As an industry, the legal profession has been changing significantly. We have always believed there is a lot of room for innovation, and tried to take the lead and have been quite successful in that.
We talked with Bogdan Gecić, the founder of the Gecić Law Firm, about his return to Belgrade, his view of how relations between the UAE and Serbia have been developing, education and the innovative approach that his law firm has.
You were among the first in Serbia to launch the concept of building an innovative law firm. What does entail, given that your profession is considered highly traditional?
When talking about the alleged conservatism of our profession, this depends on one’s perspective. You should take into account that we are still a post-communist society, but I do not mean that in an offensive way. Most of our population was born and most of our social norms and institutions were created during communism and have been rapidly changing for the past 20 years.
The bottom line is that twenty years ago we did not have business law as such or a need for it, because the dominant form of ownership was not private, nor was there a free market as such. So the area of law that our firm deals with – business law – is still considered new. Twenty years is a split second for the legal profession, so there was a lot of room for innovation in our niche branch of law.
What do you think about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on company operations in Serbia, speaking on behalf of your clients, and how much has the crisis slowed down the economy?
I wouldn’t say the crisis slowed it down. That is difficult to measure because different industries have experienced a completely different context. I would rather say that the pandemic has changed business conditions radically, but I would not use the term “slowed down”. Business-wise, we had an interesting year. In Serbia, in the first quarter of 2020, GDP growth was extremely strong and in the next three quarters of the year, the economy had the opportunity to perpetuate the driving force with which we started 2020. I believe that 2020 will not end with necessarily bad results.
In industries and sectors that have a high frequency of human contacts, it’s only natural that their turnover and operations have changed radically. Many industries that existed and operated successfully before the pandemic but were not necessarily the driving forces of the overall economy, experienced a boom during the pandemic.
How did you, as a law firm, adapt to this situation?
We were lucky that our type of services allows for a relatively smooth transition to remote work. Our focus was primarily on the safety of the people who are part of the team, our clients and contacts.
As the dynamics of the pandemic changed, we keep in touch with our staff to make sure we make the best decisions that everyone is comfortable with. Whenever there was a need for a team to switch to remote work, nobody was obligated to be physically present in the office and, during each wave , we conducted regular surveys to see when the majority of the team would be comfortable to return to the office. Finally, given that we are working from a rather grand old building in the center of Belgrade, we also needed to make a few changes in the office to ensure that all the best health practices are followed from having our air-conditioning made safe for use to, of course, ensuring the IT infrastructure can handle the additional pressures.
Companies from the UAE are top quality companies – efficient, fast, very professional and work all over the world. I have only words of praise for them.
In some ways the pandemic also brought us closer with colleagues around the world, as all meetings- whether in Belgrade, Brussels or Barcelona- became virtual. We participated in global meetings of our TerraLex and TAGLaw legal networks which brought over 600 legal professionals from all over the world together to discuss the business impact and opportunities from the pandemic.
Given that, in this issue, we are featuring the cooperation between the UAE and Serbia, what are your experiences in working with companies from the Emirates?
We have been working successfully with Etihad and other UAE companies for most of the past decade. We are also one of the founders of the UAE Serbia Business Club. It is difficult to compare in the context of the size and economic strength. The UAE is one of the most vibrant countries that are experiencing the fastest economic development. We come from different positions, the reference point is different, so it is difficult to compare. In essence, companies from the UAE are top quality companies – efficient, fast, very professional and work all over the world. An agreement is very important to them, not only the one at the legal level but also in terms of promises made as they are very principled. They are goal-ordinated, really appreciate results, they are grateful for the work and I have only words of praise for them.
How much room is there for boosting Arab investments in Serbia?
The idea behind forming this club was that as an organization that connects companies, we do not only connect existing investors but also to be a bridge between the Emirates and Serbia in the context of market intelligence and new opportunities. Our market is unknown to them. There is great interest, which is only natural because Belgrade is the traditional financial and commercial centre of the Western Balkans, which is a great opportunity for us. When the COVID-induced crisis ends, we can expect great growth.
Serbia has yet to work on opening Chapters 23 and 24. What legal challenges await Serbia on its path to joining the European Union?
Brexit is not sufficiently monitored in our country, and Brexit mirrors in a way the EU accession process, but in reverse. The British had a lot of technical level, legal work to do and a lot of regulations to pass, like the ‘Great Repeal Act’ which speaks to how much work awaits us. The EU is the most complex legal order in the world, which does not mean that it is more or less perfect than any other system, but it has a highly sophisticated legal structure. I think that all chapters are vital as they refer to almost all areas of social reality.
The transition to digital: electronic filings, virtual hearings, electronic case management, are all still major challenges for our judiciary. Progress is rather slow. This has, in turn, multi-layered consequences. For instance, you file a most common lawsuit, in hard copy, to sue for a claim and it turns out that for the lawsuit to be legally settled it will take several years, then the issue of the right to a fair trial arises, as well as the issue of investor protection which ultimately spills over into a matter of policy and principle, while it all started as a mere technical issue. I gave you a simple example, but when it comes to European integration, that requires a lot of work and a lot of capacity.
In terms of the legal profession and education, we are somewhat lagging behind with a relatively small number of courses at law schools throughout Serbia that deal with EU Law. And the EU accession negotiations have an impact on almost all areas of law in Serbia.
Could you tell us more about The Law Firm of the Year: Eastern Europe and the Balkans Award, which you received from The Lawyer magazine?
It was an incredible privilege and achievement for us to be named the best in such a diverse, large, and quickly evolving region – especially given that most of the other firms who were nominated were much longer established and significantly larger than us in terms of sheer size. We are especially proud that the panel who decided on the awards – which includes some of the best legal professionals on the continent – singled us out for our habit of “punching above our weight” , as well our commitment to diversity and treating all of our colleagues – not just the lawyers – as crucial in providing our clients the best advice and service possible.
Belgrade is the financial and commercial centre of the Western Balkans, which is a great opportunity for us.
While we do not plan to rest on our laurels and consider this just an incentive to start working even harder, we are happy that our hard work, as well as ethos, have been recognized by our industry.
What challenges do you expect this year on a professional and personal level?
As for personal challenges, I think we should all stabilize and slowly move from this state of emergency to something more routine. It will not be easy: it was interesting for us to follow people’s emotions and to take care of employees at the HR level. Based on our surveys and conversations we had with our staff, we noticed that challenges faced by HR team increased by 6 or 7 times, including the general increase in people’s anxiety and the difficulty in transitioning from the current situation back to normal.
For all of us who work in teams, this will be a very challenging period because it will require a lot of skills and empathy to take care of people.
In order to provide full support to our team members, we reached out to a business coaching professional (who is also a certified therapist) so they can also turn to them for advice and tips when dealing with the current challenges – from struggles of remote work to anxiety about the ever changing situation. These skills are useful in dealing with other, more regular business challenges, and our colleagues can also use this coaching opportunity to pursue other areas of professional and self-development.