With Havel & Partners celebrating 20 years of existence this year, CEE Legal Matters spoke with Robert Nespurek, one of the firm’s founding Partners, to look back at the past two decades and the firm’s plans for the future.
CEELM: Congratulations on the anniversary! How are you planning to celebrate it?
Nespurek: With a big party! We are planning on throwing a get-together for the whole office at the start of September, in Prague. I’m hoping that hundreds of our colleagues will be there!
We have as many as 500 people, 250 of them lawyers and tax advisors, in our group, and everybody is invited!
CEELM: How did the firm first come to be? Who were the initial founders and how large was the team, at the beginning?
Nespurek: There were five founders back in 2001. Four of us worked in the Prague office of Linklaters, which is where I started in 1998. A year later another founder, Marek Vojacek, joined and yet another year later Jaroslav Havel, from another firm. Ondrej Petr, the fourth founder, was already at Linklaters when I joined them. The fifth founding partner was Jan Holasek, who came from Kocian Solc Balastik. Three of those founders are still with the firm, so the majority is still represented after all these years!
We started as a law firm cooperating with Deloitte and joined their then-forming legal network. This gave us a unique dimension to the business, cooperating extensively with the large consultancy firm. That cooperation remained in place until 2005 when we went fully independent. We had already grown to some 30 or 40 lawyers at the time and had started on our way to where we are now.
The fact that we stopped being a member of the Deloitte group meant that we could become even more entrepreneurial and were able to better manage the business – especially in the hard times of the 2008/2009 financial crisis. To be able to stick it out and turn our business into a large, full-service operation during those years – that was a major moment for us. And in the following years we became the largest law firm in the Czech Republic!
CEELM: What do you recall from year one after 2005? What were the highlights that stuck with you over the years?
Nespurek: On the one hand, it was the feeling of freeing ourselves from a larger organization. It was a big motivation moment for us, to take everything into our own hands and do things in the way that we really thought would work. It was a liberating feeling.
On the other hand, it was a lot of hard work. Everything we had done until that point, connected with Deloitte, required a lot of hard work to be replaced with other business.
The path we then embarked on was our international strategy. That led us to become one of the law firms handling the largest number of M&A transactions in the market, by 2007. A lot of that was thanks to us nurturing international cooperation with major law firms, mainly from the US, the UK, and Germany. This lasted until the financial crash when a lot of the M&A work dried up. After that, we really passed the stress test by quickly restructuring and diversifying into what we are today.
CEELM: Looking back at your 20 years of operations, what would you identify as the most important transactions for the firm?
Nespurek: One was, definitely, representing the Italian insurance conglomerate Generali on their combination with Ceska pojistovna from the PPF group, in 2008. From the perspective of strategic investment advisory, this was a shining moment for us.
The other one that comes to mind is the sale of the major food company Hame, which also took place in early 2008.
Both of these happened during the formative years of the firm and, looking back, both were landmark transactions. Such transactions transformed our corporate practice into a major force in the market and led to other major deals in our second decade.
CEELM: Similarly, what are the deals you are most proud of having worked on?
Nespurek: For me, it was the private equity deal when I represented KBC Private Equity on their acquisition of Novaservis, in 2005, and then assisted them on their successful exit, in 2007. This was something that definitely moved my career path closer to private equity and also venture capital work.
We continued with assisting some of the early private equity and VC funds in the Czech Republic on their transactions. A lot of those were technology-driven and that fueled my interest in the tech sector and technology law. I continued, especially after 2010/2011, setting up a dedicated IP/IT/Media group in the law firm, which was another turning point in my career with the firm.
Subsequently, we built one of the largest teams in the region for technology and IP, comprising some 40 lawyers nowadays, in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. We promoted three other Partners within the team and made it one of the largest business units in our firm, which just goes to show how serious the work we do is.
CEELM: Have you ever considered expanding to new markets, geographically?
Nespurek: We have become quite international in our outlook after 2005 and we continued down this path, especially after we turned into a full-service firm following the 2008/2009 crisis. We diversified from M&A into all other practice areas and have some of the largest teams in all of them.
We stick to the strategy of being the preferred independent firm for international transactions, utilizing our six offices in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Also, as our clientele grew, our outbound international work has significantly increased – we have assisted clients in some 110 countries all over the globe. Nowadays, the amount of outbound and inbound international work we do is roughly balanced. We cover cases in a dozen languages and have no problems with handling multi-jurisdictional client work – about 70% of all our work has an international element to it!
So we chose to focus on quality in our home in the Czech and Slovak jurisdictions, rather than setting up foreign offices. And we are certain that, thanks to our size and business network, we can achieve maximum results for our clients in private as well as public sector work. And the extensive international network we have carefully built over the last 15 years makes sure we can achieve the same for our clients abroad, thanks to our great partners.
CEELM: What about the team? How has it evolved over the years, and how do you imagine it will continue to do so?
Nespurek: When we were a small law firm, by being ambitious, by growing, by having an international strategy, we managed to attract a lot of talented lawyers to our firm – especially from international law offices in Prague. Later on, we also attracted some great colleagues from the state administrative sector and various regulatory bodies. This proved to be a great foundation for future growth, in the first decade of the firm.
Today, we have established partnerships and career paths for our team members. We rely more on hiring young lawyers and shaping their careers, aiding them in their progression, all the way up to senior levels. We take great pride in our in-house growth and development, while, of course, continuously focusing on great lateral hires for senior positions. We believe that we still have opportunities to grow so we actually need more Partners for the future.
CEELM: What is it about the past 20 years that you look back at with the most fondness?
Nespurek: I think that one of the great things is that we still have (at least most of) our original founders and many other lawyers who joined early on still working in the firm, staying close friends and business partners. I think that is unique and also very enjoyable.
The second thing is that our business is still about people. What we rate very highly is that the firm is what it is because of the firm’s culture. How positive the atmosphere in the firm is, and how we manage to maintain an informal approach to doing things within the firm, and combine that with a strong determination to do good, solid, professional work.
CEELM: On the flip side, what is one thing you regret not yet having a chance to do?
Nespurek: I can’t speak of any large thing that we should have done by now. I regret none of the big decisions we made – even if some of them may have seemed risky and with uncertain outcomes in the past.
One thing that comes to mind is that, at times, we could have made some decisions faster, particularly related to things like working with the right people and, perhaps, saying goodbye to some who turned out not to be the right fit for the firm. But this is probably key in any business that relies on people, and one always learns about the best way of doing it as time passes.
CEELM: Where do you imagine the firm 20 years from now?
Nespurek: The firm has a pretty good foundation and stands a great chance to both maintain its position and grow further. I think that we had a great quality of service when we set up the firm that we improved and built upon. I believe that the firm will continue following this trend, going forward. What we wish to achieve is to stand up to the challenge of continuing to be a reliable, strategic partner to our clients, be the best service provider. In those qualities, becoming something like the magic circle firms in London are. That is what our ambition is and that is what we are striving to achieve.
What we would also like to accomplish is that this becomes a lasting business that isn’t contingent on existing Partners. So that even in the future, the firm exists and thrives, even after the founders retire.