"It is important to interact not only with mentors but also with peers, because later on we’ll all meet in the same market"
Published on 19th Jul 2022
In the digital Legal Business Poland Magazine, we interview lawyers of young generation who achieved considerable success already at the early career stages. Their sharing of experiences and reflections on building a legal career will be particularly valuable for lawyers looking for their place in the market, and perhaps also for those who are thinking about some change in their professional life.
In this issue we talk to Agnieszka Sztoldman, PhD, since recently (1 July) a counsel in the Warsaw based office of Osborne & Clarke, a British law firm. Previously, she was associated with Taylor Wessing, SMM Legal, Dentons, Sołtysiński Kawecki & Szlęzak, and Clifford Chance legal practices. She specialises in advising on intellectual property protection with a particular focus on product liability and on pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, TMT and FMCG. She is regularly recognised in legal rankings, including Legal500 and IP Stars. Agnieszka Sztoldman is also an academic at the Faculty of Law of the University of Wrocław. She is a graduate of the University of Warsaw (2012), where she also obtained her PhD (2017).
What was your path to choosing a legal specialisation?
At the outset, let me emphasise how I define my specialisation. Looking at it as a field of law, one could say that I specialise in intellectual property law. However, in my opinion, in the current market reality legal specialisations should rather be defined by sector. Using this category, I specialise in the life science sector. I advise enterprises operating in this sector on contractual matters as well as on regulatory issues and litigation.
As for the choice of specialisation itself, it was determined, as in many cases, by a set of events and inspiring people encountered along my professional path. When I was still in high school, I thought I would study philosophy and literature. With time, these plans seemed frivolous to me, and I chose law. I was doing quite well in these studies. In fact, I was doing so well that in the second year, when civil law came up, I was told by my lecturer that I had an aptitude for this subject. He himself was very successful and his opinion mattered a lot to me. I started to seriously consider civil law and think about in what area of civil law I could specialise in. I opened my textbook, looked at civil law branches and my attention was caught by the chapter on intangible property rights and intellectual property rights. Due to my previous interest in literature, this seemed very attractive. I started to read a lot about copyright law. Then, in my third year, an opportunity came up to develop my academic career – I had a chance to join the Collegium Invisibile association and to choose a tutor. This highly inspired me to extend my knowledge of intellectual property law, especially because at the time, in 2009-2010, this specialisation was not so well organised at the University of Warsaw. Later, I won an award for my master's thesis, and I started to work at Clifford Chance. I also began my PhD studies.
I came to conclusion that intellectual property law is the area of law that interests me the most and fits with my competencies. Among other things, this is because intellectual property law is based on rather short legal acts and thus requires extraordinary creativity from lawyers.
I also took market realities into account. At that time, there was still a high demand for IP lawyers, so it seemed very promising. I assumed that IP would not just be incidental to M&A transactions, but also important as an independent specialisation. I was right.
You said that several factors contributed to your choice of this specialisation. What events and meetings influenced your choice the most?
I benefited most from just meeting other lawyers. The lawyer I’ve become is a result of my relationships with people I’ve worked with. Both good and bad experiences have shaped me.
I owe the most to two people whom I’ve met on my professional path and who’ve played a very important role in my life as a lawyer. It is to them that I owe my interest in intellectual property law as well as my legal tools.
In general, this is very important in the development of any lawyer - meetings with other experienced lawyers and, still at university, with the teaching staff. Such relationships, which can even be mentoring relationships, give one a chance to build necessary professional and life experience. Such contacts have given me a lot in terms of certain maturity and appropriate distance; in retrospect I can see that it’s very easy to fall into a kind of trap, especially if you are successful at university and then find yourself in a law firm and have to deal with things that, to put it briefly, are not very thrilling, such as filling in applications to the KRS.
Thus, it is worth to look for mentors. Do you recall any other game-changing events that also proved significant in the context of your legal career?
At university, joining the intellectual property law research group was for me such an event, although this is basically a continuation of the story about people and relationships.
There, I met a lot of students who now work as counsels or partners in law firms, or as in-house lawyers. I have a very good relationship with them, and this shows me that it’s important to have contacts not only with mentors but also with peers, because later on we’ll all meet in the same market, and we’ll compete together. In such a situation it’s good to have someone on the opposite side whom you trust, who - you know - will play fair and will not fight ruthless wars just to please his or her client. I believe it is worth to act with respect for others in this market.
Your professional experience ranges from large Polish law firms, such as SK&S or SMM, to international networks, such as Dentons or Taylor Wessing. What’s the difference between working for these two types of companies?
Contrary to appearances, differences do not depend on whether it’s a Polish firm or a network legal practice, but rather on the style of management and the values adopted and implemented in the course of day-to-day work. It seems that law firms have become vehicles where the lawyers/counsels are expected to attract clients and sell their services. It’s good if a given place shares values or openness with its associates. Also, mutual trust and respect are important.
You’ve just embarked on a new phase of your legal career at the Warsaw based Osborne Clarke office where you will head the IP & Life Science practice. What goals do you set for yourself in this role? What will the practice look like?
Osborne Clarke's Warsaw office has a solid foundation to work out a comprehensive intellectual property offer for domestic and international clients in one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. We intend to use international contacts and experience to build a strong local intellectual property practice.
For years, you’ve functioned both in the academic world, as a lecturer and researcher, and in the business world, advising clients. Do these two worlds support each other or are they rather distant? It’s commonly said that theory taught at university rarely meets the practice.
I think that it’s not good to be an academic without practicing the profession. It’s only the emphasis that can be put differently. I’ve adopted a model in which practising law takes precedence. I used to think that I’d be an academic first of all, a full-time professor, but when I started my doctoral studies, I became more and more absorbed in practising law. As a matter of principle, however, I believe that practicing law actively is a must for lecturers, but, depending on their functions and positions, they should divide their commitment between these worlds accordingly.
I’m an advocate of the American model, where one group of professors is involved in writing books while other professors are teaching. It’s impossible to be 100 per cent committed in the academic and professional fields at the same time. These worlds, however, must interpenetrate. This is well illustrated by the comments on the legislation. Many of them are confined precisely to academic considerations and fail to address several of the practical problems arising from active practicing of the profession.
At a certain point I wanted to give up academic work. At that time, a conversation with Professor Soltysinski proved very helpful - he convinced me that I had to "stand on two feet".
Looking from the business world perspective, combining professional and academic practice can also create a competitive advantage. When a client, for example an in-house in a company that we collaborate with, asks me about the current case law on the specific case, sometimes I don’t even need to do any research because I’m up to date with the matter.
Academic engagement, if it’s not just an end in itself but a genuine pursuit of interests, can be very helpful in building career in contemporary highly demanding legal market.
What qualities and skills do you consider essential for a good lawyer?
Firstly, you need to be passionate about the law, to feel the joy of practising it. This is not always apparent. I know many talented people who, after practising for a few years, found that they were more passionate about business, journalism, or recruitment.
Soft skills and mental maturity are also very important. At the beginning of career, you need a lot of patience and humility. It's a long-distance run. You must enjoy the fact that you’re still learning and be open to this learning. It's also important to be aware of your weaknesses, this helps you to grow.
What do you expect from junior lawyers? How do you work with them?
Above all, I expect a positive attitude and a willingness to learn. I don’t expect young lawyers to sit in the office until 10pm, only that they do their best during regular hours.
Guided by my experience, I try to be a mentor for trainees and young lawyers. I also focus on clear and comprehensive communication. If I ask somebody to do something, I try to provide them with all the necessary guidance; I often make a draft of the letter or application to be produced.
It is very important for young lawyers to be able to organise their work efficiently and to manage their time properly. I see many problems and shortcomings in this area. Sometimes a sense of responsibility is also lacking. One cannot accept a situation that we’ve agreed that something will be ready on a particular day, and someone can’t make it and postpones it until the next morning. This causes a problem if I’ve agreed with the client that on that morning the letter will be ready.
This is a very sensitive aspect, as even the best law faculties will not develop the competences in lawyers that would ensure that they understand the meaning of responsibility in the relationship with the client, and why we check some things ten times over.
To sum it up: credibility, reliability, willingness to learn, and humility - these are the pillars essential at the start of career in a law firm.
From the perspective of your experience, what advice would you give to people who are still looking for their specialisation or their career path in general?
You need to think what your goal is, what role you want to play, what pyramid of values you have and, finally, what overall vision you have of yourself. There is no universal career plan, there can only be individual ones. You must decide whether you want to be a lawyer in international law firms, whether you have the competence and aptitude for that, or whether you want to be a litigation lawyer in a smaller firm.
I think it's also useful to make annual or biennial plans at each stage, at university, later on during the apprenticeship, and finally when you are already a qualified lawyer.