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The Ace In The Hole: Ronald Given is Wolf Theiss’s Secret Weapon

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The original plan was simple. After a long and distinguished legal career in the United States, Ron Given would move to Europe, manage a small office of a regional law firm in Europe for a few years, then retire. That’s not how it worked out. 

“Ron Given comes from an environment that in terms of how law firms function, what they do, what they don’t do, how they approach many things, in terms of partner evaluation and partner contributions that are more necessary than others, he has done these things with Mayer Brown for years and years, so the main role Ron has is to be here as a learning aid for others, coming from a universe that is much more advanced than we are in Europe, let alone in the countries we are talking about when we talk about the region of Wolf Theiss. Second, Ron has excellent legal capabilities, and can show also to the very young how they must draft and write a memo so that a reader from a more developed market, be it the UK or the US or whatever, can perceive it as a piece of work they see as adding value, and not only a description of what the law says and what the problems are. So his knowledge, his handling of clients, but also his willingness to mentor and pass that on to a younger generation is of incredible value for us.”

– Erik Steger, Managing Partner, Wolf Theiss 

A Simple Plan

 

After three years in Croatia, and after the stylish silver-haired Given had turned Wolf Theiss’s Zagreb office into a stable, profitable, and valuable part of the firm, he agreed to become resident Senior Partner in the firm’s Kyiv and Prague offices, providing strategic leadership to each. And in April, 2015, having now strengthened those two offices as well, he agreed to move once again to recreate his magic in the firm’s Warsaw office.

Altogether, since joining Wolf Theiss in 2008, Given has mentored many dozens of lawyers, from junior associates to Managing Partners, improved the firm’s client service, generated millions of dollars of business, and demonstrated a geographic and professional flexibility that is, decidedly rare.

Background


Ron Given’s plate is so full in Central Europe, and his role so extensive, that there’s limited space to address his 30+ years as a lawyer in the United States. Suffice it to say he got his law degree from the Indiana University School of Law in 1978 – the same year he began his career as an international corporate lawyer (and, before long, as Partner, Corporate and Banking) at Mayer Brown in Chicago. 

At Mayer Brown Given took lead roles in the firm’s expansion into Asia and Mexico, and was lead manager with numerous financial institutions and manufacturing and technology companies in Asia, the United States, and Europe. He was remarkably successful, working on hundreds of complex and challenging deals and other client matters, and by the time he left the firm it had grown to approximately 1500 lawyers working in offices in 19 cities (though, ironically, none in CEE), and was by revenue one of the largest and successful firms in the world.

In June 2007 Given agreed to go in-house with one of his clients, accepting a position as Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Argo Group International Holdings, a Bermuda-based international insurance holding company.

It turned out, however, he wasn’t quite ready to settle down yet, however. “I had wanted to have an international experience,” he recalls. “I had done international work my entire life, but traveling to Tokyo and staying in the Imperial Hotel, my wife would always tell me, is hardly having a real international experience.” Thus, a little more than a year after leaving private practice, Given responded to a legal recruiter’s contact, and in October, 2008, he accepted the invitation to become Managing Partner of Wolf Theiss’s Zagreb office. Although he had never been to Croatia, and although his initial plan had been to move to Asia, Given smiles, “the opportunity from Wolf Theiss came up, and things just seemed to click.”

Croatia

“Ron helped us through some really incredible, once-in-a-career kind of legal issues. Many of the things we accomplished there I don’t think would have been accomplished as quickly but for his assistance and his advice. Having an American mentality mentoring good young bright Croatian lawyers gave us the best of people who understood the Croatian legal system and people who were wanting to be trained in a Western form of delivery of legal services, eager to learn, and were in the presence of a great mentor.” 

– Ann Bruder, former General Counsel of Commercial Metals Company.

In Zagreb, Given took over a struggling office hampered by a hostile bar association that was suspicious of international firms and that frowned upon advertising, marketing, and many modern forms of business development. 

He remembers being initially knocked back by the challenges he discovered waiting for him in Croatia. “By the end of my first week,” he says, “I knew I had gotten myself into something I had never dreamed of, ever. For many many reasons. But then you just commit, and learn to live with all the strange, interesting, ridiculous things that happen every day, and then you just have to have confidence in yourself.”

One of his primary tasks was ensuring the office’s competitiveness – a goal he achieved by focusing on the team’s English skills, client relationships, and overall work product. Regarding the former, he laughs, he insisted that the lawyers in the office use only English in emails – even internally – until the day came that it became clear that it was no longer necessary. “I told them, ‘guys, you’re good enough, you can write in whatever language you want.’”

In terms of work product, he says, “it’s a day to day thing, you have to be there, you have to get down into a lot of the details like marking up people’s written product by hand, so they had to make my connections themselves, which meant they had to go through them one by one.” 

Of course, he also provided guidance on how to interact with clients, both in person and in writing. He made a point of taking lawyers with him to client meetings, so they could see “how a more seasoned lawyer, and an internationally sensitive lawyer, behaves with clients. Things that you should say, and the approaches you should take.” Ultimately, he reminded the office’s young lawyers, “to live with the reality that the world doesn’t revolve around the legal element of things. You’re part of it, but it doesn’t revolve around it. You have to be sure that you’re playing the right role.”

Within a few years he had significantly improved the office’s work product, putting it at or above the level of the competition; improved the office’s accessibility and dependability for work sent from Wolf Theiss’s network; created a sustainable pipeline of independent revenues, and increased the cohesion within the office and integration with the firm’s regional presence. All while remaining a hands-on, practicing lawyer, regularly depended on by high-profile clients.

Current Wolf Theiss Zagreb Managing Partner Luka Tadic-Colic – who Given hired and groomed as his eventual replacement as Managing Partner – says that: “Certainly working with somebody who’s had so much experience with an international law firm and worked on so many major deals is something you can benefit from a lot. He adds a layer of strategic thinking that’s very useful.” Tadic-Colic added that, “Ron is very loyal. He was always back you up, and is always willing to offer his advice and support.”

Other lawyers in the office praise Given as well. According to Associate Luka Colic (no relation to the similarly-named Managing Partner of the office), “the best way to understand is to look at the world before Ron and after Ron. Prior to his arrival, everything was a lot messier. His arrival marked the beginning of the Zagreb success story.”

Dalibor Valincic, Partner & Head of Dispute Resolution at Wolf Theiss in Croatia, agrees. “We experienced a quantum leap in what we were doing. It was a clash of cultures in many ways but a positive one, which made us think of the legal profession in a different manner than before. He taught me to look at the profession from a more entrepreneurial view in which the client comes first and it’s not just a matter of the client coming in, typing something up, giving him the memo, and moving on.” 

When asked to describe her American boss’s style, Dubravka Putanec, the Wolf Theiss Office Manager in Zagreb, says: “He had a strong coach approach. He was very open. He likes us to come forward and be proactive and give solutions and think ahead. He had an open door policy and I liked the fact that you did not need an agenda. You could just step in and discuss what you needed.”

The open door policy is part of Given’s commitment to supporting and encouraging the lawyers who work under him. For his part, Colic remembers one year, on his birthday, being asked to attend a dinner party at Given’s house for a client, with dinner cooked by Given’s wife (“he was very personal like that”), because Given believed the opportunity to interact with the client in that setting was a rare opportunity for the young lawyer. Despite the focus on the client, Colic recalls, Joan Given also baked him a birthday cake: “something you would never expect from a Croatian boss.” 

This is consistent with Given’s  identifiably American practice of praising the quality lawyers he works with. In Croatia, he recalls, “I kept telling everybody how good they were. “You tell everybody how good they are, and the theory is they will rise to the occasion. And I have to say, it worked. In Croatia, it worked better than I ever thought.”

Given’s successes in Croatia went beyond the personal, of course, and the evidence of his achievements goes beyond the anecdotal. Wolf Theiss is now consistently ranked as the leading international firm in Croatia, and Legal500 ranks them as top tier in all significant practice areas. In addition, Wolf Theiss reports that the office’s revenue per Full Time Equivalent almost doubled under Given’s leadership, rising from EUR 84,813 in 2009 to 153,417 in 2012.

Given looks back on his time by the Adriatic with pride. “It was a very, very closed market, and there are firms there that because of legacy reasons have been able to develop in ways and get a market position that is difficult to crack into. But as far as firms that are now 100% Croatian, which our operation now is, that someone could walk into and think, ‘you know, there may be a slight accent here, but I’m getting the same kind of service that I would in Dallas, or New York, or Chicago’ … I think we’ve done it.” Even here, he’s careful to acknowledge the other members of his time. “I like to think I had something to do with that,” he says of the office’s growth. “But a lot of it is also the talent of the people and the opportunity.

Kyiv/Prague

“Ron was able to grasp the idea of our company and the particulars of the situation very well. He was able to balance the expectations of our company and the requirements of local law. He was really a very good negotiator, because he was very patient, and he was always easing the tension between our team and the employer, because it was sometimes very high, but he was able to calm everyone down. He was a very good negotiator. There were two associates who were helping us draft the text of the agreements, but in negotiations, and checking and reading every document, and the provisions and the articles in the contracts, he was actually working by himself, and he was working all the time.” 

– Bora Kaya, former General Counsel of Ronesans Holding

The decision to move on from Croatia was initiated by Given himself, upon concluding that he had accomplished his mission in the country and that Tadic-Colic was ready to take over. He declared his plans to Wolf Theiss Managing Partner Erik Steger, who suggested that either Kyiv or Prague could benefit from Given’s skills. “And I visited both places,” he says, “and talked to the Managing Partners, and I came back and said, ‘I can’t see either place alone, but I could do both.’” He laughs. “I think no-one saw that coming.”

In Prague he entered an office led by a new hire, Tomas Rychly, who had recently come over from Clifford Chance to help the office stabilize after a number of senior lawyers – including the previous Managing Partner – had defected to DLA Piper. Rychly had not been a Partner at Clifford Chance before joining Wolf Theiss, and his previous management experience consisted of the three-person team he had led at the Magic Circle firm. Rychly says, “I’m not a natural-born manager. I could definitely benefit from help and experience. And when the management suggested that Ron – whose role in Croatia was coming to a natural end – and I work together, I welcomed this idea very much.”

Rychly says Given’s focus on the importance of business development to a modern legal practice was particularly useful. “The natural tendency as a lawyer– and I admit it is mine as well – is that the client is king, and anything that isn’t client-related is rubbish. But there are many initiatives which ultimately help to get more clients. Your practice group calls, and you have brochures to prepare, and Chambers submissions, and things like that, and traditionally they are hugely unpopular. People hate it. It’s burdensome. And the lesson from Ron here was, you should take it as a client job. You have deadlines, you have product, it should be first class product, and you shouldn’t make any compromises. It must be the same as a memo you’re sending to a client. it should have, generally speaking, the same priority as client work, because it helps to get clients later on. He was great in this kind of persistence.”

Rychly also appreciates how free Given was with his time, and how dedicated he was to improving all aspects of the office. “If he was free, he would read an email of a junior associate, and suggest how to improve it in terms of commercial-minded advice, drafting, and so on. But at the same time he would be willing to meet with me and a potential senior candidate we were considering hiring to shape the potential compensation package, and business case, and things like that. It was a great help. ... During his tenure here, for two years, I must say, I learned a great deal.”

In Ukraine, of course, Given entered a much more turbulent climate, with military conflict in the country, and rebellion, gunshots, and potential existential threats distracting his lawyers and scaring away potential clients. He says, speaking of the Maidan revolution, that “most of the pro-tests took place on what had been my regular jogging route. I changed my route when I started seeing too many guys with guns. My apartment was the closest to the office so in addition to checking the weather I would often look out my window in the morning to see if the streets seemed calm enough to open the office.” Looking back on that time, he says, “I am very proud of the fact that our Ukrainian lawyers and staff kept the office running for the benefit of our clients through the worst of it.”

Despite the mood in the country, Given focused on keeping the office looking forward and pulling together. He hearkens back to last December’s holiday party, which some of the lawyers in the office suggested should be skipped entirely, given the circumstances. He insisted that it go forward, and says the result “was actually the best such event I have ever attended.” Instead of a traditional gathering, he recalls, the office “used half of our party budget to buy antibiotics that were needed by a local military hospital, [and] before the party, to which lawyers, staff, clients, spouses and children were invited, we stopped by the hospital and delivered the medicine.” 

According to Wolf Theiss Managing Partner Erik Steger, Given “proved to be very helpful in Prague. And in Ukraine, with the circumstances we’ve seen in this country, we hoped – and Ron delivered – that he could help them as well.” 

As in Zagreb, the firm’s performance and profitability improved dramatically during Given’s time assisting in the management of the Prague and Kyiv offices, as revenue per full-time equivalent grew from EUR 147,385 a year in Prague when he arrived in 2012 to EUR 173,385 when he left in 2014, and from EUR 154,143 a year in Kyiv to EUR 188,185.

Poland and the Future

After two successful years in Kyiv and Prague – where Given assisted with the recruiting and hiring of new co-Managing Partner Jan Myska from Allen & Overy – it was again Given himself who suggested a change, this time proposing that he help strengthen the firm’s Warsaw office, which was still working through the transition following its 2013 move en masse from Beiten Burkhardt. 

So in April of 2015 he moved to Poland, and he is now the office’s Co-Managing Partner. At this point, neither he nor the firm doubts his ability to get results. “I’m committed to making this work,” Given says. “I have three years in this office, and I expect you to write a story three years from now about our success here.”

After Poland? Given’s not quite sure. His wife Joan, who moved back to Chicago as a result of his never-ending travel for work the past few years, will be joining him in Poland shortly, and she remains eager for him to give Asia a real try. Given admits he’s also open to what Wolf Theiss may have in store for him as well – and he confesses to being especially intrigued by the prospect of opening an office for the firm in Turkey. 

As far as Managing Partner Erik Steger is concerned, “if it were up to me, I’d send Ron anywhere he wants to go, because he will just do good, and I’m quite sure that from the experience he has gained and from the way he addresses whatever issues come up, he can be helpful.”

In Conclusion

The last word necessarily belongs to the loquacious Given, who comments on the reality of his role. “I’m never sent anywhere where people are content with the status quo. Now, my problem with being labeled a ‘fixer’ is, I don’t want everyone to freeze up when they see me. But people are not dumb. When Ron Given comes it’s when we want to improve things. But I want to help people. If I leave here in three years and it’s not a place that you’re interested in writing a story about, that’s a failure, you know? I want to succeed. I’m not trying to steal people’s thunder. I’m trying to take what I found and make it better, which is what we should all be doing, right?"

This Article was originally published in Issue 2.3. of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.