Interview with Pablo Perez Laya of BDK Advokati, a Spanish Consultant at BDK Advokati in Belgrade.
CEELM: Run us through your background, and how you ended up in your current role with BDK Advokati in Serbia.
Pablo: After finishing my Law degree and obtaining an LL.M. in Spain, I spent seven years working in Madrid, first for Linklaters and then for SJ Berwin (King & Wood Mallesons now). My main area of expertise during these years was Real Estate law.
In 2015, I moved to the Netherlands and decided to make a radical change to my career. I obtained an LL.M in Law and Digital Technologies from Leiden University, worked for a couple of months in the Amsterdam office of Clifford Chance, and then moved to Serbia in 2017.
Although I thought that for a Spanish lawyer to find a job out of the European Union would be an almost impossible task, I have to admit that I was very lucky to cross paths with BDK Advokati. After less than a month in the country, they offered me a position and, three years and a half later, I am still here. With BDK Advokati, I mainly advise on data protection and electronic communications law.
CEELM: Was it always your goal to work outside of Spain?
Pablo: Not at all. When I finished my studies, I had never considered working outside of Spain. It was not until 2010, when I spent three months in London, in the headquarters of my employer at the time, SJ Berwin, that I started considering this possibility.
I enjoyed the experience of living and working abroad so much that I decided that I wanted to repeat it, but this time for a longer period.
CEELM: So you moved to Serbia?
Pablo: That is right. It might seem an unusual decision, but it has an easy explanation. While we were living in Amsterdam, my wife was offered a good position in Belgrade. Serbia was totally unknown to us, so it took us some days to make the decision. But we decided to give it a try and I can assure you that neither of us regrets it. Now, two of our kids are born in Belgrade so I guess that we will always keep this special link with Serbia.
CEELM: Tell us briefly about your practice, and how you built it up over the years.
Pablo: In Serbia, I have been specially focused on data protection and electronic communications law. Luckily for me, as a consequence of Serbia’s law being harmonized with the EU’s prior to a potential accession, the applicable legislation in both areas strongly mirrors the EU’s, which makes my previous experience and knowledge completely valid here, as well as in Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina, where BDK Advokati also has offices.
In data protection, we help all sort of corporate clients to carry out their activities in compliance with applicable law. This entails a very varied type of work, although recently I have been strongly dedicated to assisting clients with the process of making their data processing practices compliant with the new requirements brought by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and Serbia’s new Data Protection Act, which pretty much reflects the GDPR.
As for electronic communications, a big part of our activity consists of analyzing the different scenarios proposed by our clients and assessing whether they are caught by the realm of electronic communications law. This is essential, because with electronic communications being a strongly regulated practice, a positive or negative answer creates a completely different scenario for the company. With operators of electronic communications, we provide the necessary assistance and help them to fulfill all the regulatory requirements with the least possible hassle.
CEELM: How would clients describe your style?
Pablo: I guess that different clients would point out at different things. But in a recent task, a client showed his appreciation for the commercial nature of my advice.
I have to say that that’s something I really liked and would like all clients to think of me. We lawyers might sometimes feel tempted to play it safe, by only pointing at the problems and stating what clients cannot do, instead of how they can do it. I think that it is important to go a step further, by presenting solutions to the risks and doing everything at hand so that the client can achieve his or her goals, while, at the same time, complying with the law in a smooth way, without the regulatory part becoming a source of constant headaches. This requires acquiring a thorough understanding of the business of the client, no matter how far it might be from your comfort zone.
CEELM: There are obviously many differences between the Serbian and Spanish judicial systems and legal markets. What idiosyncrasies or differences stand out the most?
Pablo: I guess that most differences are in the judicial system, but not being a litigator myself, it is difficult for me to talk about them.
As for the legal system, they are actually not so different. Both countries have civil law legal systems and both countries follow the directives and regulations adopted at the EU level –Spain, as an EU Member State, and Serbia, as a country in the process of accessing to the EU. The main difference in this respect would be that the changes adopted in Brussels obviously take more time to arrive to Serbia, which is not subject to the legal implementation periods that the Member States are. That sometimes entails working with version of laws which are lacking the most recent updates implemented in the EU.
CEELM: How about the cultures? What differences strike you as most resonant and significant?
Pablo: To be honest, what struck me the most when I first came to Serbia was not any difference, but discovering how many things we have in common. I had never met Serbians before, but these years have helped me to perceive them as very similar, in character, to Spaniards. They are open, social, outgoing, and like to enjoy the little things.
Also, they have always been super welcoming to me and my family. I remember one year when we landed in Belgrade after some days in Spain. It was late in the evening, on the day of the Orthodox Christmas. On our way home, a friend who picked up us at the airport gave us a bunch of food from his Christmas lunch, so that we did not have to worry about dinner. When we got to our place, our kitchen table was also full of food, this time from our landlord. It was so much that I think that we did not have to cook the rest of the week!
CEELM: What particular value do you think a senior expatriate lawyer in your role adds – both to a firm and to its clients?
Pablo: I hope a big one! Seriously, I think that Spanish clients doing business for the first time in Serbia like the fact that their first interlocutor is also Spanish. Having someone with whom they share the language and the culture helps make the beginning of the relationship a little bit warmer.
For our clients, which are often global companies doing transactions across several countries, I believe that it gives a good impression to see that the firm that is advising them also has this international approach. Having foreign lawyers (or local ones which have studied abroad, as happens at BDK Advokati), guarantees that advice is given by people who know how things work in more than one jurisdiction and legal system, and thus can better understand and address the issues that might arise because of the international or cross-border components of the work.
Also, due to the EU accession process, Serbia and Montenegro – and to a somewhat lesser extent Bosnia and Herzegovina – are countries which follow closely the legal developments that occur in the EU and eventually, after some time, replicate them. The Serbian Acts governing data protection and electronic communications are two good examples of this, for they are closely aligned with the corresponding regulations and directives at the EU level. Therefore, having lawyers qualified in EU jurisdictions may add the value of having people with longer experience working with provisions that, locally, may still be recent.
CEELM: Do you have any plans to move back to Spain?
Pablo: I certainly will! Both my wife and I love Spain and have our families and a lot of friends there, so it is kind of natural for us to go back at some point. However, that is something that we are not planning yet. We are still enjoying the international experience and frequently remind each other that these are the years to live abroad, because when we move back to Spain, it will probably be for good.
CEELM: Outside of Serbia, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most, and why?
Pablo: There are still various CEE countries that I have not visited. But if I need to choose one that I have, I would probably say Slovenia. Its beautiful capital and breathtaking scenery makes me feel a bit nostalgic, because it reminds me of Galicia, the region of Spain where I come from, which is full of green landscapes where you want to get lost.
CEELM: What’s your favorite place to take visitors in Belgrade?
Pablo: Belgrade offers many more things to do than visitors often think. But a spot that I never miss is Kalemegdan. None of my visitors leave Belgrade without a photo of the view of the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers taken from Kalemegdan.