Polish lawyer Anna Wawrzynczak spent 14 years in private practice with two highly-regarded international law firms before moving in-house with the Coast2Coast investment fund, where she was Regional Counsel CEE for almost three years. In October 2019 she accepted an offer to become the Legal Manager, Head of the Corporate Division at the Polish Development Fund in Warsaw.
CEELM: Can you walk us through your career leading you up to your current role?
Anna: Well, becoming a lawyer is not an easy or short path so I should probably start with “once upon a time…” (laughs).
Becoming a lawyer is a huge time commitment and it starts early on – in high school, I would say. Completing law school and qualifying, passing bar exams is arduous work. And just when you think the hardest part is behind you, your ambition pushes you to move up a career ladder. Unlike many lawyers I met, I chose law not because I didn’t know what else I could do in my life. It was a very conscious decision, made in the final year of my secondary school. Before I chose law, I actually wanted to study medicine – but then I started watching Ally McBeal (laughs). So high school – that’s when most careers have their roots. First choices are made, like where and what to study, and which languages to learn. When you are a teenager and you don’t know much about real life and schools don’t really provide tools to help you choose wisely, you are on your own. You have to fight. I had to fight for myself. I set goals and I stuck with them. I had to take risks and work hard towards my dreams. I graduated from one of the best universities in this country. I knew foreign languages, did my postgraduate studies abroad, and I was fortunate to start my professional career with White & Case. Not bad for a first job, huh? (laughs).
Then I joined CMS, and I worked with them for almost ten years. Again, it was a decade-long lesson during which I had the opportunity to work with the best lawyers. After becoming a Regional Counsel in the private equity industry, I had the pleasure to work with both them and White & Case as a client. You get a lot of comfort as a client, when you know how it works from the inside.
Our first professional experience shapes us for the rest of our lives. You start as a tabula rasa and your first work environment, bosses, colleagues, and clients have a significant impact on your future career. International law firms have the best know-how in almost every area of law. You are immediately exposed to cross-border and high-volume transactions and a hands-on approach is very important. I feel like there is no better place to kick-start your career as a young lawyer than with an international law firm. Apart from legal knowledge, you can learn all the technical aspects of the legal work, including project management, negotiations, drafting, and research. After a while in an international law firm, your eye will never miss a “double space.” You get used to perfectionism.
I do not want to idealize international law firms. They are hard work and can get very competitive. But at the same time, they are a perfect place to start. International law firms hire the best candidates – knowledgeable about current issues, ambitious, and focused. It’s a great feeling to have all those experts as your colleagues, who you can always reach when help or advice is needed.
I had the opportunity to work on the biggest transactions, build my network, and gain incredible experience. While at CMS, I was seconded to UniCredit in London and qualified as an English solicitor. Then the opportunity arose to join the private equity industry as Regional Counsel CEE and to set up a legal team in the region from scratch. So, I did, and it was amazing. A completely different environment, and a great lesson. I went from a company employing more than two hundred people just in Poland to a much smaller team, with a plan to build my own team. After three years the fund exited Poland and now I am fortunate to face new challenges at the Polish Development Fund (, or PDF), again in a managerial role. I joined PDF just a few weeks ago and I am thrilled about it. I see it as a great opportunity, so keep your fingers crossed!
CEELM: What are the most significant changes you’ve seen in Polish’s legal market over your career?
Anna: The Polish legal market is in a constant state of flux. There is a visible generational change. Many law firms established after the fall of communism are facing succession issues. Talented lawyers who are leaving big international law firms with a tremendous amount of knowledge and know-how are opening law boutiques, which offer the same quality and level of comfort to their clients as big law firms. This younger generation of lawyers may be perceived as more agile, as they have to be more proactive with business development. SKJ, BCGL, Brzozowska & Barwinska, and Jedwabny Legal are just a few examples, leveraging high-quality and sector specific expertise. Also law firms operating in cooperation with the Big Four are more and more visible. A few of the well-known legal brands, like K&L Gates and Weil have exited from the Polish market, to be replaced by DWF and Rymarz Zdort.
Another issue is that legal work is becoming less lucrative due to the high competition. A positive thing is that Polish lawyers are becoming appreciated on international markets. There are a lot of “us” holding managerial positions abroad.
CEELM: Why did you decide to join the Polish Development Fund?
Anna: It is a bit self-explanatory. PDF is an extremely successful financial group operating within the new architecture of Polish development institutions. It has made more than 30 capital investments in just a few years, and its acquisitions of shares in Bank Pekao, PESA Bydgoszcz, Polskie Koleje Liniowe, and DCT Gdansk (the biggest container terminal in Poland) are just a few examples. PFR has established the biggest venture capital platform in CEE. So far PDF funds have made more than 200 investments. The funds went to companies from various industries and are located at different stages of development. It is a busy place with a clear strategy, employing the best professionals on the market, so I had no doubts when the opportunity to join PDF arose.
CEELM: What is your typical day at work like?
Anna: It is far from the image people might have from watching American series, where they see lawyers heading to court to spend the day engaged in a trial. I am a not a litigator, so I don’t appear in court often.
Fortunately, in a corporate life there is no such thing as a typical day, which is why I love being a lawyer. I always plan my day, but I am also prepared for the unexpected. You never know what is going to happen before your day ends. When I was just getting started, working as a junior, there was always this conflict, between constant emails that needed urgent action and the twists and turns of a transaction that required immediate reaction, and it was very difficult to keep up sometimes. Over the years I’ve learnt to prioritize and distinguish between what is actually urgent and what is presented as urgent but can wait. When I am working on something, I think not only about short-term actions but long-term implications and practical aspects. I try to see big picture and cumulate similar subjects, to be more effective.
My daily routine differs and depends on whether I have an active project on a table or not. Obviously, projects make my schedule busier, but I also learn more. Calls, meetings, and reviewing documents are part of my everyday routine.
A big part of being a manager is supervising my team and assigning different tasks, and assessing progress on various projects. In the morning I review my “to do” list (which is prepared on a weekly basis) and meet with the team to discuss priorities for the day or week. Another thing in the morning is checking emails. Lawyers’ inboxes are never empty. There are days when I get hundreds of emails. I have a few simple rules to help me to deal with that, like responding quickly and clearly to those who need my attention or input. This reduces the amount of emails I receive since I like to be very particular as to how and when I will handle a matter. This protects me from being chased by the sender. I also try not to send one-word emails as a reply to everyone on a thread. The more emails you send the more you receive. Never forget that rule.
CEELM: Was it always your plan to go (and stay) in-house?
Anna: I always knew and wanted to try both: private practice and in-house. For reasons mentioned above, I started in private practice, then a few years ago I went in-house. There are many differences, like who you work for – that is, having many clients versus one internal client – or being a legal expert versus a business expert. The latter is something I appreciate and enjoy the most.
As a private practitioner l I was relied on for my expertise in particular areas of law. In-house lawyers are generally expected to handle more legal matters themselves. As an in-house lawyer you reach out to private practitioners only when the issue presented is beyond the expertise of the internal legal department. In-house attorneys are expected to make recommendations for solutions that make sense for the company. This is one of the most rewarding parts of an in-house position. I find in-house work much more challenging, because you are expected to be an expert in every field of law. But it is also more interesting because you participate in a project from the very beginning and you understand the reasoning behind the project and why certain questions are being asked.
I am not saying I will never go back to private practice in the future. If the right offer comes, who knows? You know what they say, never say never (laughs). A good lawyer should always be up for a new challenge.
CEELM: What was your biggest single success or greatest achievement in terms of particular projects or challenges? What one thing are you proudest of?
Anna: There are many big and small achievements, but I am particularly proud to have inspired one person to become a practicing and qualified lawyer. It happened during my Coast2Coast days. Our office manager was looking for an administrative support and one of the candidates was a graduate from a law school with no practical legal experience. I was invited to join the interview. I was drilling the candidate about not choosing law as a career path and going in the office support direction and was told that law was boring and she was not interested in a legal career. That person got hired and after a couple of onboarding weeks I asked her if she would like to help me with some simple legal stuff. I saw a lot of enthusiasm in her and this “can do” approach. Weeks passed, and she had been a great help to me so I decided to have a little heart-to-heart conversation with her. I asked if she would be willing to give those legal tasks a real try. Months later she decided to enroll for a legal training course to one day become an attorney-at-law. She works as an associate in one of the best M&A law firms now and is happy with the decisions she’s made. We are still in touch. I am extremely proud of her but I also cherish the fact I could be a real inspiration to someone.
CEELM: How would you describe your management style? Can you give a practical example of how that manifested itself in the legal department or helped you succeed in your position?
Anna: I prefer using the word “leading” more than managing. I manage tasks, but I like to lead people. The team needs to understand an overall vision, so I always explain “why.” Obviously, management is needed to administer tasks and to ensure that day-to-day occurrences are going according to the plan and it cannot be underestimated, but leading by example and by way of clear communication with respect and trustworthiness will always be more beneficial for everyone. I always try to adjust my managerial style to each individual team member. Everybody needs a different approach. It is important to give direction, but at the same time space, so that that the person responsible for the task can get it done. If you want to be a good manager you must be available if problems arise and take responsibility. I also apply the golden rule of praising in public and giving negative feedback in private.
When I was building my team at the PE fund I naturally approached people I worked with in the past and I see it as my personal success that they wanted to join my new team without any hesitation. The greatest proof of leadership is the trust you managed to build by previous encounters.
How that manifested itself in the legal department I led at the private equity fund is, work was done at the highest standards and although Coast2Coast has exited Poland, I am still in touch with every team member as an ex-boss, peer, mentor, and friend. I feel honored and humbled that I was able to lead such a great group of people and we were able to go through difficult times as one.
CEELM: What one person would you identify as being most important in mentoring you in your career – and what in particular did you learn from that position?
Anna: I have met so many wise and successful people during my career. I am grateful for all of them and for the opportunities they created for me, for all the knowledge they shared, advice they gave me, and even for the harsh words sometimes, but I don’t think I can identify any one person I would want to give credit to. Mentoring consists of a long-term relationship focused on supporting the growth and development of a mentee. The mentor is a source of wisdom and support. Your mentor should challenge you and encourage you to think through issues and approaches by asking difficult-to-answer questions. I wish I had one. Maybe my career path would be easier, or I would be in a completely different place now. But I have managed to build a pretty decent career for myself. I can’t complain.
Of course, I turn to various people I respect in various situations when advice or encouragement is needed. I am only human after all. Instead of one mentor I can reach out to my friends or family and ask them to be my ad hoc mentors. Having only one mentor means that you will be mentored constantly in the same manner. It is better to have different views and draw wisdom from different angles. And you can learn unconsciously by observing others in actions, by reading good materials.
The role of a mentor is to help nudge you in the right direction by challenging and encouraging – but the mentor will not take the leap for you. It is your step you need to take, so at the end you need to trust your gut, since no one has a crystal ball. With career milestones, it is always good to make a conscious decision. To do that you have to research the matter, reach out to your network, ask many questions to others – and yourself – and always play devil’s advocate.
CEELM: On the lighter side, what is your favorite book or movie about lawyers or lawyering?
Anna: I watched Suits few years ago. It’s funny how when I look back (and as a die-hard fashion lover), I mostly remember the outstanding work of Jolie Andreatta, the costume designer who created over-the-top glamor in the series. I was encouraged to watch it by clients from one of the large private equity funds. We had this funny conversation as we were in the middle of a big M&A transaction working terrible hours – they said that when they watch Suits they see us lawyers working on their transactions, sending emails around the clock, and then showing up to early morning meetings looking sharp, as if we slept the night.
I watched To Kill a Mockingbird with the legendary Gregory Peck a few times. The Debt, a film made by Polish director Krzysztof Krauze, is very thought-provoking. John Grisham books and films based on his books are quite enjoyable. The Trial of Franz Kafka – the nightmare parable is a masterpiece.
To be honest, most movies and books about law are not my favorite, and they are never my first choice. They are unrealistic and create this false vision of our profession. I usually read a few books at the same time. I love biographies. Currently I am catching up on novels written by Olga Tokarczuk, the Polish author who was awarded the Nobel Prize just a few weeks ago, it is my must-read. In terms of movies, I like fact-based ones. My recent top three TV series are: Chernobyl, The Spy – the history of Elie Cohen – and The Crown.
This Article was originally published in Issue 6.12 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.