An interview with Marcell Nemeth of Wolf Theiss, about his path from Budapest to Vienna.
CEELM: Run us through your background, and how you ended up in your current role with Wolf Theiss in Vienna.
Marcell: Once upon a time – and not yesterday – I started my career in Budapest where, after graduating from law school in 1993, I got my first job with Shearman & Sterling. In a few months, I found myself in the firm’s Paris office, on a secondment to the US capital markets team, and I have to say I quite liked the international environment, the intensity of the work, and trying to read some small bits of those scary big volumes of US securities laws. I also spent some time in the firm’s London office, again with the US securities group that was handling IPOs of Hungarian blue chip companies in London or New York.
Funnily enough, it was in Paris where, as a trainee, I was asked to deliver a claim form to a district judge, which – and this is now a historical fact – was my first official appearance in court. And, as I soon started to specialize in finance transactions, I am really not sure if I went to a court hearing in any other countries afterwards.
To cut a long story short, I liked the idea of working abroad, and soon after joining Allen & Overy in Budapest, an additional secondment followed in London. I thought that adding an English qualification to my original Hungarian could help in broadening the scope of deals I could handle, and as English law seemed to be particularly relevant in finance, I hoped that this would allow me to operate on a wider CEE/SEE footing – which I very much wanted to do. In 2008, I joined Pinsent Masons, moved back to London again and spent a few years there as a partner. However, these were the years of the financial crisis, which did not make a transition easy, and due to a variety of factors – including personal reasons – my family’s steering committee decided that we would come back to “our” region. Because there was an opportunity in Vienna at UniCredit, in 2013 we ended up in Vienna. So I spent two fascinating years with that bank, working on super-interesting deals, primarily on the Russian and CIS markets, which unfortunately dried up, to a large extent due to political events in 2014.
At the end of the day I always wanted to go back to private practice, and a chance to do that came up late in 2014 with Wolf Theiss, which I thought would be a good idea given the firm’s regional presence and a strong commitment to this market – located, so-to-say, between Germany and Russia. I decided to go for it, and that’s the sort of regional finance work that I have been up to during the last six years now.
CEELM: Budapest is just down the road, of course. What value does it add – either for the firm or for you personally (or both) – for you to be in Austria?
Marcell: Yes, absolutely, the old country is around the corner, and accordingly, it is easy to jump in the car, which gives you a horrible stressful journey on the motorway, or on the train, which gives you a lovely relaxed two hours which you can spend reading or working (except in the winter of course, when, as happened to me once, the train stops somewhere due to a casual snow storm in the border area and the heating goes off after five hours or so, leaving one to wonder why people need so much mobility and develop an even fuller understanding of why Leo Tolstoy preferred horse coaches to trains).
Anyhow, in the pre-pandemic times I visited Budapest a lot and kept in touch with many clients. Hungary will always be the country where I grew up, where I got my first degrees, started to work, and learned what young lawyers need to know to embark on this job. On the other hand, given the jobs I am tasked with at Wolf Theiss, I (used to) travel quite often to other capitals in CEE/SEE, which I also very much like, and I think this whizzing between CEE/SEE countries and capitals as well as looking at these places as one unit for the purposes of the work I do is probably where I try to add value to what the firm wants to achieve. I have noticed that in Vienna, because it is really an international city with many expats and foreigners working all over the place – including in the banks that tend to be our main clients – there is a sentiment developing that there is some distinctive feature in assisting businesses in their cross-border activities in this area. Quite often the clients categorize me simply as a “CEE/SEE lawyer.” I’m not sure that exists as a strict legal profession, but there is something in it as an approach to practice perhaps.
CEELM: Was it always your goal to work outside of Hungary?
Marcell: If not a definite goal, as I said earlier, I always wanted to run deals across borders and I tried to make moves with my career and be in geographies where this goal could be achieved – and in this sense I was ready to accept jobs outside Hungary if I thought they could provide these opportunities. But, of course, Budapest is a financial center too with regional players in finance, so this sort of work can be attacked in a variety of places in CEE.
CEELM: Tell us briefly about your practice, and how you built it up over the years.
Marcell: My practice is essentially based on loan products, and my transactions always involve a loan agreement in one way or another, be it a refinancing, or a transfer of the loan, or occasionally other forms of lending – involving debt securities, for example. As I was originally trained as a leveraged finance lawyer, this type of financing still lies very close to my heart, and I really like the dynamics of financing acquisitions. But I do other forms of finance too, of course, including real estate, which is bread and butter in the region, or projects where I personally believe the CEE/SEE offers, in which home-grown knowledge and local presence, combined with international experience, will be a key factor for law firms. Our firm typically appears on the side of lenders, but we do borrower or sponsor work as well in the project finance area.
CEELM: How would clients describe your style?
Marcell: In addition to providing skilled legal advice, I try to approach transactions holistically, as a process, where next steps and responses to the moves of the other players need to be planned and anticipated. I hope to be able to bring that sort of experience to the table – a bit of leadership, perhaps, in helping the client make the next move and then the next move again. I would describe this as a politely hands-on attitude, without interfering in the decisions that must be made at the commercial level, but definitely not completely hands-off (which to me at least means that counsel answers questions but does not anticipate and drive things ahead). I hope some clients at least would say that I am able to preserve some sense of humor and a good spirit when navigating through deals, but I also appreciate that when one says these things about oneself, the magic is easily gone. So let’s just say I hope that’s what people think …
CEELM: Are there any significant differences between the Hungarian and Austrian judicial systems and legal markets? Which stand out the most?
Marcell: Quite frankly, I am not sure I am best placed to answer this question right here and right now because my deals tend to be mainly English-law driven, or, if different, loan agreements are, let us face it, fairly similar in most instances, when one works with the accepted international standards. That being said, as I do deals in various countries in our region, certainly in the area of finance, I find that broadly similar (if not identical) answers are given to similar questions. In light of the civil-law-based jurisprudence and the many resemblances in respect of how one takes security, for example, from my perspective at least, the region does not present widely differing approaches when it comes to the legal environment, at least when it comes to origination and securing loan assets (although restructuring can be a very different experience). Anyway, I have a secret blue notebook in which I note if and when an answer on a legal technical question is strikingly different from what is usually received in other countries, and my credulity is challenged a little.
CEELM: How about the cultures? What differences strike you as most resonant and significant?
Marcell: As you often hear from politicians, I thank you for the question. I could fill up volumes with answers, and we could launch a periodical if you are interested. But jokes aside, the difficulty in answering properly really lies in the relatively minor differences that crop up at every corner. Everything is very similar, yet everything is quite different. I know for a fact that some people simply could not cope with this, while other enjoy it thoroughly. I really don’t think – but the beauty of these things is that others may deeply and fiercely disagree (that’s the meaning of culture) – that as between Austria and Hungary, an expat would face a cultural shock (even postal cheques look very familiar, both ways), but differences exist and adaption may be necessary. Ultimately, this is what I personally like about being exposed to the CEE/SEE region; while a capital city in one of the Northern countries is extremely different to a capital city in the Balkans, traces of a more-or-less shared past and history can be felt, and a good understanding of this cultural background helps, even in doing business, with the caveat that differences await at every corner.
In the cultural sense, CEE is a complex equation with many x-es to it, but discoveries or solutions to an x in country A could give you a key to another x in country B. Or not, of course. My daughter, for example, is still a relative food conservative, which means that she does not always embrace the culinary experience of tasting food originating in distant places, but as long as we have schnitzel, goulash, and apricot jam pancakes (and we are really not picky about the way these goodies are spelled and pronounced in various places), we are quite at home.
CEELM: Do you have any plans to move back to Hungary?
Marcell: Everything is possible, nothing is excluded, but probably not immediately, no.
CEELM: Outside of Hungary and Austria, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most, and why?
Marcell: As said earlier, I (used to) travel a lot within CEE and I do have my favorite places, but I will not say which, because my other favorite places may take an issue with that. The truth is that wherever I go, I have absolutely fantastic colleagues in our offices in the country, and I get on-the-spot, top-end advice on cultural things, places to go, places not to go to, things not to do, and then it is just fine. I receive an amazing introduction, a nice evening out, and yes, that city becomes a favorite too.
CEELM: What’s your favorite place to take visitors in Vienna?
Marcell: This is an interesting question. I really to attempt to be a good host, and offer all these lovely opportunities with the beautiful palaces in Vienna, or sites and vineyards around Vienna, or indeed the Opera, which is clearly one of the best on the planet. I do not say I never ever get a positive response, and of course we do go to these places, but most visitors in fact demand the Christmas Market. Obviously, this is also a very nice thing to do, and we like it too (although no visits last year, for obvious reasons), but the tendency is clearly observable. I shall and try to concentrate invitations on the summer, and I’ll see what people wish to do then.