Poland’s economic power and political influence in Europe are growing. This is bringing to maturity a dynamic and aggressive market for law firms.
Talk to Polish lawyers, and they speak of optimism and ambition. They point to their country’s sustained economic growth, with gross domestic product rising even during the worst years of the recession. Theirs, after Ukraine, is the most populous country in central Europe, they say, with huge reserves of shale gas and an inflow of EU funding to finance infrastructure development. What is more, Poland borders the economic powerhouse of Germany and has easy road and rail access to other wealthy western European countries.
The future is bright, say Poland’s lawyers, and yet NATO forces are massing on their country’s eastern border, flexing their muscles in response to Russia’s aggression against the sovereignty of their neighbour, Ukraine. Some 60%-70% of Poland’s apple harvest, an export market worth €400m, remains unsold as Russia responds to international sanctions by imposing sanctions of its own.
Poland’s pig farmers have also, for the same reason, lost a lucrative market, with processing plants unable to meet running costs, and politicians urging them to give pork away to developing African countries.
Poland’s political landscape is in flux, too. After seven years of the authoritarian Donald Tusk in charge, Ewa Kopacz was sworn in as the country’s new prime minister on 22 September. She is the second woman prime minister of Poland, and is said to be vulnerable to predators both inside and outside the centre-right Civic Platform party.
Could Poland’s economic and political fragility, combined with Russia’s power games, create an instability that frightens away international investors? Or do Poland’s lawyers have good reason to remain so bullish?
‘The Polish economy is constantly growing and that trend will continue into the foreseeable future,’ Maciej Gawronski, head of the Warsaw office of international firm Bird & Bird, insists. ‘Poland is undergoing continuous transformation. It has moved away from a socialist to a capitalist system and has undergone its first wave of infrastructure investments. Now it is focusing on moving towards [becoming] a knowledge and innovation economy and an information society.’
One consequence of this transformation, continues Gawronski, is that Poland has evolved into a ‘dynamic and aggressive market’ for law firms.
‘There is strong price pressure,’ he says, ‘a demand for fixed fees, a mixed understanding of value coming from legal services, as well as a tendency to get into disputes because of a reluctance to make decisions. There is also a constant opening up of the legal market, increasing numbers of new lawyers coming out of universities, too much information and regulation, and the growing commoditisation of legal services. All of this makes it challenging for law firms to grow.’
How does Bird & Bird plan to meet this challenge? ‘[Nationally], we need to deal with the sluggish court system. Over-regulation is also an issue,’ Gawronski replies. However, as a firm, Bird & Bird needs to focus on those practice areas where it can show ‘unrivalled expertise’ and where it is already ‘ahead of the market’. He says: ‘Intellectual property is our rising practice area. New patent and unfair competition disputes, not only in pharmaceuticals, but also in information technology, including cloud computing, the chemical industry, flooring, machinery and electronics.’
And what about politics? ‘We in Poland talk a lot about politics and generally complain,’ he replies. ‘The paradox is that politics does not affect the economy all that much.’
Warsaw firm Drzewiecki Tomaszek Wspolnicy managing partner Zbigniew Drzewiecki points out that, after Latvia and Lithuania, Poland’s economy is the fastest-growing in the EU. ‘Economic projections,’ he says, ‘suggest that our economy will grow at a rate of 2.5% per annum through to 2030, making us one of the world’s top 20 economies. Even now, we are the ninth-largest economy in the EU and 23rd in the world by GDP.’
Drzewiecki continues to list reasons why law firms should have confidence in Poland’s future. ‘Poland is the financial hub of central and east Europe (CEE). The value of initial public offerings last year was €1.13bn, placing us fifth in Europe. This is why global players, such as Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, UBS, Société Générale, HSBC, Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch, are already here. We are the largest EU funds beneficiary with €68bn in the years 2007-2013 and €106bn projected for 2014-2020. Foreign direct investments into the country since 2006 total more than $100bn.’
The Gazette asks if there are any barriers at all to Poland’s growth. Drzewiecki replies: ‘Naturally, as anywhere, there are obstacles that impede faster growth.’
The country should focus on liberalising the labour market, he says, on privatising the still very sizeable state-owned sector and on improving the competitiveness of agriculture and transport infrastructure. ‘Bureaucracy, poorly working public procurement and demographics are also areas of concern,’ he adds.
Grzegorz Namiotkiewicz, managing partner (Warsaw) of magic circle firm Clifford Chance, which has a team of more than 70 lawyers in Poland, is equally bullish. ‘From the perspective of 22 years here, Poland has been a good investment for Clifford Chance and its clients,’ he says. ‘The combination of a deep knowledge of the local legal, economic and business environment, along with the firm’s global network and standards, has been the right offering for Polish clients and our international entities with interests here.’
What market sectors are the most dynamic? ‘Energy, infrastructure and defence,’ Namiotkiewicz replies. The Polish government is continuing ‘substantial investments’ in the construction of new power stations, the country’s first nuclear power plant, shale gas projects, liquefied natural gas terminals, gas pipelines and gas storage facilities. It is also spending heavily on modernising the road, rail and airport infrastructure.
‘Armament tenders related to the modernisation of the Polish army, estimated to have a value of around €32bn, are another attractive business opportunity for law firms in Poland,’ says Namiotkiewicz. ‘In addition, 2014 and 2015 are likely to be the last years of direct privatisation, where investors will be able to find large, valuable assets including energy and infrastructure companies and telecom operators.’
The Gazette next talks to an eight-lawyer firm in Krakow, Poland’s second city – the eight lawyers comprising four adwokat (similar to barristers) and four radca prawny (similar to solicitors). Golenia Hanusa Wojtyczek partner Michal Hanusa relates that interest in property sharply declined during the economic turndown.
‘Krakow is Poland’s top tourist destination and there was a lot of inward investment from the UK and Ireland as people bought holiday flats prior to the recession,’ he says. ‘But in 2008-2010, many of these same people tried to sell their properties. Now that has all changed again, and there is an upward movement in the real estate market.’
The pollution caused smog, similar to London’s in the 1950s and 1960s. Residents have been told to convert their fires to gas or electricity, some of the latter ideally generated by wind power or clean energy source
Andrew Kozlowski, CMS Cameron McKenna
Hanusa is confident about the country’s economic future. ‘Some people fear that the Ukraine crisis and Russian sanctions could stall growth,’ he says, ‘but this is not the first time that the Polish economy has had to react to outside influences. Also, it is not smart to put all your interests in one market. Perhaps it will encourage the agricultural sector, in particular, to look for markets apart from Russia.’
CMS Cameron McKenna has operated in Poland for almost 20 years, having opened ‘from scratch as a green field development’ by managing partner Andrew Kozlowski. The firm now has offices in Warsaw and Poznan. He says the final ‘two or three years’ of the recession were the worst, although ‘EU funding of infrastructure development softened the blow’ and at least the banks were forced to make ‘fewer dud loans’. He points to renewable energy as a growth area.
‘The government used to subsidise all wind-farm developments,’ says Kozlowski, ‘until, two years ago, it decided only to do so for wind farms in an advanced stage of completion.’
He alludes to the city of Krakow’s decision to ‘outlaw the use of old furnaces’ for heating people’s homes. ‘The pollution caused smog, similar to London’s in the 1950s and 1960s,’ he says. ‘Residents have been told to convert their fires to gas or electricity, some of the latter ideally [powered] by wind power or other clean energy sources.’
Business process outsourcing is another growing opportunity, with HSBC, Shell and UBS, among others, already outsourcing work to Poland, he says. Finally, Kozlowski discusses the current ‘political issues’ with Russia. ‘Meat, fruit and vegetables are no longer being exported to Russia,’ he says. ‘This is a particularly acute problem as agriculture is a big business in Poland.’
PORK AND APPLES
The plight of Polish apple growers, whose €400m export market has been frozen by Russian sanctions, has caught the public imagination in Poland. There is a popular movement, using the icons of the Solidarity trade union campaign that expedited the 1989 fall of Soviet communism in Poland, to persuade citizens to buy and eat an apple a day – as their ‘patriotic duty’.
Newspapers are publishing apple recipes and restaurants are promoting dishes that feature apples. Cider-makers are also doing their bit. They produced 2m litres of cider last year, a volume due to rise to 10m-15m litres this year and grow ‘in time’ to 100m litres, using around 140m tons of apples a year.
Pork exports are also frozen, prompting at least one member of Poland’s parliament to urge farmers to give it away – free – to poor African countries or even to neighbouring Ukraine, whose people are living under war conditions.
Jan Rolinski, co-founding partner of Warsaw firm Wiercinski Kwiecinski Baehr, says: ‘Russia’s boycott of Poland’s agricultural produce is significant to individual farmers, but will not kill the sector or the greater economy. Apple and pork exports are a relatively small part of our GDP.’ He adds: ‘Our firm is showing solidarity with the growers by offering clients apples and apple juice in our conference room.’
Jan Rolinski, co-founding partner in 2004 of Warsaw firm Wiercinski Kwiecinski Baehr (WKB), practises public procurement law, having built his experience advising on Poland’s largest infrastructure projects – such as road building, sports stadia, gas terminals, big IT projects and power stations. ‘Wind farms are a hot topic because of the requirement for energy distributors to ensure that part of their output is from renewable energy sources,’ he says. ‘It is all part of our international obligations [to reduce emissions] and is expected to be profitable.’
He adds that Poland has the largest deposits of shale gas in Europe and that WKB advises international and state-owned players who have been awarded licences for exploration. Rolinski comments on the impact of politics on the legal sector. ‘Politics is not important to private law firms practising in Poland, but only to state-owned enterprises,’ he says. ‘A change of government might have a slight impact, but as a rule, legal practice is free of political interference.’
DLA Piper regional managing partner Krzysztof Wiater, a corporate lawyer, says: ‘Poland is a hub for multinational businesses keen to develop their presence in CEE. With a stable democracy, continuous economic growth and convenient access to other CEE countries, Poland remains a gateway to the region and the opportunities it presents.’
What are these opportunities? ‘The Polish market is still developing,’ he replies. ‘As such, there are still many attractive areas of growth for sectors such as agriculture, infrastructure, rail and renewable energy. What is more, the geopolitical situation in our immediate region [the crisis in Ukraine] has created business opportunities that we had not expected to develop at such a pace – defence and aviation, for instance.’
Unalloyed optimism, then, from the legal sector of a country that last century survived first the brutalities of Nazi invasion and then the stranglehold of Soviet occupation and ideology. There is clearly a healthy cohort of home-grown law firms, but also many big name international players who have teamed up with local lawyers to capitalise on the latter’s in-depth knowledge of Polish law and procedure.
The Ukraine crisis is a cloud on the horizon, but in contrast Poland’s substantial shale gas reserves, its developing economy and its geographical position as a CEE hub are the fundamentals on which the legal community bases its confidence.
POLES APART? ADWOKAT AND RADCA PRAWNY
The Polish legal profession is divided into two branches, writes Tomasz Drzewiecki . There are adwokat , advocates, who are broadly similar to England and Wales barristers in that they may represent their clients in court. Adwokat are regulated by the Polish Bar Association. And there are the radca prawny , legal advisers, who are broadly similar to solicitors in that they have direct contact with clients and their affairs. They are regulated by the National Council of Legal Advisers.
Currently, there are around 13,000 adwokat and 26,000 radca prawny in Poland.
The Polish bar has its origins in the 15th century, while the profession of legal adviser was only created in the 1960s. Effectively, until 1989 – which marked the beginning of the free market economy and Poland’s independence upon the collapse of Soviet communism – the advocate’s role was primarily legal representation in court, while legal advisers worked in state-controlled enterprises.
However, nowadays advocates and legal advisers provide a very similar range of legal services, the major distinction being that legal advisers do not have the right to represent clients in criminal cases in court. Until 2007, they could not represent clients in family cases in court.
Advocates can perform their job solely as an individual practice or in one of three types of partnership: limited, registered or professional. Legal advisers, on the other hand, can also be employed through a contract.
During recent years, the debate concerning the fusion of the two professions has been marked by fierce resistance from Polish advocates, who see themselves as conserving the longstanding history and ideals of the Polish bar.
According to article 17 of the Polish Constitution, both advocates and legal advisers have the status of professions, with an ethical code of conduct in which the public can have confidence. The two branches of the profession are guaranteed representation by their particular regulator. Both regulators are responsible for legal training similar to the England and Wales solicitors’ training contract and Bar Professional Training Course.
During court proceedings, advocates wear a black gown with a green jabot. A jabot is a lace or cotton piece of fabric, sometimes with frills, pinned at the throat and hanging down like a bib. The speaker of the House of Commons wears one when parliament is sitting. In Poland green is traditionally the colour of hope.
Tomasz Drzewiecki recently graduated with an LLB from Durham University.
For more information on joining the Law Society’s International Division see the website
Jonathan Rayner is Gazette staff writer