An interview with Charles Clarke of Vilgerts, about his path from the UK to Latvia.
CEELM: Run us through your background, and how you ended up in Latvia.
Clarke: Shortly after completing my LLM in Competition at King’s College London, back in 2014, I was afforded the opportunity to kick-start my legal career in Big Law at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher’s Brussels office, practicing EU competition law. After a couple of years, I moved on to Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer’s Brussels office, as an Associate in competition law, and a couple of years later to Willkie Farr & Gallagher’s office in London. During these periods of my career, I was afforded the unique opportunity to learn and work with some of the industry’s most renowned and experienced competition lawyers. The valuable experience and knowledge acquired have guided me throughout my career to date and gifted me with life-long friendships.
Towards the end of 2019, I decided to set up a base in Latvia, as my wife is based in Riga and I saw an opportunity to bring my practice, as well as international experience to the table. While I was commuting back and forth from London to Riga for a period, it did not appear sustainable in the long run. I was very sad to leave the Willkie competition team in London (and they know that!), but I decided to give this phase in life a go, as being with family is just as important as progressing with your career. Upon my permanent arrival to Latvia, I began searching for a position in a Riga-based law firm that had an international sphere and was likely to be able to cater to my specialty and skill-set. Given my previous interactions with the leading pan-Baltic firms, these were natural choices of where I might be able to fit in, however, I landed no apparent success. This is likely to have been due to the start of the global pandemic – very unfortunate timing. After a couple of months scouting the marketplace, I was introduced to Gints Vilgerts and his top-tier competition team at the Vilgerts law firm, who invited me to join the team as Counsel and I accepted. The strength, reputation, and depth of experience of the Vilgerts’ competition team provided for a very solid and welcoming entry into the Latvian legal marketplace. After a year, I have had the opportunity to practice my area of specialty in Latvia and have worked on some very interesting international and local competition law matters.
CEELM: Was it always your goal to work abroad?
Clarke: Although it was never my ultimate goal, opportunities presented themselves and I decided to take hold of them.
CEELM: How would clients describe your working style? What about management style? How do you think it varies from the “common” Latvian one, if at all?
Clarke: One of the most valuable lessons I learned was being able to adapt to different working styles, sought after by both colleagues and clients. If you are robotic in your approach it is difficult to adapt. Although not my place to say, clients attach value to my understanding of the underlying issues and more importantly, providing a concise and direct response. The latter is imperative – if there is no trust in a relationship then there is nothing. Efficient and complete research abilities, as well as keeping up to date with legal developments, something which I have developed over the years, also carry a value of importance for clients. Final work product quality is also essential – if there is a single typo, clients will pick up on it and I can tell you, there is no worse feeling. I would say I have carried over the Big Law gene into the firm, which is providing a very valuable asset to both colleagues and clients (except for the late-night emails!). Management is always difficult, and more so when you come from a completely different working culture. This is something you have to work with and mold into.
CEELM: Are there any significant differences between the judicial systems and legal markets in your home country and Latvia? Which stand out the most?
Clarke: Primarily, the civil vs. common law system.
The legal market here is very small, competitive, and relatively stable at the top end. Most of the international workstreams are funneled through the larger pan-Baltic firms, making it very difficult for other local firms to access and gain visibility. Conflicts here can also be an issue given the size of the marketplace, which presents its own set of challenges. Fixed budget caps appear to be much more common than hourly fees. There is also certainly not the same movement of lawyers between firms as in the UK – it appears to be virtually non-existent.
CEELM: What about the cultures? Which differences strike you as most resonant and significant?
Clarke: In Latvia, there is a very clear work-life balance that is heavily respected at all levels. While not a large city, Riga is very multi-cultural and very welcoming to all foreigners. Ligo is by far and large one of the most fascinating cultural differences – it is like having another Christmas in the summer!
CEELM: Do you have any plans to move back?
Clarke: At this particular stage in life, you should always keep your options open. We never know what is around the corner and when opportunities may present themselves.
CEELM: Outside of Latvia, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most, and why?
Clarke: No particular preference, they equally have left wonderful memories.
CEELM: What’s your favorite place to take visitors to in Riga?
Clarke: Riga Central Market is a must and so is the Old Town. Riga Central Market is one of a kind and a great experience all around.
The Old Town has some wonderful restaurants and there is even a Belgian beer bar, which cannot be missed!