Poles in foreign firms rethink

Speculation is rife that the Polish government has backtracked on hard-won amendments to draft legislation which threatens to place severe restrictions on foreign lawyers hoping to practise in Poland.

The initial draft would have forced shares in overseas legal companies – foreign lawyers operating in Poland are established as companies – into the hands of Polish lawyers and/or meant that legal services could only be provided by Polish lawyers.

Intense pressure from the Law Society, the European Commission, MEPs and the US embassy in Poland managed to win several amendments which favoured foreign law firms established in Poland before 1 October 1996.

However, indications are that the Polish government has decided to support a revision of the proposed legislation which is much closer to the initial draft. It is expected that this latest draft will be presented to the Polish parliament to be voted upon on 22 January.

“If this becomes law it will prevent foreign lawyers from practising in Poland,” said Patrick Oliver, the Law Society's Brussels representative.

“If the legislation goes through, we will be informing the European Commission that it contravenes the EU-Poland agreement and is contrary to Polish aspirations to join the European Community,” he added. “The 22nd [of January] is not the final chance to influence the law but we are at crucial stage right now.”

While most interested parties saw the initial amendments as a qualified victory over those proposing the restrictive legislation, Stephen Denyer, head of Allen & Overy's Warsaw operation, warned at the time that they may be reversed.

“We have not seen the text of the government's latest draft yet, but we could be back at square one. The most important provision is the 'grandfathering' amendment [which allows overseas law firms already established in Poland to remain in foreign hands]: it now looks like the government will not be supporting it.” Denyer was unable to say when the government text would be released.

Lejb Fogelman, head of the US firm Hunton William's Warsaw office, thinks that any restrictions on foreign law firms are unwelcome.

“Grandfathering is a gift to me that I do not want, because it does not help the marketplace,” he said.

“Foreign law firms in Poland have a minuscule presence; there are only about 20 to 40 foreign lawyers, half of whom it is difficult to see as foreign, and they employ about 200 Polish lawyers,” Fogelman added.

“That's the size of one mid-sized English firm so it is a ridiculous issue. But anything that takes the country back from a market economy should touch a raw nerve.”

“What is really at stake,” Fogelman said, “is a bunch of old guys on the Polish Bar trying to restrict entry to the profession to younger, multi-lingual, smart Polish lawyers.”