The legal profession in Slovakia will shortly celebrate 30 years of independence. And as the country itself is not much older than that, the profession-building and country-building have taken place side by side, going through ups and downs.
Considering the odds, Slovakia has achieved some decent successes and is a stable and functioning country, at least within the standards of the region. The professions of lawyer and attorney-at-law have been closely connected with the growth of the country, including with the growth of its (albeit selective) prosperity. At the same time, the Slovak legal market, due to the country’s size, isn’t as internationalized as neighboring EU countries, making it to date a largely domestic affair.
I will not talk about growth in terms of turnover and market share – the profession is doing fine there. Some recent developments (not least the continued investigation of the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kusnirova, including the extensive communication of the suspects with members of the judiciary and the legal profession) are forcing us to take a different perspective on the country as well as our role in it – in particular, regarding the role of lawyers in the development of the country going forward. Looking back, many key decision-makers (including five of our prime ministers) have been lawyers. And lawyers are not uncommonly perceived by the public to be among those best at capitalizing on economic and political developments. Key scandals evolved often around lawyers. The provision of legal advice to the state became a matter of an instant suspicion. The performance of the legal profession was (often unjustly) believed by the public to be some form of dark, behind-the-curtains lobbying, and as little more than a means of amassing a quick fortune.
The number of law graduates soared, and the legal market grew. However, the reputation of lawyers wasn’t positive – and the necessary role of the legal profession in a democratic society was largely overlooked by the public.
This became a concern for many of our colleagues in recent years. For those lawyers practicing law and assisting clients in an ethical and compliant way the negative perception of the profession became unacceptable. It has thus become an obligatory part of awards ceremonies and similar events to talk about the need to improve the reputation of the profession. Although the talk was often not met by deeds, and often came from a not-so-trustworthy source, nonetheless, slowly, a change is happening, in particular among the firms that my colleagues and I at Cechova & Partners consider to be our peers.
Lawyers are now often at the forefront of initiatives for the rule of law and a more transparent and non-corrupt society in Slovakia. When I attended protests following the murder of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova, I kept meeting my peers on every corner. I recently attended an event of an anti-corruption foundation we support and was astonished by the long list of law firms thanked by the hosts for their contribution. Numerous law firms act on a pro bono basis in matters of public interest beyond standard charity work. A non-lawyer friend of mine active in the movement for change recently admiringly told me that a large proportion of volunteers they have are lawyers. And when we meet and interview young lawyers, the questions of law firm social responsibility and anti-corruption stance often come up, not as self-promotion by the firm but as a critical area of interest for the applicants on the other side of the table.
The market has noticed this, too. Where a firm stands on social engagement is now relevant for many. Clients like the assurance that your compliance statements are not mere declarations. Also, thanks to more positive media coverage and the activities of the bar association, the importance of the role of lawyers in the defence of fundamental rights is becoming better understood by the general public.
It seems we can (again) proudly introduce ourselves as lawyers.
By Tomas Rybar, Partner, Cechova & Partners