Interview with Kamil Lewandowski, Head of Legal Poland – Asset Management at the CPI Property Group about his background and best practices.
CEELM: Can you walk us through your career leading you up to your current role?
Kamil: I have qualifications in both law and finance. However, law has always been what I wanted to focus on. Therefore, after graduating from law school, I joined the Real Estate team at Hogan Lovells. At a later stage of my career I practiced with other law firms – both K&L Gates and Eversheds – specializing mainly in the Real Estate sector. In the meantime, I received my Master’s degree from the Regensburg University. Finally, more than three years ago, I joined CPI as Head of Legal for Poland.
CEELM: Why did you decide to join CPI?
Kamil: It was quite an easy decision, as after the first meetings with CPI’s former Country Manager and General Counsel, I already knew I wanted to be a part of the team. The philosophy behind CPI and the business approach and expanding plans appealed to me. Moreover, becoming an in-house lawyer after more than ten years in law firms seemed to be a natural step forward. Having a solid background as a legal advisor, I knew I was ready to test myself on the first line. You cannot be any closer to business than as an in-house advisor.
CEELM: Tell us about CPI Property Group and about its legal department. How big is your team, and how is it structured?
Kamil: Currently, our legal department consists of seven lawyers. The structure is rather flat and strictly connected with the type of work we deal with on a daily basis. Each lawyer is responsible for a specific type of building portfolio. This part of work encompasses negotiations of lease or fit-out agreements as well as providing support for an on-site team. Additionally, each of us is a specialist in a different field: corporate law, building law, administrative proceedings, GDPR and compliance, etc. Therefore, we are able to keep the majority of legal work in-house.
Due to the enormous increase of CPI’s portfolio, half a year ago we split the legal team into two independent units: Asset and M&A. My colleague Marcin Zaskurski, as co-head, is responsible for further transactions and development work, while I supervise Asset & Corporate work.
CEELM: Was it always your plan to go in-house? If so, why? If not … how did it happen?
Kamil: I had been truly convinced that the best environment to practice law in was in a law firm until I received an offer from CPI. After the first two weeks as an in-house lawyer I changed my mind completely. To be honest, now I can hardly imagine myself working in a law firm. I presume this may be due to two major factors. First, being an in-house lawyer means working on a huge number of issues at the same time and being forced to leave your comfort zone from day one. Second, from an in-house perspective, you can deal with the entire project. You can see how the business works in practice, and how parties benefit from it in the long term. Additionally, I’m truly passionate about real estate as a whole, therefore guiding a real estate owner provides me with a sense of achievement.
CEELM: What was your biggest single success or greatest achievement with CPI in terms of particular projects or challenges?
Kamil: When I joined CPI, the Polish portfolio consisted of a couple of office buildings, two retail parks, and two shopping centers. Within the next two years we acquired an additional office building complex and a portfolio of retail parks. Both transactions were quite challenging, but the greatest achievement happened in the fourth quarter of 2019. In only three months, under the leadership of a new Country Manager – Barbara Topolska – CPI acquired (or secured via preliminary agreements) seven office buildings in some prime locations in Warsaw (including one of Warsaw’s most iconic office buildings (WFC) and one of its biggest (Eurocentrum)). We nearly tripled our Polish portfolio. Those last three months of 2019 were the most intensive and challenging of my professional carrier. The speed of the process and the value of the investments were unimaginable. Furthermore, CPI in Poland rapidly expanded from approximately 25 employees to the 100 we currently have. All of these factors allowed CPI to become the biggest owner of office buildings in Warsaw.
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?
Kamil: I believe the most important role of a team leader is to create a proper working environment for the team and the (internal) clients. This should derive from individual beliefs, the kind of work you are dealing with, and the kind of internal clients you are supporting. Bearing this in mind, I have created a flat structure and supported the independence of the team members. To achieve proper cooperation within this scheme, there are some prerequisites. To begin with, a proper recruitment process is a must. You can give up micromanaging and support independence only if you are sure you have the right people on board. Second, you should support knowledge sharing and create common internal standards. Furthermore, you must always be fair towards your team members and remember that each of your co-workers has a different character and requires an individual approach. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Last but not least, you must always work on and support team building. This requirement does not only concern having a common goal, but is even more connected with the relationships among the team members. The better they are, the better the team works. To illustrate the point, nothing brings us together more than brainstorming about the best birthday gift..
I am convinced that strong relations within our team helped us go smoothly through the rapid development of our company and later during the COVID-19 crisis.
CEELM: Do you have any personal habits or strategies you employ that may not be common but that really help you succeed in your role? Things you’ve developed yourself over the years that might not be obvious?
Kamil: Allow me to rephrase the question a little bit. Within my practice, I have noticed two areas which are not obvious, but need to be taken into account. The first one is conflict management. From time to time, even in the most organized teams, misunderstandings happen. You must not hide from them, but rather resolve those conflicts as soon as they arise. Crises happen, and managing them is one of your tasks. The second one is connected with the role of an in-house team. Traditionally, legal teams were recognized as cost centers. You must be proactive to change this approach and promote the legal team within your organization. This also involves educating your colleagues, as in the majority of cases everyone should benefit from the permanent legal support and early involvement of the legal team within new deals. Additionally, the legal team role should constantly expand into new and evolving areas – compliance and risk management are recent examples.
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 person?
Kamil: I was privileged to start my professional carrier in a team led by Jolanta Nowakowska-Zimoch, one of Poland’s most recognized real estate lawyers. I fully agree with the belief that your first boss is the most important one. I learned a great deal from her regarding a business approach and negotiations skills. It is obvious that the sooner you get familiar with these skills, the better. Of course, later on I met other great lawyers from whom I have learned a lot, but from my perspective the most significant mentoring was given to me by the first one.
CEELM: On the lighter side, what is your favorite book or movie about lawyers or lawyering – and why?
Kamil: Luckily, thanks to John Grisham, there are a lot of great movies about lawyers. I also truly enjoyed A Few Good Men, with its epic court examination of Jack Nicholson’s character by Tom Cruise’s. Moreover, I like movies that tell a story about one man standing against an unbeatable organization, such as Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action, and, more recently, Dark Waters. Al Pacino’s And Justice for All is a remarkable one, too. Besides, I have read a couple of Richard Susskind’s books. Despite the fact that I do not agree with some of his predictions about the future of the legal profession, I find it a useful lesson.