An interview with Ben Davey of WKB Wiercinski, Kwiecinski, Baehr, about his path from Australia to Poland.
CEELM: Run us through your background, and how you ended up in your current role with WKB in Warsaw.
Ben: I started my legal career and worked for about 15 years in the Melbourne office of the Australian law firm Freehills (which merged with Herbert Smith a couple of years after I left). I focused on private equity and other alternative investments, including investments in infrastructure. In 2005, I assisted an Australian investment fund with the acquisition of a stake in a power station in Poland, working alongside Polish counsel. The general counsel of the client figured out that both the lead Polish lawyer and I were single, and encouraged us to stay in touch after the transaction. To make a long story short, things worked out. I moved to Warsaw in 2010, we got married a few years later, and now have two kids. On the work front, after a bit of time getting settled in Poland, I was lucky enough to find a home in the M&A team at WKB.
CEELM: Was it always your goal to work outside of Australia?
Ben: I wouldn’t say it was a top priority. Many of my colleagues went to London, Singapore, or Hong Kong for a short time when we were junior associates. At one point in the late 90s, I lined up a job in London too, but I was working on some great transactions in Melbourne and ultimately didn’t follow through with the move. For quite a while, I thought the window had closed and I’d be in Melbourne for the long haul, but life has a way of throwing you curveballs.
CEELM: Tell us briefly about your practice, and how you built it up over the years.
Ben: In Melbourne, I had become very focused on private equity, not just M&A activity for private equity funds, but also fund formation. But the private equity market in Warsaw is not as deep, and there is very little fund formation work here, so I am now more of a general M&A lawyer. Our M&A practice at WKB continues to grow year after year, and we have a great team, with some very dedicated and talented lawyers, ranging from enthusiastic fresh-faced youngsters to some of most experienced M&A lawyers in town. Given my background, I usually work on transactions that have a cross-border element and where the working language is English.
CEELM: How would clients describe your style?
Ben: I focus on delivering quality service. I think my private equity and investment fund clients in Melbourne would have described me as someone to help navigate unchartered waters. They valued the combination of my attention to detail, including my eye for potential hazards, as well as my appetite for complex equity structures and adjustment mechanisms. However, in Warsaw, where I do more work on mainstream M&A, and given my seniority, I think my experience, common sense, and project management skills are more relevant.
CEELM: There are obviously many differences between the Australian and Polish judicial systems and legal markets. What idiosyncrasies or differences stand out the most?
Ben: In Australia, there was more detail in the legislation and supporting materials such as guidance published by regulators, plus hundreds of years of common law to draw on. If you were prepared to look long and hard enough, you could almost always find an answer or see that someone had faced the same problem before, and, even if that wasn’t the case, you could get a very good sense of how a problem could be solved, and how the courts would resolve things if it came to that. In Poland, I think there are more blind spots for lawyers, and less certainty about the determinations a court might make in unusual or untrodden territory, so it’s more difficult to deal with novel problems with confidence. As for the legal market, I thought things were competitive in Melbourne, but it’s nothing compared to Warsaw.
CEELM: That’s interesting. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Ben: In Poland, we have quite a few strong national independent firms like WKB, plus offices of numerous global and regional firms, as well as many smaller and boutique firms. In some cases, clients view us all as interchangeable, so the market feels over-crowded, and, from time to time, it is difficult to know where the bottom is in terms of price. Let’s just say, it’s a good place to be a client!
CEELM: How about the cultures? What differences strike you as most resonant and significant?
Ben: At work, things are pretty similar, although I think WKB is more progressive and less formal than many Polish law firms, so maybe my experience is not representative. Outside the office, in day-to-day life, while Australians like to think of ourselves as larrikins, I think we are much more inclined to follow the rules than Poles. I think this is pretty starkly demonstrated by the approach to the COVID-19 pandemic in each country. Also, both the surf and the coffee in Australia are much better!
CEELM: What particular value do you think a senior expatriate lawyer in your role adds – both to a firm and to its clients?
Ben: Back in the 1990s, some Polish law firms had expatriates to help bring them up to speed with international best practice during the shift to a market economy. Thirty years on, that’s not as relevant. Rather, I think my role says more about WKB and its open-minded attitude as to who can potentially make a valued contribution to the organization.
CEELM: Do you have any plans to move back to Australia?
Ben: Not for the foreseeable future, but I think I’ll be living in Australia in my retirement, if for no other reason than my old bones might appreciate the warmer weather!
CEELM: Outside of Poland, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most, and why?
Ben: Hmm. I’ve had many enjoyable trips in the region, and it’s hard to pick a favorite. Maybe Slovenia, which is absolutely beautiful, and I love the mountains.
CEELM: What’s your favorite place to take visitors in Warsaw?
Ben: For those who are interested in history, I recommend the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which is dedicated to the unsuccessful uprising by the underground resistance against German occupation in the late summer and early autumn of 1944. But, if the weather is warm, I like to go for a bike ride along the river or through the farmland south of the city in search of a place to have a grilled sausage and a beer.