Our lead was in determination and a willingness to take risks

04. 05. 2021

Source: EPRAVO.CZ Magazín (1/2021)

Elite Anglo-American law firms with comprehensive services and professional management were their role models. They started in 2001 in a small office, where they sat on boxes around a table. Their colleagues and friends told them that they would just be assisting in founding limited liability companies for the rest of their lives. But they made it to the top of Central European law firms. Three of the five founders of HAVEL & PARTNERS - Jaroslav Havel, Robert Nešpůrek and Marek Vojáček - continue to be active in the firm. Now, 20 years after it was founded, they recall difficult beginnings, their first contracts and the economic crisis, but also plan the future of the firm together. And what is their recipe for success?

How did it actually start in 2001?

Marek Vojáček: I knew Robert and Jaroslav from the international law firm Linklaters, where we all worked. I joined the firm after returning from Australia. One of the first persons they sent me to after joining was Robert Nešpůrek. They told me to learn from him how to keep a case file properly. We met Jaroslav at Linklaters about a year later when working on a transaction at an agricultural cooperative in southern Bohemia, where extruded bread was produced. We were selling it to some Norwegians.

But in the beginning, there were five of you …

Robert Nešpůrek: At that time, we found the firm with Ondra Petr, who also worked with us at Linklaters, and with our classmate Honza Holásek. Honza left the practice of law in 2014 and is now a senator. Unfortunately, Ondra Petr died tragically in the mountains 8 years ago, which was a huge loss for us, especially from the human viewpoint.

Who came up with an idea to start your own law firm?

Robert Nešpůrek: Jaroslav came up with the idea of starting his own firm when I was on an internship at the London office of Linklaters.

Jaroslav Havel: At Linklaters, we also worked with Deloitte and learned that they were looking for someone to build a partner law firm for them. I saw it as a good opportunity to connect the idea of our own project.

Robert Nešpůrek: At that time, I rented an apartment from Linklaters near Liverpool Street in central London, I walked to the office and I liked it a lot. When Jaroslav called me and asked if I wanted to join a new firm, I was very much debating whether to go for it. But I was attracted by the vision of my own project and in the end this decided it. I remember when I announced my leaving at Linklaters, I had to pack up immediately and move out of the London apartment on Liverpool Street the following day.

Our idea was to build a successful law firm in the Czech Republic according to the British model, i.e., a firm that will provide the comprehensive legal services needed for business.

How did your colleagues respond to your idea of leaving one of the best law firms in the world and starting your own firm?

Jaroslav Havel: Many colleagues didn’t understand why we were leaving such good jobs. Some superiors even predicted that with this step we were doomed to just “establish LLCs” for the rest of our lives.

Robert Nešpůrek: At that time, feelings were mixed not only for our colleagues, but also for us, because the beginnings were not idyllic at all. We had one small office, and we were sitting on computer and file boxes. We lawyers shared one table, the other table was in the hallway and our assistant sat there. We left good posts in a top firm, went into uncertainty and there was actually no way back. All the more reason we were motivated to do everything to make the firm a success.

So, what were your plans?

Marek Vojáček: Our idea was to build a successful law firm in the Czech Republic according to the British model, i.e., a firm that will provide the comprehensive legal services needed for business and will be an alternative to international law firms on the Czech market. The question was whether we would be able to inspire several other capable and hard-working lawyers with this idea, lawyers who would be able to put this very successful and functional model into practice with us.

Jaroslav Havel: We wanted to provide clients with a completely above-standard service from the very beginning, so it was clear that we needed a larger team. The goal was to get over ten lawyers quickly so that we could cover all specialisations and not have to send clients elsewhere, no matter what they were dealing with. That’s why we invested in quality and expensive lawyers from the beginning - they all came from large law firms. There were fourteen of us in half a year.

Was it possible with such a number of people to compete with established firms?

Jaroslav Havel: When we started, large Czech law firms had about 30 lawyers, the largest Linklaters, including tax advisors, had about 60 people. We thought that if our firm would have half of that number but we would have top lawyers and at the same time work very hard, we could do comparable work. In the beginning, we often worked all seven days a week.

Robert Nešpůrek: It was also beneficial for the start-up of the firm that we initially worked with Deloitte. And our great advantage was that we had experience from Linklaters, which was then a world leader in M&As. So, we had extraordinary know-how in this field. But it was important to convince clients that our knowledge is crucial.

Marek Vojáček (left) and Robert Nešpůrek

How did such a start-up firm, which had no history, convince clients?

Jaroslav Havel: I remember the beginnings when I went to an acquisition meeting to two major Moravian companies with a hastily made presentation. We had about a month’s history and I stood next to the established competitors in the tender for legal services. At that time, I had to convince the client that even though we were a firm without a history, we were significantly better than our competition in our specialisation in mergers and acquisitions. Fortunately, I succeeded in both cases.

Already in 2006, you established the first office outside Prague, in Ostrava. Why there?

Marek Vojáček: In 2003, the North Moravian banking institution Union banka went bankrupt, and we arranged a comprehensive contract for an insolvency trustee in Ostrava. It was a huge case on which a third of the firm worked, a demanding bankruptcy regulated by the Czech National Bank, in which there were tens of thousands of affected entrepreneurs. We basically lived in the Ostrava region for two years.

Jaroslav Havel: Union banka was then the fourth largest bank in the Czech Republic, basically everyone in the region had some involvement in it. Up to that point, in all similar cases, the satisfaction of creditors was up to 5 per cent and we managed to exceed 30 per cent, which was an extraordinary success compared to other bankruptcies. During our involvement there we established many contacts in the north of Moravia and gained a number of clients, so it was logical to open an office in Ostrava.

Today in Slovakia we comprehensively cover not only the needs of Slovak clients, but at the same time the Bratislava office is a gateway for Slovak clients heading to the Czech Republic.

In the following years, you also opened offices in Bratislava (2008) and Brno (2009)…

Marek Vojáček: From the very beginning we had important Slovak clients that we served from the Czech Republic, such as Železiarne Podbrezová, for whom we completed acquisitions both in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Europe. Gradually, however, we needed to be closer to our Slovak clients. At first, we tried to establish cooperation with one of the local law firms, but it didn’t work very well. In addition, the demand was constantly growing, so in the end it made the most sense for us to open our own office in Bratislava

Jaroslav Havel: Today in Slovakia we comprehensively cover not only the needs of Slovak clients, but at the same time the Bratislava office is a gateway for Slovak clients heading to the Czech Republic. Thanks to our presence in Slovakia, we win a lot of contracts for Slovak entrepreneurs operating in the Czech Republic.

And does the same apply to Brno?

Robert Nešpůrek: Of course, we wanted to be closer to our clients there as well, however, even then we perceived Brno as a technological hub and a place with considerable potential for business development. In addition, Brno is also the capital of the judiciary, it houses the key courts and the Office for the Protection of Competition, as well as the Faculty of Law, where we can establish contacts with students.

The law firm even grew during the economic recession in 2008–2009. How did you manage it?

Robert Nešpůrek: At that time, international transactions accounted for the largest share of our work. We had large contracts and good references, which started the rapid development of the firm. But with the crisis came a slowdown in the M&A market. At the same time, most of the firm’s income came from this field, and 80 per cent of these resources suddenly dried up. It was a very difficult period, but we just decided together to break it.

Jaroslav Havel: We restructured the firm extremely quickly, and we made every effort to change the portfolio of our services. We took it as a challenge and, unlike other firms that held back, fired people, cut costs, and waited for what would happen, we saw it as an opportunity. We didn’t want to fire people; we had a top team. We thought we had a lot of young talented people, so why should we fire them when we were searching so hard to find them?

So, you didn’t hesitate at all and just risked it?

Marek Vojáček: The crucial thing at the time was that we all agreed together that right in such a difficult time we needed to invest even more in the further development of the firm and business. Among other things, we radically reduced our own income below the level of some employees.

Robert Nešpůrek: At that time, clients left expensive international law firms. We saw it as a chance and wanted to take it. We sent out hundreds of proposals and offered a comprehensive legal service with an emphasis on the services that were most in demand at the time in connection with the crisis. We gained many new corporate clients, and, despite the crisis, we continued to grow and hire more new people.

The number of lawyers in the firm has gradually grown and today you have the largest team on the Czech and Slovak market with 240 lawyers. Have you always been lucky to have good people?

Robert Nešpůrek: From the beginning, it was extremely difficult to get quality lawyers. But we were lucky that already then we were able to convince the best people on the market to join a small start-up law firm. With our growth and development, we gradually got into a completely different position. Today, we are able to easily attract the best professionals on the market, and for the last seven years we have been the most sought-after employer. We didn’t even dream about that 20 years ago.

Marek Vojáček: But it is a never-ending process. When an exceptionally talented professional appears, we need to make every effort to get him or her on our side of the barricade, because we will either work together and help each other, or we will fight with him or her for clients. It has always seemed wiser to me to put such a person next to me.

Jaroslav Havel

Were you all involved in the management of the firm at the beginning? And how did it change when you became the largest Czech-Slovak law firm with hundreds of employees and affiliates?

Robert Nešpůrek: From the beginning we did most things together, together we mainly took care of hiring new people. I also remember how I wrote the first profile of the firm “on my knees” in the summer on a holiday in the Lipno region in my cottage. Jaroslav was in charge of negotiations with business partners, strategic development, and financial management of the firm.  

Jaroslav Havel: In the West, it is common for companies with a certain size to automatically have professional management in areas such as HR, finance or marketing and business. But it was not a custom in the Czech Republic. Lawyers often didn’t recognize other expert professions and felt that they were doing their best in managing the law firm. The law firms on the local market were rather smaller, with three or four lawyers joined together and they all decided on everything. However, our model was British law firms with professional management, so with the gradual growth and development of the firm, we took over that model.

How do you maintain fast decision-making dynamics at HAVEL & PARTNERS despite your size?

Jaroslav Havel: Paradoxically, we were the least flexible in the beginning, when six partners sat at the table and we all decided on everything. Gradually, we came to the conclusion that we had to speed up and simplify decision-making and set competencies so that decisions are always made by the one who best understands the given things, systematically educates himself and improves in them.

Marek Vojáček: If a company starts to lose its business drive and starts to look more like an office, it can never be successful in the long run. That is why we put emphasis on a fast and flexible decision-making system, which has proven itself to us for many years.  

You managed to build the most successful law firm on the Czech and Slovak market from scratch. What advice would you, with your twenty years of experience, give to those who are just starting out?

Marek Vojáček: That it is important not to procrastinate with decisions that are uncomfortable. If something is established in the firm, but it demonstrably does not work, it is important to solve it as soon as possible. Only then can the firm move on.

Jaroslav Havel: I totally agree. In our firm, this mainly concerned the HR area.

Since its foundation, Havel & Partners has been growing continuously, not only in terms of turnover and personnel, but also in terms of the quality of its services, for which it has already received a number of awards. Where to next? What are your plans for the next twenty years?

Jaroslav Havel: We want to constantly improve. We conclude each year by reviewing whether we have improved, in what and in what not, and then look to the future to see what we can work on. We want to continue to be an innovative firm that is a long-term strategic partner for clients in their business. Our goal is to protect and develop our excellent reputation and the values associated with HAVEL & PARTNERS, such as an individual approach, comprehensive practical solutions, respect, trust, and loyalty.

Marek Vojáček: We also want to continue working with the best lawyers on the legal market and always have something to offer them, because the legal profession is primarily about people.

Robert Nešpůrek: We have always been inspired by large renowned law firms from the so-called Magic Circle. I wish our firm to be one of them and to be a permanent part of the European legal elite. As individuals we will not be here forever, and it would be good if the firm also continued afterwards. If it can continue to build on the first two decades into the future, it will be a great success.

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