Is CMS Belgrade the most inspiring BigLaw in SEE?

Ivan Rasic
June 19, 2020

How CMS culture and business approach help it thrive 

"Do not take everything at face value" is something I still need to remind myself of from time to time.

A few years back, I had some interaction with lawyers from the CMS network. For some reason, they left me with an impression of CMS as a strictly traditional (biglaw model) law firm.

Fast-forward to 2020, and my impressions turned around radically in the most positive way.

Ivan Gazdić is a commercial lawyer capable of much more than just his domain. I knew of him even before he joined CMS Belgrade. However, after his move to CMS, I started noticing something was different about his LinkedIn posts. There was something about those which left me with a feeling that CMS Belgrade is a very stimulating and exciting work environment.

Needless to say, I grew genuinely curious. I just had to find out what is below the (seemingly) biglaw-ish surface, hence I invited Ivan for a chat.

Ivan was very welcoming and brought a few of his colleagues along - Maja Živanović, Business Development Country Head, and Raško Radovanović, partner at CMS Belgrade.

In an hour-long chat, we spoke about CMS culture, their approach to training people, and what makes it such an engaging work environment. Additionally, Maja told us how she sees and approaches Business Developments (spoiler - it is so much more than networking), and how law firms can develop new products.

(bonus - we touched upon Lupl, and how it could change how clients engage law firms - more on that below)

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

CMS expansion and network effects

Q: CMS group is pretty known in the legal community. However, for those that aren’t familiar, tell us a bit about the Group, and the Belgrade chapter. What sets you apart?

Raško Radovanović: (sure - I can start)

CMS is a network of law firms present in around 40 countries and 70 cities around the globe. The Group has about 8,000 people in headcount (4500 or more of those are lawyers). Its aggregate turnover is just above 1.3 Bn EUR. These numbers probably put CMS in the top 20 firms internationally, next to many US law firms.

Our growth strategy is to be a “one-stop-shop,” wherever your business may take you.

And it seems to be working. About ten years ago, CMS was present in Europe and Asia. Nowadays, we are in Latin America, Africa, with plans for North America as well.

We here in Belgrade certainly benefit from such a robust international network. Yes, a steady inflow of projects is essential, but there is so much more. The know-how, business acumen, technologies applied, and insight into cultural nuances are all that I find truly inspiring and helpful in our work.

CMS Belgrade is due to celebrate its 20th anniversary this year. During this time, we facilitated some of the most significant transactions in Eastern Europe (e.g., mergers, privatizations). This alone puts us in the position to have the most sophisticated clients and to be able to understand their needs.

(we planned a big event for October 2020, however, due to the pandemic, we still have to see if it will be held in person or virtually)

The Belgrade team numbers around 35 professionals (as of this writing). For the most part, this team has stayed together since inception. The employee turnover is quite low. This has many advantages for CMS, but our clients as well.

Our know-how is well preserved; we have a strong team cohesion and unparalleled service quality.

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

Success built on experience, not leverage

Maja Živanović: I joined CMS Belgrade three months ago (as of this writing). What I found fascinating was their different approach to people.

 (that was, in part, the reason behind my move to the team)

Many consultancy firms (not only legal service providers) try to build their profit margin on the back of young people (i.e., the pyramid approach; leverage). I kind of expected to be the same with CMS Belgrade.

However, the bulk of work here isn’t being dropped on associates (as seen in some other law firms). Yes, they are involved in servicing clients, but they share the workload with senior colleagues. I find this approach great to preserve the team, and to provide the “extra mile” in the service delivery process. 

(in contrast, I have seen some firms serving clients nearly exclusively through younger associates - not only law firms, but many consulting agencies alike)

It was fascinating to see a sustainable business model that rests on expertise and not leverage. I think that sends a strong message about the CMS culture.

Ivan Gazdić: Yes, CMS is a strong brand that many companies prefer as their trusted advisor. However, it is people that keep or lose the clients. Hence, our approach is very conservative when it comes to the quality of our work. Our partners and senior attorneys are on top of everything.

Photo by Mario Gogh on Unsplash

Why lawyers gladly work with CMS

Q: You mentioned CMS's excellent team cohesion and low employee turnover (at least as far as the Belgrade office goes).

Why is your office the right place for legal professionals? What is so great about CMS that makes people stay?

RR: I have been in CMS Belgrade since 2010. In this time, I progressed from a part-time paralegal (during my studies) to a partner.

If I had to pick one thing that kept me, that would be the international environment. We are involved in the affairs of the entire network. And again, this goes for both work projects and culture, experience, knowledge, and team spirit.

And then, there is learning. In addition to regular work, there are hundreds of projects that aren't commissioned by clients. Many internal projects help with marketing or other segments of our business and are an excellent opportunity for legal professionals to get lateral skills.

Then there is the collective team spirit as well. We have many events where we get together with our colleagues from other regions, from practice group know-how meetups to more informal occasions. For example, every year, we participate in our (internally renowned) CMS Football Cup. My fondest memories are of the one we played in Madrid, but each year it takes place in another country.

In short - team spirit, traveling, networking, sharing knowledge - these are all the reasons why CMS (and its Belgrade office in particular) is at least as attractive (if not more) than its peers.

In addition to an excellent client lineup and a dynamic learning pace, the international element is as equally attractive, to me at least.

Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

CMS Belgrade learning opportunities

Q: From my experience, people often leave companies when they feel nothing is left to learn there. What are the learning opportunities within CMS? How does CMS ensure knowledge transfer takes place?

RR: Certainly, associates are learning a lot in CMS by doing. That kind of the (on-the-job) knowledge naturally depends on their locale and projects.

(my field of specialty, for example, is Antitrust / Competition Law, and I spend most of my time going very deep in that subject matter)

CMS Belgrade is a big proponent of growing and promoting its people (as opposed to merely lateral hires).

We invest in our trainees. As Maja said, we are not delegating bulk of work and letting them swim or sink. We are building capacity in our trainees so they can lead tomorrow. De facto, all the partners of the CMS Belgrade used to be trainees at some point, including me. 

Our regular internship programs help us scout the right people for our team. We have a pretty hands-on approach when it comes to interns. After the introductory session, we give them learning materials and assign mentors. At the end of the internship, they present their solution to a case. We have had this program for six years already, and we find it great for our team.

Soon after juniors join CMS, we invite them to the CMS Core Curriculum. It is a sort of an inception training held by the CMS Academy somewhere in Europe. I attended the Curriculum as well and still have great impressions of the four-day training in Berlin.

Once people reach a certain level, we involve them in sector and practice groups. Most of us are a part of at least one and sometimes even two groups. Those help us all keep in touch with the latest market dynamics. Indeed, that helps with pitches, but we too keep learning all the time.

An image of Rasko Radovanovic and Ivan Gazdic (partners at CMS Belgrade), and Maja Zivanovic (Business Development Country Head at CMS Belgrade) overlaid with the words CMS Belgrade - the most inspiring BigLaw in the region and the CloutLegal logo.

Culture nourishing collective growth

IG: Indeed, I second that. And here is another example of the CMS's network effect, and the advantage it brings. All the CMS lawyers in those 40+ countries are all available to us in just a few clicks away.

And I can't possibly stress how important that is. We usually need to reach someone outside CMS Belgrade every week - sometimes even more often. And it is not always about their legal expertise; sometimes we need their business advice. The latter is the case, especially when we are approaching new prospects or preparing pitch materials. It is excellent to know you always have someone who can help you backtest your approach.

That is a considerable advantage of CMS - something that you rarely find in other offices. The network effect is hard to achieve, but once there, its yields are exponential.

MZ: Indeed, network effects are an advantage. CMS can combine their knowledge, experience, and business intelligence at a rapid pace, which is evidenced in part by its expansion.

I think the key to their success is in the culture - they aren’t approaching anything from their individual office’s interest. They try to understand what is in their common interest as the Group. And the Group focus is ultimately on the client, rather than individual offices.

Photo by timJ on Unsplash

Stimulating entrepreneurial talent

Q: You mentioned earlier that CMS’s “Youth Initiative.” Would you tell us a bit more about that? 

RR: Youth Initiative is our platform for our younger colleagues specializing in Competition Law to contribute and work on their ideas, supported by CMS resources. Other CMS practice groups have similar initiatives. We find it critical, as it helps us harness fresh points of view.

And, more importantly, it is a way to put younger professionals in the driving seat.

The Youth Initiative, for example, brought our Dawn Raid Assistant app to life.

And it all started at the CMS annual gathering in 2015 when a junior put this idea forward. There was a competition of sorts, and this idea won the support of the Group. A team, headed by the said junior, was supported with a year-worth of resources to turn this concept into reality. 

Nowadays, the Dawn Raid Assistant is a mobile app that guides businesses on appropriate conduct during dawn-raids in 27 countries, in both English and local language. It has unparalleled geographic coverage and substance.

To sum up, CMS Youth Initiative is a platform for the younger generation to voice their ideas and develop their passion projects.

Business Development philosophy

Q: That was a remarkable story. I am curious to hear about your views on Business Development next.

There seem to be two “schools of thought” there - one that says “everyone should BD,” and the other that prefers letting people do what they do best. What is your approach?

RR: I feel, as often goes, context and the environment do matter. Back in 2010 (when I was starting), I didn't feel the pressure (of Business Development). Back in the days, all the workshops we attended were drumming up that "everyone should BD." Some more recent personal development workshops are suggesting the "focus on your strengths" approach.

However (my view only) if you are a partner in the business of law, you should dip your toes in business development.

Although I am fully aware that, in our larger offices, a good number of partners aren't engaged in business development.

Again, here is where context matters. I guess the market differs in different countries. Some markets show a higher demand for and great appreciation of legal services (as compared to our region at least). Additionally, those partners are real experts at what they do, so their views are much appreciated.

Locally, we have always needed BD. The market is simply not large enough. Hence, a mere fact that you are a lawyer that opened its shop just isn't going to suffice to get your projects rolling.

Here, partners are traditionally taking part in business development. But lately, this seems to be the case for some lower positions as well. I feel that it is just fine.

If you recognize people apt at business development, you should encourage them. Likewise, if people have other strengths, let them shine where they feel "at home."

Photo by Ruthson Zimmerman on Unsplash

Is regulation the reason why lawyers do BD?

IG: If I may add here - lawyers doing BD may have more to do with regulation than we may imagine.

A regulatory framework in our region (and most of Europe) haven't changed much in the past two decades - if not longer. It just doesn't acknowledge the radical change in the market environment.

For example, if lawyer advertising was okay from the regulatory standpoint, Business Development could be done exclusively by BD professionals in a structured way. Barring that, lawyers need to find ways to get their know-how across, without triggering ethical considerations.

MZ: Indeed. I may be coming from a different vertical, but I still don't see why lawyers would be treated any differently than other consultants. Other verticals have complete freedom to approach clients in a way they deem appropriate (as long as it is compliant from the GDPR perspective).

But coming back to your original question (generalist vs. specialist BDD approach):-

I am a fan of the core strengths approach. Yes, it is excellent to nurture a client-oriented mindset with all people. You want to have them think from the clients' shoes. But that is as far as I would go. 

I wouldn't force the BD role on everyone. Some people could even do more harm than good with their BD attempts. Yes, by all means - try to spot business talents and nurture them. But don't force it onto everyone.

(CMS has a pretty streamlined business development approach, and this is what motivated me to join in the first place - there are good foundations to make a much more structured push)

One frequent misconception of BD

Q: I feel the legal community frequently confuses business development with marketing activities. Where does the business development start, in your view? Is it after you have an offering that you aim to position, or does it start earlier?

MZ: Hands down, business development starts with clients. More specifically, it begins with their needs and problems that you are solving. Possibly the worst approach one could take is to start from the product and to try to fit the product into clients' way of working.

Editor's note: Been there - done that, and it just doesn't work...

If we don't know what benefits the product will have and what problems it will solve, I am not sure how we could even conceive the offering. I guess we could hypothesize about it forever.

So, developing your business must start with clients. Ideally, you would already have some preexisting relationships and dialogue that you can use as a learning field. It is paramount to understand not just your clients' business, but also how they fit the broader market context. Above is a prerequisite even to start thinking about designing a product.

Further, once you have started developing a product, you must have your clients close and willing to provide feedback early on. This advice perhaps feels more intuitive with tangible products, but it applies equally to legal services.

IG: Indeed, you can't just advise if you don't already understand what your clients are after. 

At CMS, in addition to practice groups, we also have sector groups. The role of sector groups is to "listen to the beat of the market." It helps us get quickly informed about the latest developments in industry segments of interest. We must understand the big picture if we are to facilitate trade (as lawyers usually do).

Moreover, the attorneys' role evolves continuously. What used to be traditional lawyering simply doesn't work today. We need to understand the client's business and even have financial and technical acumen (to an extent). Otherwise, we will not be in a position to provide hands-on advice.

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

A unique market penetration strategy

Q: We briefly mentioned Lupl at the start of this interview. From the PR, it is clear that it is a sort of a legal project management platform. Could you tell us more? What problems does it solve, and what are the goals behind the initiative?

RR: Lupl is a result of our cooperation with the US-based law firm Cooley and Asian firm Rajah & Tann. While it is a very cool product, in terms of problems it solves, it is much more than that for CMS. It is one of the ways to showcase our digital capacities and thinking.  

We are witnessing today the move to more remote and digital working. Everything is slowly but certainly changing - from pitching to the medium via which we deliver our services.

Additionally, too much technology yielded yet another problem - the problem of interoperability. In short, this problem is always present when law firms use some legal tech tools and systems, and clients use something different. One of Lupl's goals is to address the issue of interoperability by tying in multiple applications and environments.

Although, in my view, the interoperability issue is probably most present in the US and Western Europe - there are a plethora of legal tech solutions there.

This part of the world (Balkans) is still not that far ahead.

Abroad, however, attorneys would use one system, clients yet another, some third party advisors yet another solution… It is easy to see how complexity is rising exponentially.

Photo by Lance Asper on Unsplash

Lupl is an attempt to integrate multiple processes under one roof. From choosing advisors (pitching) to selecting your law firm panel, service delivery, project communication, legal billing, invoicing, and payment - the goal is to have as many of these processes in the same platform as it makes sense.

One of the differentiators of Lupl, in my view, is that it should (at least according to early concepts) include the staffing option for clients. More specifically, clients should be able to post projects and requirements directly in the platform, and participating law firms (i.e., Lupl users) will be among the first to spot them and have the head-start in pitching.

A great thing about Lupl is that CMS entities were involved from the start of the project development. In addition to CMS offices, we are happy that some of our clients answered our call and participated in Lupl beta testing. This should all contribute to the success of Lupl.

Ivan Rasic holds the Transnational Trade Law and Finance LLM, a program by Universidad de Deusto (Bilbao, ES), Universiteit van Tilburg (Tilburg, NL), and Goethe Universität (Frankfurt, DE). After his work in law firms and inhouse, he started a legal tech company.

Nowadays, Ivan leads STP Informationstechnologie GmbH's Sofia RnD center with project/development management, culture, strategy, and special project initiatives.

Ivan is an Ambassador at European Legal Tech Association (ELTA). He closely follows and writes on future of law, legal tech, ALSPs, and new ways of delivering legal services.

Raško Radovanović is a partner at Petrikić & Partneri AOD in cooperation with CMS Reich Rohrwig Hainz. He leads the competition practice in the SEE and counsels in various legal aspects of business operations, commercial contracts, and other day-to-day commercial matters.

As a passionate competition law practitioner, Raško won 2017, 2018, and 2019 Client Choice Award in the domain. He ranks as the leading competition expert in Serbia and the region.

Raško is a graduate of the University of Belgrade, Faculty of Law (2008), and the University of Munich (Germany), where he earned his LL.M. in European and International Commercial Law.

Ivan Gazdić is a partner at Petrikić & Partneri AOD in cooperation with CMS Reich Rohrwig Hainz. Over a decade, Ivan has been assisting clients with commercial real estate development and energy projects in Serbia and Montenegro. His notable experience in the domain is critical in both development projects and acquisitions.

Ivan is the President of the Foreign Investors Council’s Infrastructure & Real Estate Committee in Serbia. He is a member of the Serbian Bar Association and the International Bar Association, and an active member of IBA's Real Estate Section and Power Law Committee.

Ivan is a graduate of the University of Belgrade, Faculty of Law (2009), and ranks as the leading real estate and energy expert in Serbia.

Maja Živanović is the Business Development Country Head at Petrikić & Partneri AOD in cooperation with CMS Reich Rohrwig Hainz. Her background includes fifteen years at Ernst & Young, advising international and local clients on complex tax issues and projects in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.

Nowadays, Maja’s extensive client-facing business development experience is instrumental in building the strategy-driven BD practice for CMS in Serbia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia.

Maja is a member of the Foreign Investors Council’s Tax Committee and AmCham’s Tax Committee in Serbia. She is also an active member of the Serbian Association of Managers.

Maja is a graduate of the University of Belgrade, Faculty of Law (2005).

Ivan Rasic holds the Transnational Trade Law and Finance LLM, a program by Universidad de Deusto (Bilbao, ES), Universiteit van Tilburg (Tilburg, NL), and Goethe Universität (Frankfurt, DE). After his work in law firms and inhouse, he started a legal tech company.

Nowadays, Ivan leads STP Informationstechnologie GmbH's Sofia RnD center with project/development management, culture, strategy, and special project initiatives.

Ivan is an Ambassador at European Legal Tech Association (ELTA). He closely follows and writes on future of law, legal tech, ALSPs, and new ways of delivering legal services.

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