It was nineteen years ago, but I remember it vividly as if it were yesterday: fresh out of law faculty and green with excitement, I was sitting in my very first job interview when the question fell: “Do you know anything about mortgages?” I started reciting: “A mortgage is a real right of a third person …,” when my future mentor smiled and exclaimed: “Ah, never mind, you will learn!”
I suppressed a sigh of relief and learned the first important lesson, although I was obviously not aware of it at the time: when recruiting young lawyers, brightness and enthusiasm can outweigh theoretical knowledge and even experience.
Reflecting on the rollercoaster of learning, hard work, and meeting incredibly interesting people that followed, I can admit that never in a million years would I have anticipated seeing such a change in the legal profession in CEE, in such a relatively short period of time.
Twenty years ago we were inspecting dusty physical books of the land register and today we are testing the application of artificial intelligence in due diligence reviews. The complexity of transactions in CEE has raised exponentially compared to their value. We have gained experience in “exotic” legal areas, such as derivatives, and we have seen the development of completely new ones, such as crypto. The growth of regulation has been overwhelming (and, in my personal view, often excessive). Last but not least, whereas two decades ago (at least in Slovenia), for 99% of lawyers a law degree meant a definite cutting of the umbilical cord with the law faculties, today all larger firms dedicate great efforts to staying connected and to providing law students with a little – but so-very-valuable – peek into how interesting and fulfilling our profession can be.
If you asked me to point out two main advantages of being a lawyer in CEE compared to the U.S. and Western Europe, I would dare to claim that the lower degree of specialization (which is driven by the size of our markets) not only makes our professional lives more interesting, but can also be advantageous for clients. Fully aware that not everyone will agree, I believe that a broader (although less detailed) knowledge of several legal fields keeps our eyes open to risks we might otherwise miss, and our minds open to pragmatic solutions.
The other advantage I would mention is a comparatively better balance between work and play, which is probably not driven only by cultural background but also by our geographical good fortune – it does make a difference if you can reach the nearest unspoilt nature within one hour or within three. And, controversial as this statement may be, I think we have perhaps even started learning the importance of this balance from the younger generation.
Hoping that such younger generation lawyers do not stop reading here – realistically, pushing yourself to the limit will occasionally still be unavoidable – I would finish with a few takeaways which sank into my mind looping through the years:
Be curious. Do not limit yourself to what [needs to be done], for whom [it needs to be done], and until when [must it be delivered], but always ask why [does the client need this], and how [can I assist best]. Do not be afraid of asking the client – there are no stupid questions, and the clients are usually quite happy to explain their underlying business objectives.
While thinking a few steps ahead is always positive, try not to plan every detail of your career. Life does not always turn out the way we expect. Flexibility will help you dodge disappointment if something does not work out the way you planned, and you will not miss opportunities if you do your best in every situation instead of just in situations you deem important for your career.
There are no small deals. Regardless of the size of the transaction, always try to do your very best. The clients need you to, even if they admit themselves that their transaction is of lesser importance (but they rarely will).
By Mia Kalas, Partner, Selih & Partners