When I was first asked to write an Editorial for CEE Legal Matters, I was told that it should be something personal or funny. As “funny,” by definition, does not get along with the legal profession very well, I will have to stick to reflecting on my 20-year career. I will share a few thoughts on the dilemma of whether to pursue a legal career in London or in Bratislava and on the changing world around us that impacts (and arguably, enhances) the lives of legal practitioners in one of the CEE countries.
When I started to work for a large international law firm in Bratislava 18 years ago, it was a shock. I realized that I knew nothing about law, my English was not good enough, and I was learning everything from scratch. I was completely flabbergasted when on the first day I was left on my own to handle a phone call with an English-speaking client. The overall situation on the market did not help either. It was the era of privatizations of state enterprises – once-in-a-lifetime transactions – and we were literally camping in the office. Hence, the learning process was happening on the go. Even if it was a tough lesson, I benefitted from the experience. It was then that I started to appreciate the jump-into-the-water-and-swim attitude.
My secondment to London was like leaving for holidays. I was filling in figures and names in template facility agreements and bond documentation, and although I was working on deals of enormous value, I felt like an assembly line worker. I thought this was the way it worked in London. For a couple of weeks it was nice, but after a while it started to get boring. Of course, today I know that I was handling the most junior work. And of course, today I know that there are tons of extremely sharp lawyers in the City, and for sure, assembly-line work is not what they do.
Five years of working 16-hour shifts (including weekends) left me tired and burned-out. I considered quitting the law, but instead I went back to school. After earning my Master’s degree in London I considered staying and re-starting my career in the City, and I qualified as a solicitor of England and Wales. Someone told me that, ultimately, I had to choose between being a large fish in a small pool and being a small fish in a large pool. The decision-making process was long and painful. At the end I returned to Slovakia and started my own law firm.
Th legal profession in this “small pool” post-communist country has its pros and cons. On the one hand, we are frustrated by the failures and inefficiencies of public institutions, the lack of communication within courts, a lack of openness, by a generally-accepted “take a shortcut” attitude, and by a skepticism and cynicism about political and civic involvement. We are tired of explaining the unexplainable to foreign clients: “this is the way it works here, and you have to accept it.”
But I realize that there have been changes for the better, and I have to concede that indeed there have been positive developments – even though, given our limited lifespans, the speed is agonizingly slow.
I believe that the smaller pool enables those who want to exert more influence on shaping the legal environment. As a result, for instance, while fifteen years ago a simple transfer of shares in a limited liability company took half a year to register, today I can make the filing from behind my desk and have it processed within a few days. Throughout the region, we have had to become familiar with legal, financial, business terms, and structures and institutions that did not previously exist in our markets, and we were required to adapt them and make them work in our own legal system. Thus, we now have our own legal system, which we played a major role in creating. This was indeed an exciting and adventurous journey.
By saying this, I have to admit there is no clear answer as to whether to pursue a professional career in Bratislava or London. It is certain that both worlds influenced me profoundly and made me who I am today. I am grateful for the people I have met on my professional journey, the transactions I have worked on, and the challenges I have had to face. Regardless whether it is London or Bratislava, no matter how large the law firm is and how many zeroes appear in the transaction value, clients have their expectations, and in order to meet them lawyers must be one hundred percent committed.
Technologies, new generations of lawyers, life-work balance, artificial intelligence – all of these will pose new challenges for us. The great thing is that the world once locked behind the Iron Curtain has now been freed – and hopefully it will remain that way. Nothing contributes to personal and professional growth as much as an involvement with different people, cultures, ideas, and points of view.
By Katarina Mihalikova, Partner, Majernik & Mihalikova
This Article was originally published in Issue 5.6 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.