Partner Magazine Interview: Caroline Poynton talks to
Georgi Spasov, managing partner at Spasov & Bratanov,
on his experiences of running a
Bulgarian law firm and his leadership role as managing partner.
you tell us a little bit about your background and your
experience of the Bulgarian legal market?
During my time studying
and practising law, I have seen and lived through many changes
over the last 12 years, not the least being the dramatic
end of the communist regime in Bulgaria in 1990. After graduating
in 1988, I became a university law lecturer and, having
completed a year-long academic research placement in Japan,
returned home in 1990 to find a new Bulgaria and a completely
different country. It was only at this point that a Bulgarian
legal market began to develop.
My father is a lawyer who continues to
act as counsel to my firm today and, although I scarcely
realised it at the time, my father’s commitment to and enjoyment
of the law influenced my decision to become a lawyer myself.
Before the ‘velvet revolution’, he had practised in a society
based on a centralised economy and as a sole practitioner;
regulations at that time did not allow for law firms as
we know them today. My father specialised in property law,
which then was the most challenging sphere of legal advice
After 1990, the areas of banking and financial
law started to develop in Bulgaria and having first spent
some time with a financial brokerage company, I was involved
in setting up one of the first privately held Bulgarian
banks. This was particularly challenging because, even as
little as ten years ago, no standard form of contract existed
– no employment contracts, no letters of credit. Bank guarantees
and the negotiation and establishment of correspondent contracts
with international banks were something that had to be created
from scratch. It was only when I was awarded a British Council
scholarship to study banking and finance law in London for
a year that I really began to understand how much large,
international law firms can accomplish and that the law
is a very advanced and dynamic field of knowledge and practice.
What I had been taught in Sofia was how to be a lawyer -
developing a law firm and running it as a business was,
at that time, a concept unknown to me.
leadership qualities have you developed as managing partner
of Spasov & Bratanov?
On my return from London, I joined a small Sofia
law firm as a name partner and for the first time began
to work as part of a team. It was my ambition at this time,
however, to become a legal expert rather than a businessman,
so I gladly handed over the public relations, the marketing
and the client maintenance aspects of my job to the managing
partner. It wasn’t until 1999, having acted for some years
at a branch office of an international law firm active in
central and eastern Europe, that I established Spasov &
Bratanov and became managing partner. I quickly found that
I could no longer elude the responsibilities of leadership.
I had no choice but to undertake a self-imposed ‘crash course’
in law firm management from the perspective of an ‘entrepreneur’,
i.e. how to develop and run a law firm as a business, a
western concept with which I now had to rapidly catch up.
First and foremost, it became obvious
that the responsibilities of my new leadership role had
broadened. These included not only stewardship of the financial
good health of the firm and the provision of a stable and
well-managed work environment for my partners, associates
and staff, but also responsibility for the firm’s image
and external relations. I now needed to develop and maintain
both local and international client relationships, as well
as with international law firm. Traditional, long-standing
relationships with local government and municipal departments
as well as with the local legal community were also vital
What specific tasks did you find yourself
One of my first tasks was to relocate our firm to new
offices. Even in the age of the virtual world, traditional
communication is inherent in the practice of law. In Bulgaria,
being settled at one address for a very long time is a sign
of conservatism, solidity and reliability; any change –
other than steady expansion – may be viewed negatively.
Fortunately, our move was to a prestigious part of town
and into a building equipped to modern, international standards.
Although advertising of legal services
by members of the Bar is quite restricted in Bulgaria, I
found it necessary to take a much more active marketing
role within the allowed limits. What had previously been
pleasant social diversions – embassy functions, chamber
of commerce events – now became a vital part of my new ‘networking’
role. Being a latecomer to these areas, I was pleasantly
surprised that they proved to be the basis for securing
more interesting pieces of legal work.
Frequent overseas travel to see clients,
attendance of international conferences and seminars also
became important. Coming from a recently emerged and non-traditional
jurisdiction such as Bulgaria, it is vital that local law
firms working with international clients and lawyers and
on behalf of international investors, develop a profile
outside the country.Though a website is useful and telecommunications
crucial, there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings,
even in this virtual age.
Have you any tips or advice for those
taking on the role of managing a law firm?
There seems to be a simple formula for the successful
management of a law firm; keep your clients happy and keep
members of the firm happy. Implementing this deceptively
simple formula, however, may be more difficult than it seems.
Clients are happy if you do an excellent job, for which
they’re charged less than expected!
Good management should start at the beginning
and, in common with most other law firms, training and mentoring
of trainees is a vital investment for the firm’s future.
Trainees need to learn to be lawyers and, just as importantly,
they need to learn to be part of the law firm. Since any
firm taking on trainees will be exposed both professionally
and financially, it is important that, in consultation with
the partners, the managing partner decides early on as to
whether the firm intends to retain the trainee and, if so,
to groom and encourage the trainee to make a future with
Inflow of assignments and corresponding
inflow of cash is a further managing partner responsibility.
Sometimes it is easier to procure the job than it is to
get paid. And though larger, more time-consuming projects
are most desirable, these are often the ones where payment
is most delayed. At times like this, it is helpful to have
understanding and well-informed partners – with no surprises!
Ideally, and this is perhaps only achievable
in a small firm, the managing partner should monitor and
control all the firm’s material output. It is our firm’s
policy that at least two of the partners are responsible
for the output on every single issue. While it is said that
‘two lawyers means three opinions’, we find this practice
viable and an added value for the client. It also results
in useful internal discussions on more complicated issues
that are productive and beneficial to the overall performance
of each lawyer, particularly under the current restructuring
of Bulgarian legislation. While each partner is certainly
able to handle complicated problems individually, I find
the team approach reduces both stress and risk.
You seem particularly concerned
with the well-being of your colleagues?
Is this an important part of the managing partner’s role?
The success and strength of any business lies
with the employees. Consequently, a managing partner looking
for the growth of their law firm must look to the well-being
of the staff and partners.
Stress in particular, is an unavoidable
part of a lawyer’s life – both at work and in private life
– and stress management is a difficult issue but one which
a managing partner, as leader, should not ignore, even a
managing partner who feels that a certain amount of work-related
stress is rather healthy. My partners and I are constantly
aware of the conflict between work and home demands – and
I make a special point of getting to know and talking to
my partners’ spouses as much as possible to try to anticipate
any potential problems. Being a small firm gives me the
luxury of knowing my colleagues very well.
The financial dimension of the practice
is obviously a key factor in job satisfaction for any lawyer.
As a Canadian lawyer once said to me, if you sell your time
and your brains, you need to be comfortable with the reward
you receive. It is the managing partner’s responsibility
to ensure that all partners are well-informed and regularly
updated on the financial standing of the firm and that they
actively participate in future planning, problem-solving
and decision making. Where there is a sound business plan
and strict financial rules that are transparent and fair
to each partner, then there is no tension. In my experience,
secrecy and lack of transparency can only result in insecurity
and the breakdown of trust and confidence amongst the partners
- the downfall of more than one firm.
Georgi Spasov is managing partner at
Spasov & Bratanov. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
the interview in pdf format >>