Adrian Șter is a Partner at the Wolf Theiss Bucharest office since 2016 and the coordinator of the Competition & Antitrust Practice Group. His experience in relation to competition Law matters extends over ten years, having been admitted to the Bucharest Bar in 2006. His education includes a Bachelor’s Degree in Law from the Babeș-Bolyai University (BBU), but also an LL. B at the Nottingham University and a Master’s Degree with Merit on European Law at the University College of London. He is also a frequent author and co-author of articles in leading local and international publications on competition law matters.
Lawyr.it: To begin with, can you tell us a few things about yourself, how did you get here and how did you get to practice Law?
A.S.: I never really saw myself as doing anything else but Law, with the only potential alternative being economics. It is difficult to say why – there were no other lawyers in my family, so it was not a case of taking after a close relative, and it was a matter of personal choice, not anything that was imposed upon me.
Lawyr.it: We know that you have a Master’s Degree in European Law that you took in the United Kingdom. How beneficial was it to you?
A.S.: My LL.M was obviously important since it took my theoretical preparation to a different level but, having taken my LL.B in the UK as well, I would probably say that the LL.B was more important in the grand scheme of things, in the sense that, had I not taken the LL.B., I would not have done the LL.M. If I were to advise anyone, I would suggest they take the LL.M after a few years of practice, if possible, to allow them to better understand the matter from a practical perspective.
Lawyr.it: Do you feel like there is a substantial difference between an LL.B and an LL.M? Do you think that you need to be more knowledgeable to get the most out of an LL.M program?
A.S.: I do not believe that an LL.M is more difficult per se than an LL.B – they are both different things, posing different challenges. You do not have to be smarter to take an LL.M, but since the subjects are dealt with at a more in-depth level, a practical experience serves you well. Finally, for me it was completely worth it taking the LL.M full-time and not part-time or via distance learning, even though that may not be feasible for everybody.
Lawyr.it: Is there such a difference between a full-time Master’s and a distance learning one?
A.S.: I am inclined to say yes because you are not being exposed to the same academic environment. When you are there (i.e. at a university), you are doing what the rest of the students are doing; the challenges are more frequent and they require continuous engagement. On the other hand, if you are not studying there, you have maybe three weekends when you must go to the university, every lesson is very condensed and there is an even greater deal of individual study. In other words, even if you can benefit from the lecturers' expertise, you cannot do it as much as you would do it if you were there daily, going to every course and seminar.
Lawyr.it: How did you manage to get into the Competition & Antitrust area and what do you find appealing about it?
A.S.: The first time I ‘made contact’ with Competition Law at a high level was at the Nottingham University. I started with what was being taught at the lectures and then I began reading additional stuff on my own, realising that it was an interesting and very much still evolving branch of the law, which was one of the factors which drew me to it. Compared to, say, Civil Law, there is not a lot of doctrine written and there are not many ‘sacred’ things which you cannot argue against. Finally, Competition law requires a blend of legal and economic approach which I find fascinating.
Lawyr.it: Do you think there is a type of lawyer of person that is better suited for Competition Law? Do you feel like there are some sort of traits and characteristics that one should have to work in this field?
A.S.: I do not think there is a type in terms of personality. I have encountered introverts that were great in this field, but I have also met extroverts who were amazing. What I do believe should characterise a competition lawyer is a constant curiosity and a willingness to understand more because after all, the lawyer is supposed to understand the client’s needs, not the other way around; and to do that, you must learn a lot about his business. This is, in theory, true about every branch of the law, but it is certainly less relevant in, let's say, contract-based litigation than it is in Competition law. Insofar as Competition law is concerned, you cannot talk about a specific sector without understanding it first. There is a great correlation between competition regulations, sectorial regulations – the ones which apply to that specific field –, and the economic incentive which is involved in the activity of all the active entities in that field; and the lawyer must know them all.
For instance, the pharmaceutical sector and the energy sector have specific regulations, so the competition rules which apply to these two sectors differ significantly. Insofar as the pharmaceutical sector is concerned, you must understand why a distributor has a certain interest, why the producer has a somewhat opposing interest, what should be the sectorial regulations, and what is supposed to be the position of the Competition Council, and you cannot do that without understanding the sector. Every time there is a regulatory proposal coming up in a certain field, you can see some of the players on the market taking a certain position and you will never understand why they are acting that way unless you understand the sector first.
Lawyr.it: Do you think that a diverse educational background, both domestic and abroad, made you want to work in a big Law firm such as Wolf Theiss?
A.S.: Not necessarily so. The market for business law services in Romania is mature enough to allow for a couple of different approaches. As a general rule, a bigger law firm, unlike a smaller one, can give you the possibility to further specialise yourself, with exceptions proving the rule, of course. Finally, it did not play a role in my choosing an international law firm at the expense of a domestic one – indeed, I have spent more than half of my career in Romanian law firms.
Lawyr.it: Related to that last question, why do you think that most Law students and graduates are inclined towards big Law firms and not smaller ones? How can you explain this trend?
A.S.: I do believe that the material component must be taken into account here, which has a great value in a decision, where we like it or not. At one point you need a steady income and large law firms may be in a better position to provide a graduate with such an income. Secondly, looking from the outside in, it may seem to them that the activity of a larger law firm is way more interesting and, for lack of a better word, glamorous; you are involved in transactions that have a certain visibility and impact on the market, you have access to things you could not have had in a smaller firm and the list goes on. And thirdly, I feel like people realise that they can learn more in a big law firm because there are more people there from whom they can learn. In theory, a trainee would be exposed to more branches of Law and at a higher level in a bigger firm than in a smaller one or at an individual practice; sure, they might manage to go through everything at a smaller firm or at an individual practice, but at a much lower level and intensity. But then again, the exceptions prove the rule; there are some amazingly talented lawyers that work in individual practices.
Lawyr.it: How would you explain the switches a lawyer makes between firms during his career? How can you explain that they seem so usual in a market that seems so stoic? Is it about money, possibilities for advancement, both or is it something else entirely?
A.S.: I do not think there is a universal answer to this question. The answer is different from one case to another and there are a few factors that must be taken into consideration. Firstly, the money matters, but it is not the defining factor in most cases. How well you communicate with your co-workers, what are your career opportunities, is there an investment made in your development, do you receive the professional exposure you desire, those factors all matter and I would say that the more senior you are the more they matter. However, I do not see it as unfortunate that people switch work places more often; I see it as a sign of a mature market and a sign that there is enough choice out there for lawyers. Even so, I do not think that it is an easy decision for anyone – not the firm, nor the lawyer – or a decision that should be made from one day to another.
Lawyr.it: From your experience, how hard is it for a successful lawyer to manage the time working for a client, while also having their own free time?
A.S.: It is a matter of efficiency, prioritisation, and decision-making. I like to say that we, as lawyers, work half our time with people and the other half with paper. And most of the time, you can put the papers down anytime you like. In other words, if that means that I need to leave by 6 PM to get home to see my kids and stay with them until they go to bed, I will do that and I will finish whatever I need to finish afterwards or the next morning. This is one of the great things that come with the fact that we can work remotely as lawyers, that we do not need to be physically present at the office all the time. Solutions can be found.
Lawyr.it: What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of those extremes (i.e. someone who is too dedicated to their job against someone who is not dedicated at all)? Do you think that someone can also be a good lawyer while being that way?
A.S.: Disadvantages to being too dedicated would be that you are way too emotionally involved in things you do not have control over and that is affecting you in case of unfavourable results. Things do not always depend on your involvement and sometimes – though not very often - there is nothing you could have done better. At some point, if you are too involved, you might take a bad result personally even though you did your job. In addition to that, of course that the life outside the office will suffer too.
On the other hand, no one can deny that in a big law firm you must be always available; I do not think that you are ever truly ‘out of reach’. There are almost always things that pop up that require your immediate attention, even if you are on vacation. If you are not sufficiently involved, at some point someone will notice that and the collaboration between you and the law firm will probably suffer. After all, it (the collaboration) needs to be something that satisfies both the lawyer and the firm.
I would find it difficult in either of those extremes. It would be tough without the balance and the fulfilment that my family gives me, but I could not do without the professional part either, it would also frustrate me. I do believe that there is a place between these two extremes, that you can be a ‘successful’ lawyer, however you define that, living between them.
Lawyr.it: What can you tell us about how hard it is to become a partner at a big Law firm and what does it take to get there?
A.S.: Again, I do not know if there is a one size fits all approach. Obviously, you need to be good at what you do, but after that, I think the circumstances differ for every partner because this position covers a wide range of abilities which differ, to some extent, from law firm to law firm, so there is no 'standard' partner. There are some partners that are amazing professionals, really exceptional lawyers, but who do not stand out on the human interaction or client relationship side. On the other hand, there are others that are great at these things, but do not have the professional background or legal experience that the first ones have; instead, they have the gift of being superb entrepreneurs. Then again, there are some that try to mix those two.
A very important thing is to know exactly what is expected from you; depending on your career path you may be used to being more of a follower than a leader, but as a partner you may be asked to develop something yourself, and you must be prepared for that.
Finally, I believe that the average time to become a partner will increase because the market for legal services does not grow fast enough to account for all the good lawyers that enter it. That is in addition to the fact that we have a market that is quite young, at 27 years of age, and most of the partners are younger than 45, so the openings are relatively few and far between. But after all, I think it is also about yourself and about the opportunities that present. There could be a great expansion of a certain field that requires specialised people, in which case someone might skip a few steps because there is a demand for a particular type of legal service.
What is very clear is that in order to have a chance at becoming a partner you must be able to show both professional competence and good to great entrepreneurship and managerial qualities.
Lawyr.it: Given that you are the Coordinator for the Competition Team at Wolf Theiss, how well does it suit you and how good do you think you are at it?
A.S.: I like the decisional freedom and the autonomy that I have now, as head of the department tasked with its development, but even so, I very much rely on the way that the firm does things, and I use the support and business development systems in place to their fullest.
The difficult part in any project such as department development, which I believe is something of an ongoing project for every Partner, is to come up with the concept and to actually implement it yourself. Generally speaking, in other sectors besides law, the people who do these two steps are different people, with different skill sets, because it is hard doing both. With Wolf Theiss, I feel like we have the system that properly helps you to put into practice any idea you might have, and that brings out the best in me and makes me look better than I would on my own.
Lawyr.it: With regard to this topic, do you think you are constantly developing yourself or you have reached a point in which you are only helping your team evolve?
A.S.: You have no chance in this field if you do not constantly better yourself, it is not possible. I do not think there is a single lawyer, in Romania or abroad, that can tell you with a straight face that he or she is not always learning something. Most importantly, this is a field which, by its nature, undergoes constant change and it is impossible for you to stagnate while it evolves. You cannot be stuck on a way of doing things and simply assume that just because it has worked in the past it will work again in the future.
Lawyr.it: How much of your current work is work you are passionate about and how much is routine?
A.S.: This is an interesting topic, because things are usually not what they seem. There are a number of projects that seem interesting when they reach us, but once you go deeper you find that they are fairly routine, while there are also some that seem routine over a quick glance but are more exciting and intriguing once you go in depth.
After all, I think this is also about the way you look at things and the way you approach your tasks, because you can always find new and exciting stuff. This is what drives you to work late nights and early mornings, otherwise routine kills creativity and the desire to excel, and both are essential in this line of work. In my case, fortunately, I would say it is more about passion.
Lawyr.it: Going back to the topic of learning, do you have any idea about what you would change about the legal education system in Romania for it to create better-prepared graduates?
A.S.: I do not think that you can separate the legal education system from the educational system in general, and I feel that the educational system in Romania is focusing on the wrong things, such as the amount of information processed and not the type of information or the ability for critical thinking.
For me, personally, the hardest step of my education was the high-school. The largest amount of information and perhaps even the most difficult to process is being force-fed in high-school. From that perspective, university seemed a lot easier for me; of course, that does not mean that it is easy. I would start by making the university ‘the most difficult’ part of the educational system because after all, that is where you are going to learn what will serve as the backbone of your career.
After that, I would drastically reduce the number of subjects taught in high-school; maybe three or four main subjects and another three optional ones. Or, if we were to keep things as they are, maybe we could switch to three or four subjects that are graded and the rest be simply market ‘Pass/Fail’.
Regarding the legal education system, I would follow the UK system and teach only substantive law, not procedure, in Law School, with procedure being taught if you want to qualify for the Bar. Finally, I believe that the curriculum should be less about mandatory courses, of which there would be one or two per year, and more about optional courses, allowing you to specialise in your area of interest. We must admit that, in 2017, lawyers must be specialised in order to provide a high level of service to their clients – the days of the know-it-all lawyers are passed, as far as I am concerned.
Lawyr.it: What legal gaps or any other kind have you noticed about new graduates and what skills do you think they should develop more during their studies?
A.S.: I do not think I am the best person to answer that question, being specialised in a niche field that is not being taught during Law school. Incidentally, if you look over the CV’s of those that work in Competition, you will notice that most of them studied abroad, whether it was a Master’s or a course in this field. Very few entered Competition only with what they did during Law school.
On the other hand, I feel like the Romanian school is wrongfully insisting on the theoretical approach; we should be more pragmatic. We have many practitioners that are also lecturers and I would expect a practical approach to teaching, an optimal way of structuring the course so that they are based on what is more important in practice, not on some ‘extraordinary’ case that happens once every 100 years Lecturers need to translate a legal, dense, sometimes inaccessible language to a more understandable one that a 3rd or 4th-year student can understand. Obviously, the student should rise to the occasion, but the professor also should lower himself to reach the students; middle ground must be reached.
I go back to the quote used in relation to medical students in the US: ‘When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras’ sometimes the most obvious explanation is also the correct one.
Finally, you cannot discount the need of an educational infrastructure and the absolute need of access to information in the educational system. Being a student should bring with it many benefits, including access to a number of legal databases Seminars should take place with 5-7 students, last an hour or two and be held in the form of a round table open discussion.
Lawyr.it: What do big Law firms, such as Wolf Theiss, look for in Law graduates? Is it foreign languages known, general knowledge, Master’s done, studies abroad, high grades, or is it all of them?
A.S.: I think there are some common requirements on the Business Law market in Romania. Speaking English at a high level is no longer avoidable, whether you are in litigation or consulting. Everybody assumes that applicants speak English. At Wolf Theiss, maybe 95% of our deliverables are in English. And we are not talking about conversational English, but about a high level that allows you to negotiate properly.
When talking about grades, how much they matter is up to every firm or even every partner. From my point of view, I can only take good grades as an indicator that you are willing to work and learn, and that you can be relied on for a medium to long period of time. If it comes down to it, I would much rather take into consideration the grades obtained during the 4 years than the graduation exam. Over the years, the grades matter less and less; 10 years after graduation, they tell me close to nothing about you. Besides good grades, we like to see extracurricular activities; that shows me that besides attending Law school, the student dedicated his time and energy to another topic which he was passionate about.
From a personality standpoint, I love working with people with defined, strong personalities, people which have their own opinions and can back them up. I do not like working with ‘yes-men’, I have never looked for that. I want someone that challenges my ideas and solutions, someone that is understands that a career in Law requires lots of time and effort.
Lawyr.it: What was your general impression when you started practising and how did it change over the years?
A.S.: One mistake that I have made, one that I think many graduates make, is that I looked at this profession like it was a series of sprints, not a marathon. I was the impression that you need to go all out, give everything you have for a project, do your best job, as fast as you can and then some sort of break will come. That is not true at all. They must shake off that ‘student thinking’ that revolves around the 'study – exam – study – exam' approach. Being a lawyer means putting up a sustained effort in which stress is common. Every day is basically an exam, everyday someone will call you and ask you something, with the stakes being much higher. Unlike Law school, here you cannot leave questions unanswered.
Lawyr.it: Currently, a lot of students and graduates have certain goals in their minds and make the common five or 10-year plans. Do you think this kind of practice is healthy and how does it translate into a lawyer’s life?
A.S.: To a certain extent, it is healthy to look ahead, to have some goals, but it would be ideal that those goals are related to things you can control. For example, say that in five years you want to achieve a PhD, or that in five years you want to be specialised in a certain area and in two additional fields – these are things you may, to a certain point, control. If you set goals in relation to things like income or position and see those as a ‘must’, you might be disappointed, as most of those goals are set with little to no understanding of the playing field.
I have met great students and graduates, knowledgeable and extremely smart, who had the wrong impression that all the lawyers in the firm are in constant competition with each other and that they are all running the same race. It is impossible to compete with someone that is six years ahead of you; the competition is only in your head. You must be capable of adjusting your goals according to reality. For most of us, the world ends up changing us, not the other way around.
Lawyr.it: Why would you not open your own Law firm once you have reached a certain point in your career, being successful enough to take on a different challenge?
A.S.: There are a lot of reasons against that, the main one being that I love being a lawyer. When you start your own law firm, you run the risk of becoming more of an entrepreneur than a lawyer. You need to take care of everything that represents logistics, business development etc.; at the beginning at least, it would be very difficult to have all the systems in place to support that and allow you to focus solely on the law side of the equation.
Another reason is the type of work that you would do and the type of clients you would do it for. The clients you might have now may not be your clients if you go out on your own and what you are specialised in and love doing on a day to day basis could be too much of a niche practice to support a whole firm.
The main reason for doing it is, perhaps, pride - the pride you take in seeing your name on the door, even though it is a smaller, older door, it is your door and your name, you are the ultimate decision maker and some people are willing to give up a lot to achieve this.
Lawyr.it: And finally, our signature Lawyr.it question, if you had to give one piece of advice to Law students and your practitioners, what would that be?
A.S.: Try to supplement your theoretical education with a practical one. Be mindful of all relevant economic aspects; follow what is happening on the market, read Ziarul Financiar, read Financial Times, read the Economist when you get the chance. Pay attention to what is happening around you because these things matter. Many times, the difference between lawyers in their clients’ eyes is not made necessarily by their competence level, as clients are not always best placed to evaluate that, but about the way in which they deliver what they promise, the way in which they communicate with them and stand up to their end of the bargain.. Understand that what you are about to do has a higher purpose, a different finality. Law is not an end it itself, law is about solving problems and in order for you to solve those problems, you must understand the issue at a macro level. Be curious about what your clients do, because many times the client wrongfully identifies his issue and proposes an equally wrong solution and you must be capable enough to identify the correct issue and the correct solution.
This interview has been published in Lawyr.it Vol. 5 Ed. 2. All references used can be found at the end of that issue.