Erika Papp Takes Over from Gabriella Ormai as Managing Partner at CMS Hungary
After 20 years as CMS’s Managing Partner in Hungary, Gabriella Ormai (left in photo) has decided to step down from that position, handing the office’s reigns to long-time colleague Erika Papp (right in photo). CEE Legal Matters sat down with Ormai and Papp to discuss the change.
CEELM: Gabriella, why are you stepping down as Managing Partner now?
G.O.: There always comes a time when you have to think about what’s next – when it’s time to move on – and I think for us this is the right moment. I am not retiring; I am just stepping down as Managing Partner. I did this job for approximately 20 years – this is something truly historic. I think a fresh eye and leadership could add real value. It has been our plan for a long time that Erika would take over one day. At the same time the office followed the standard election process established at the firm.
CEELM: Tell us a little bit about your background. How and when did you initially join CMS, and when did you become Managing Partner?
G.O.: Until 1989, I had been working at the foreign currency control authority, but I somehow felt that it would not survive for too much longer. I was asked to be one of the founders of a three-person law firm. In June, with the fall of the “walls” in Eastern and Central Europe, everything changed, so it was definitely good timing. Soon after starting the practice I met McKenna & Co. and we started to work together. I was very lucky to meet that firm. Originally we had a small operation, and real growth began in 1995/1996. I became Managing Partner in 1999 when Stephen Forster went back to London.
CEELM: What achievement are you proudest of from your time as Managing Partner?
G.O.: This is easy. We built up the biggest and the best firm in Hungary – and it is not just us who says this. No other law firm in Hungary has as many Band 1 rankings in the independent legal directories as we do. One of the prominent Budapest business journals, for instance, always publishes fresh rankings of the best of the best, and we are there. Of course, remaining at that position is still our biggest challenge, along with finding excellent people. We were lucky; we have great colleagues who allow and help us to grow. In 1996 we had around 10-15 employees. Today we have 70 lawyers, including 10 partners, plus other 60 to 80 staff members.
CEELM: If you could point to one deal or transaction CMS worked on in the past 25 years that you’re proudest of, what would it be?
G.O.: I would say portfolio transactions. We were true pioneers in this area. When we advised AXA Bank on the sale of its Hungarian business to OTP, it was an unprecedented transaction on the Hungarian market. It involved the transfer of a sizable and complex mortgage loan portfolio, based on recent change in the law. We also assisted Erste bank on the acquisition of Citibank’s consumer business and several other high-value and high-profile transactions.
I’m also always proud when a client decides to work with us again after a successful transaction – and this happened with A&N Media too. We assisted them on an acquisition of a regional newspaper called Kisalfold in 1989. This transaction was the first that I did with McKenna and the seller was the Socialist party. 25 years later they instructed us on their strategic exit of leading online job and car portals as well as printing business across six CEE countries in seven jurisdictions.
CEELM: In the past 20 years some firms have withdrawn from the market or shrunk from relevance, and others have taken their place. Erika, how has CMS managed to stay so consistently successful and prominent?
E.P.: In my opinion, we have managed to keep our position because we are seen by our clients and competitors as a friendly law firm. We have an inclusive team, and we focus on creating and maintaining a strong cooperative relationship between lawyers in our firm. International business law is a very competitive field, of course, and it can be difficult to keep our lawyers happy and content with their careers. Gabriella has done a wonderful job at that, and I hope I can continue this tradition.
G.O.: It is also an important factor that we are a full-service law firm, so we provide a wide range of expertise across 19 practice and sector areas, including several niche areas.
CEELM: Erika, how would you describe your personal management style?
E.P.: Our lawyers have different personalities, and everyone is very ambitious, so I try to create incentives by rewarding hard work and cooperation, for example, when we evaluate performance for promotions, we also take into account, apart from financial performance, soft skills such as good relationships with colleagues. We try to foster an open and inclusive work environment. I have an open door policy. This means that we keep our doors physically open all the time, making sure that everyone feels welcome to walk in anytime with a new idea, or a problem, or even just to chat.
CEELM: We are living in interesting times, with advances in technology and artificial intelligence transforming the market. How is CMS keeping abreast with these changes?
E.P.: We are continuously focusing on this issue, because this is how we can preserve our position on the market. Automation, adopting new technologies, and even additional ways of specializing: we are interested in and specialized on it all. Right now we are experimenting with a lot of funky new stuff, like FinTech and Auto-Tech – we are going to give a seminar soon on Auto-tech such as self-driving cars and green energy, and the related legal aspects. So there is a large range of things that we are thinking about to keep us ahead of the game. In my opinion, this is how we can preserve our number one position: by keeping our old policies about cooperation and openness in order to attract the best talent, and by innovating in order to attract new clients.
CEELM: Speaking of technology, do you have any new tools that you are in the process of introducing to clients?
E.P.: We are automating our standard agreements. In the banking team, for example, certain agreements are already automatic, we just push a button and there you go, a first draft is ready. I think this makes us competitive, because we can produce client agreements faster and cheaper than our competitors. Right now, we are working to automate other agreements as well, while trying to specialize in new areas that people don’t even know exist.
CEELM: Erika, you head CMS Hungary’s Banking & Finance practice, while Gabriela co-heads the Commercial and Disputes practices. Will the change of management affect in any way the firm’s focus?
E.P.: Absolutely not. Banking in general is just one aspect at the firm, albeit an important one. As the Managing Partner, my job will be to focus on everything, not only banking.
G.O.: In that sense there will be no change. We have a big commercial group – which in practice includes a lot of things, like litigation, tax, public procurement, and so on. Almost half of our lawyers are in this group, so it’s a diverse team.
CEELM: What do you consider your biggest challenge in taking on this new position?
E.P.: We are in a very good position right now, and I would like to maintain it. That’s a huge challenge. Gabi did a great job with this office and I would like to keep it this way. It’s not going to be easy, as the competition is getting stiffer, other law firms are growing as well, and according to current predictions, in a couple of years we may even face another economic downturn. All in all my goal is long term sustainability and maintaining our position on the market.
CEELM: Gabriella, what advice would you give to Erika?
E.P.: She actually gave me some last night, at 11 pm. She said: “Don’t be stressed, everything will be fine!”
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.