Why has Osborne Clarke chosen Poland and what are its plans in polish market?

Published on 19th Jul 2022

The origins of Osborne Clarke law firm go back to the 18th century when Jeremiah Osborne opened his legal practice in Bristol. The firm's international expansion, however, did not start until the 21st century. It began in 2000 with Palo Alto and, a year later, an office was opened in Cologne, Germany. Since 2012, Osborne Clarke's network in Europe and around the world has continued to expand quite intensely. Eventually, Osborne and Clarke also appeared in Poland. Its office in Warsaw was created on the basis of the team of MDDP Olkiewicz i Wspólnicy. Osborne Clarke is now present in over 25 locations. Its appearance in Poland is a good sign for our legal sector, as recently we’ve seen international law firms rather leaving the Polish market. 

How did the process of merging MDDP Olkiewicz i Wspólnicy with Osborne Clarke look like? Why did this international law practice want to be present also in Poland? What are its plans? We talk about this, among others, with Olgierd Swierzewski and Tomasz Olkiewicz - the managing partners of the Warsaw based Osborne Clarke office.

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It's been a few months since Osborne Clarke began operating on the Polish market. What surprised you the most at the beginning of this cooperation? 

Olgierd Świerzewski: For me, it was surprising how important Poland turned out to be on the business map of Europe. As soon as Osborne Clarke announced the launch of its operations in Warsaw, we received a lot of enquiries from European and global clients of law firms interested in the Polish market. This was a very positive surprise. Sometimes we have complexes that as Poland we are on the side lines of the big business world. Meanwhile, this information that Osborne Clarke passed on to its offices in Europe and in the United States generated a great deal of interest, both among its clients already present in Poland and those who have just been thinking about locating their investments here. 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: We do indeed receive many so-called referrals (recommendations). However, I was also pleasantly surprised by the very reception we received from the Osborne Clarke law firm. We had been getting to know our British partners for some time and we felt very much awaited for, and then accepted warmly. The whole international Osborne Clarke community gave us a very friendly welcome.  

What is the story behind this business relationship that led us to say goodbye to MDDP Olkiewicz i Wspólnicy and hello to Osborne Clarke? 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: This story has many protagonists. Osborne Clarke wanted to be present on our market, entering Poland has been part of their strategy for many years. They were looking for the right partner and the right team. This project, not with us but in general, had been going on for about 10 years and involved quite a number of various attempts and approaches. We, as MDDP, were looking for foreign partners, which was probably also consistent with the strategies of other Polish legal practices that build their presence among international clients through peer-to-peer or best friends relationships. Finally, we thought that instead of knocking on many doors and competing with a group of Polish medium-sized law firms it might be worth to enter into a closer relationship with a single, larger partner. It turned out that we had a connection with Osborne Clarke. That connection was precisely Olgierd, and we have known each other for almost 20 years - we used to work together at Ernst & Young. 

And what was your connection with Osborne Clarke? 

Olgierd Swierzewski: I met Osborne Clarke in 2007 when I left DLA Piper. I was in the London office at the time, and we also met in Poland. We started some cooperation. This relationship and our acquaintance lasted for 14 years. At a certain point, knowing that Osborne Clarke was interested in the Polish market and that MDDP was looking for this type of partner, I simply introduced the two parties to each other. 
Why exactly did Osborne Clarke want to be present in our market; lately there has been much talk about international law firms rather leaving Poland. 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: Mainly American brands are leaving, the so-called big-tickets have finished and Poland is no longer an attractive market for the US firms. On the other hand, Osborne Clarke assumes that Poland is at the beginning of its road to decarbonisation and digitalisation, and it is the 5th largest European economy. Additionally, our country was at the forefront of Osborne Clarke's clients' interest and enquiries about new jurisdictions. Adding up these factors, the decision seems obvious. 

Olgierd Świerzewski: Another factor that mattered was that Poland is seen as a good breeding ground for technology companies. We have very talented and well-educated people who create start-ups that achieve international success and then collaborate with Osborne Clarke clients from the United States or other countries.  

And why did MDDP Olkiewicz i Współnicy decide on this arrangement? Was it impossible to develop further without a foreign partner? 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: Looking for foreign partners had long been part of MDDP's strategy. We met with many firms, and we considered various solutions. However, we found Osborne Clarke's profile very important and convincing, specifically its technological mindset and visionary approach to the challenges of the present and future. If we were to analyse the list of firms that operate internationally and are not yet present in Poland, we would probably find many more interesting brands, some perhaps even stronger than Osborne Clarke. On the other hand, this vision impressed us, and we felt it was consistent with our thinking about business and, importantly, with our values. I know it sounds a bit cliché, but such a community of values makes a big difference in business talks. We also felt that in creating our international partnership with Osborne Clarke, we did not have to renounce our own identity. We had a lot in common. 

After the merger, is there any room left for the values or principles of the MDDP law firm? 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: Our values and principles fit together, so there is no such problem that we must abandon the way we have run our practice so far.  

Olgierd Swierzewski: We are part of Osborne Clarke, not just organisationally and formally. When we started our journey together, we did not have to give up our values and principles, as Osborne Clarke fully shares them. MDDP grew up on a pro-client approach, on challenging the existing reality, because this was required to compete with big organisations, like the Big 4. We see the same traits in Osborne Clarke. 

Why did Osborne Clarke and why did you opt for collegial management of the Warsaw office, a model with two managing partners? 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: Such a model is found in other Osborne Clarke offices, in France and Singapore, for example. Since we were both involved in the talks with OC from the very beginning, we felt that such a model was natural, but also very good for the organisation. Being a managing partner is not a matter of prestige, of being important and not sharing that status with anyone; rather, this function is more of a service to other partners and to the organisation as a whole. Olgierd and I have a certain division of powers, but other partners also take part in the management. 

Olgierd Świerzewski: We simply complement each other in this arrangement. Tomasz has more experience in the affairs of the MDDP team, which, in fact, is the core of this office, and I have more experience in functioning in an international legal network, and I help to appropriately position our office within the overall organisation. 

And how did existing clients of MDDP Olkiewicz i Wspólnicy react to the news of such a significant change at their law firm? Were they not concerned about its transformation into an international legal practice, about higher rates, or perhaps less attention?  

Tomasz Olkiewicz: We had a lot of discussions with our clients. Indeed, some asked about the rates. Of course, we stayed with the commercial terms that we had agreed with them when we were still the MDDP law firm. Generally, our clients had no concerns, including about less attention. Rather, they all congratulated us. Many of our clients realise that our partnership with Osborne Clarke can also be an opportunity and a chance for their businesses. In fact, we are continuing our activity, we have only joined the Osborne Clarke network. 

Olgierd Swierzewski: It is interesting that in the context of starting cooperation with Osborne Clarke you mention the concern about less attention to clients. In fact, care for relations with the clients is one of the main values of this law firm and the entire international network. I have mentioned this because many Polish law firms, particularly specialist boutiques, point out that just by not being a multinational corporation, by being a small Polish legal practice, they offer more attention to their clients. 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: For us, this is not a problem at all. MDDP was founded as an alternative to a multinational corporation, and we have always had client proximity in our DNA. I did not even think that something could change in our approach. Osborne Clarke also puts a lot of emphasis on this, which is reflected in the idea of 'talking to clients, not talking at clients', i.e. you should be talking to your clients, not talking at them. 

Olgierd Swierzewski: 20 years ago, Osborne Clarke invested in advisory for start-ups and the technology industry. The situation on this market varied, and there were also crisis moments. The firm had a tougher time and, as they say today, they grew up with their clients, such as Airbnb. Such experiences have built a great energy there, let's call it boutique energy, which assumes being close to clients and growing with them. 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: I worked at EY for 10 years and I see a big difference between the 'corporatisation' of the two organisations. Osborne Clarke is not a corporation in the sense we are talking about here. The structure of this firm can be described as a universe made up of many micro constellations with no heavy corporate atmosphere, although of course when operating in 26 jurisdictions there are many elements to consider in this respect. 

Olgierd Świerzewski: This culture of approach to the client at Osborne Clarke is very different from traditional legal advice, whereby the client sends something to a lawyer, the lawyer responds with an opinion and on its basis the client does something himself or herself. Here, the client shares his or her business idea with us, we try to describe this idea as legal solutions, and together with the client we decide what path we are taking, and then we execute it. 
What did merger with Osborne Clarke and beginning of collaboration with them look like?

Olgierd Swierzewski: Everyone was given welcome packs, workstation equipment that is the same all over the world - laptops, phones, monitors and so on. Then, after all the equipment had been distributed and set up, there was 10 days of training in the use of communication tools, a new perspective on conflicts of interest when taking client cases, the use of templates, and the access to resources and archives. Learning how to communicate was especially important. At Osborne Clarke, we use an online platform with a policy that you must be available for this chat. This allows you to contact quickly and directly any office and any lawyer in the world. This is a great value and improvement of day-to-day work. It is worth mentioning that from the very beginning, as Osborne Clarke's new Warsaw office, we have been given a lot of marketing support. We are invited to many meetings, webinars - both globally and in individual jurisdiction. 

And in personnel matters, does the Warsaw office remain autonomous, or has it had to adopt the entire Osborne Clarke promotion policy? 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: Our personnel policy is run locally. Other Osborne Clarke offices also have this autonomy. On the other hand, we receive a lot of support from the entire international network in terms of training, employee development, and access to knowledge bases. This is an important value. Our lawyers participate in Osborne Clarke's international career programmes, which means that they have the opportunity to go on secondment to other offices or to develop an individual career path. 
Before finally starting the collaboration, did you discuss with Osborne Clarke's management the challenges they would face in the Polish market, for example, problems in the acquisition of young talents or lower rates? 

Olgierd Swierzewski: We were talking about talent acquisition and lawyer retention, as this is already an international topic. Many law firms are working on their identity, which will help to create good working conditions and convince people to stay with a given firm for as long as possible. We are also trying to develop our identity, corresponding with the Osborne Clarke's vision. In short, I would define this identity as a passion for working with clients. By this I mean the feelings that accompany our work. For many young people it is anxiety, and anxiety means stress. Many budding lawyers are very stressed by work, by pressing deadlines, by intellectual effort, by the risk of making a mistake, and so on. We want to transform this stress into satisfaction from doing interesting projects. This is what we want to offer young people - if you like law and enjoy advising clients, we will make sure that your stress is reduced. We will teach you to communicate with the client and will build your confidence so that you will feel joy in what you do. This breeds passion, and where there is passion, few people complain that working hours are longer than in a bureau. By the way, clerks in a bureau if they are passionate, also work longer hours. 

Thus passion, self-fulfilment and satisfaction are the key. How do you achieve this in practice? Through proper education, leading young lawyers by the hand and showing them skills and tools - knowledge and technical elements, and how to pass on this knowledge. And the second thing, which is very important - in my opinion - it is the weakest element in the Polish market – that is understanding how entrepreneurs function, how business works, how the sectors we work with function. I was an in-house for years and I worked with lawyers from the very best international law firms in Poland. I was amazed to find that they were genuinely afraid of their clients because they felt they did not understand how the client's business worked. This also breeds frustration in the clients, because the board member, I was one at the time, sees that such a young lawyer is issuing an invoice, and in fact it is me teaching him, not he teaching me. Business advisers should evoke very different emotions in their clients. They should give their clients the feeling of security, show that they know what is at stake and have suggestions how to carry out particular processes or solve particular problems. 

Have you perhaps wondered why this is the case? I have come across opinions that young lawyers sometimes simply have no time for further training or learning about their client's business. 

Olgierd Swierzewski: The world of management has developed and many tools have been created to help structure the work, including appropriate time management. Good and comprehensive project management creates room that can be used for such elements ensuring that service that the client is getting from business adviser is professional. 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: Coming back to young lawyers’ recruitment, we in Poland will just start building Osborne Clarke's reputation in this area, but in the UK this law firm gets very good reviews as an employer and has no problems in attracting talent. This is thanks to the unique organisation culture organisation, including realistic hourly targets. 

You are facing a big challenge, as Osborne Clarke actually has a very good standing among legal employers in the British Isles, it is even a winner of polls conducted among young lawyers. Is one of your aims to be a place that builds lawyers and has no problems to attract talent? 

Olgierd Swierzewski: Yes, definitely. We want to achieve this through the aforementioned inclusiveness and communication that does not put barriers between young lawyers and partners. 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: This will be a big challenge for us partners, because it means being involved in day-to-day work and not just delegating tasks. We want to accompany young lawyers in the projects that are underway and to ensure that they do not feel overwhelmed by the tasks they are involved in. 

Olgierd Swierzewski: Here communication also plays a big role. I always cite as an example the textbooks, a Polish one and an American one, which I used to learn financial management. The American one was very easy to read, like a primer, it started with simple examples, you simply absorbed knowledge. However, in the Polish one, after the third sentence I did not understand what I was reading, because the author from the very beginning was trying to build up his authority. We do not want to build our authority by being misunderstood. We want to communicate in plain language and break down problems in a way friendly to young lawyers. A good model for us is the US law firm Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz. There, young lawyers work very closely with the partners. On the market, their senior associates are seen as lawyers with partner-level experience, because they are introduced to the decision-making processes from the very beginning; their superiors discuss with them the whole business context of the case and in result they perform tasks understanding of what purpose they serve.  

What are Osborne Clarke's development plans in Poland? Marketing-wise, it sounds interesting, as you communicate that you want to participate in decarbonisation, digitalisation and dynamic urban development. What exactly does this mean for the law firm? What practices will be developed? Will the team grow? 

Olgierd Swierzewski: These quoted slogans represent exactly what we want to do. How many and what practices will be involved in which assignments is a matter of project management. We want to accompany clients in their decarbonisation or digitalisation processes by helping them to build a whole programme of actions and then put these actiions in a legal framework. 

And what do you mean by the term dynamic urban development? Who is to be the client for projects in this area? 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: The city in this case is an abstract idea. It is a symbol of place where dynamic changes are taking place in our lives, in many dimensions. 

Olgierd Swierzewski: It is about civilisational changes located in the cities - the internet of things, smart buildings, our whole lifestyle. 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: And to be able to advise well in all these areas, we obviously need to be a law firm with many different practices. We have a very specific plan to build them, aligned with the development of the whole business. We are constantly recruiting and interviewing in various ways, not only young lawyers but also potential new partners. 

Olgierd Świerzewski: Interestingly, it turned out that lawyers on the Polish market well know the Osborne Clarke brand, they associate it with a certain individuality and technological attitude, and they approach us themselves. We get a lot of enquiries about whether we need even entire teams. 

Now that this new legal brand has been introduced to the Polish market, having gone through this whole process, do you think that there is still potential for new international law firms to operate in our country? 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: First, I think we will continue to see a decline in the interest of US law practices in Poland. From the perspective of the US, the fact that in the US there are 31 firms where the profit per partner exceeds EUR 2 million, the business effectiveness achievable on the Polish market is not very interesting. I also think that in general we will not see too many international brands in Poland or welcome new ones. 

Olgierd Świerzewski: I think that maybe two or three more international law firms might consider entering Poland, because it is part of their strategy. They will follow their clients. If we look at the global map of law firms, we can see that some operate only in major financial or technology centres, they have four or five offices around the world. And we also have law firms that try to be in many countries, taking into account their specificities. For a few UK law firms in the top 30, Poland may still be an attractive market. 

Tomasz Olkiewicz: The question is whether there are still partners in Poland to build a new brand, because surely none of these foreign companies will want to create everything on their own from scratch. And I know that there have been law firms thinking of launching their business in Poland, but they could not find the right team. 

Legal Business Poland Magazine 07/22

* This article is current as of the date of its publication and does not necessarily reflect the present state of the law or relevant regulation.

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