Interview with Irisz Szel, Legal Director of CEU about her background and best practices.
CEELM: Can you walk us through your career?
Irisz: From the very start I was eager to learn about all the different aspects of legal work. As a university student I was a trainee in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and in the Ministry of Justice of Hungary. In the first years of my career I worked as a tax advisor at PricewaterhouseCoopers, which provided me with insight into the world of multinational companies. Later, I joined the Tax team at CMS Cameron McKenna and continued my career specializing in tax, banking & finance, and corporate law. After some years I was offered a position as Head of Legal at EDF DEMASZ Zrt. (now: MVM Next Energiakereskedelmi Zrt.), a company operating in the energy sector. Becoming an in-house lawyer was a turning point in my career. Today I work as the Legal Director of Central European University.
CEELM: Why did you decide to join CEU?
Irisz: CEU found me when I was not actually considering a move. I was a freshly-hired in-house lawyer in a multinational company when their call came. I kept politely refusing an interview until I heard the name of my alma mater. A few days later, when I entered the building of CEU after so many years, all the memories came back. CEU was not a question for me anymore.
CEELM: Tell us about CEU, and about its legal department. How big is your team, and how is it structured?
Irisz: CEU as an institution has many faces: it is a university, a research center, a place-to-meet, a place that is simply good to be at. We have been through a lot, which made this institution an even more unique place. As one of our professors once said: “This place has a soul.”
Under the current setup, the legal department has four lawyers in Budapest and two in Vienna, and we have legal counsels in the US, too.
CEELM: Was it always your plan to go in-house?
Irisz: Not at all. I have seen both sides of the coin: as an attorney and a tax consultant I have been an external advisor, and as an in-house counsel, I have worked with external advisors. It was when I experienced the real role of an in-house lawyer in the life of a company that I felt I had arrived where I wanted to be.
CEELM: What was your biggest single success or greatest achievement with CEU in terms of particular projects or challenges? What one thing are you proudest of?
Irisz: After Lex CEU, the management decided to move the university to Vienna. This meant reorganizing our current operation and building up a new corporate and institutional structure while moving hundreds of employees abroad. In the midst of executing complex tasks under enormous time pressure, the biggest challenge was to familiarize ourselves with a new legal system and harmonize our operations under all three – Hungarian, Austrian, and US – jurisdictions, in a way that the concept of “One CEU” remained intact.
CEELM: How would you describe your management style? Can you give a practical example of how that manifested itself in the legal department or helped you succeed in your position?
Irisz: I believe in teamwork. To us, lawyers, discussing different ideas and confronting views is of utmost importance. I like to be challenged by my colleagues, and sometimes our office is like a loud courtroom (laughs). On the other hand, I believe respect and trust do not come automatically from one’s position; they are earned.
CEELM: Do you have any personal habits or strategies you employ that may not be common but that really help you succeed in your role? Things you’ve developed yourself over the years that might not be obvious?
Irisz: When I don’t have a solution to a problem, I go for a run. It is amazing how each mile can bring a new perspective.
CEELM: What one person would you identify as being most important in mentoring you in your career – and what in particular did you learn from that person?
Irisz: My brother, Ervin Szel. He is a diplomat and has a very good sense of human nature. His words of wisdom and encouragement are deeply engraved in my heart and have helped me through the most important crossroads of my life.
CEELM: On the lighter side, what is your favorite book or movie about lawyers or lawyering – and why?
Irisz: High Performance with High Integrity from Ben W. Heineman, which can also serve as a personal motto for my working style.