belgrade & Budapest but also enjoy traveling around the region. My own regular travel is through airports of course but, several times a year, I try and drive. There are some beautiful roads. One particular favorite is the Sicevo gorge in Serbia on the road between Nis and Sofia, part of the old transcontinental route to Iran and the Middle East.
What’s your favorite place in Sofia?
R.C.: Sofia benefits from an amazing natural location and geography, surrounded by mountains. Bistritsa, a nearby village in the Vitosha Mountains, is a beautiful place for walking, and with the added benefit that it hosts one of Sofia’s best restaurants, Sage Bistro.
This Article was originally published in Issue 3.1. of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.