Wolf Theiss adds Bulgarian outpost to CEE empire

Austrian firm Wolf Theiss has launched in Bulgaria, adding a 10th office in Central and East-ern Europe (CEE) to its letterhead.


Wolf Theiss adds Bulgarian outpost to CEE empire Austrian firm Wolf Theiss has launched in Bulgaria, adding a 10th office in Central and East-ern Europe (CEE) to its letterhead.

Wolf Theiss has hired UK-born lawyer Richard Clegg, until now general counsel at Bulgaria Telecom, to lead the push into Bulgaria.

Clegg said Wolf Theiss, which had been waiting three years for the right moment to launch, believes the Bulgarian market is of strategic importance in the region.

He told The Lawyer: “It’s certainly true to say that the market isn’t as big as Poland, for example, but strategically it’s very important for Southern Europe and the CIS states. What we’re also seeing are private companies in Bulgaria whose owners are retiring or handing over to professional management.”

Clegg added that the firm hopes to take advantage of an increase in energy work and infrastructure investment in Bulgaria.

The move follows that of Austrian rival Cerha Hempel Spiegelfeld Hlawati, which opened an office in Sofia in February. DLA Piper Weiss-Tessbach and CMS Cameron McKenna are the only other western firms in the small Sofia market.

Last year Wolf Theiss launched an office in Hungary, and the launch in Bulgaria caps off a year of expansion for Austrian firms into CEE.

Clegg said: “I think it’s partly because Austrian firms have realised they need to follow their clients who aren’t country-specific but go by regions. The firms are very outward-looking and they realise that each office needed to be strong.”

Despite the business opportunities in the country, the Bulgarian mafia is a concern for business and was mentioned in a 2007 EU report on corruption.

Clegg agreed that the mafia had to be taken into consideration when operating in Bulgaria.

“You don’t tend to see the mafia directly, but there is corruption,” he said. “There are ways around it, though. I’ve acted for US investment funds and pension funds here, and the mafia does slow transactions. But if you’re prepared for it then there’s no reason why you can’t do any deal you want to.”

Wolf Theiss has 300 lawyers based in the CEE region, spread across 10 offices in places such as Albania, Slovakia and Serbia.

Clegg has been based in Bulgaria for the past four years, having joined Bulgaria Telecom after working on the privatisation of the company while at CMS Cameron McKenna in London.

While at Bulgaria Telecom, Clegg worked on the launch of mobile operator Vivatel and the sale of the company to AIG.

EXPANDING AUSTRIAN FIRMS

Austrian firms have been well placed, geographically and politically, to open outposts in Central and Eastern Europe. But over the past six months they have gone into expansion overdrive.

• Wolf Theiss launched its office in Hungary at the end of last year, with an exclusive alliance with corporate lawyer Zoltan Faludi, who previously led the corporate and energy practice of Köves Clifford Chance in Budapest.

• In January Schönherr launched a Budapest office with lawyers from local firm

Szécsényi Ügyvédi Iroda – the former alliance firm of Austrian rival Cerha Hempel Spiegelfeld Hlawati, which in February struck back by launching new offices in Sofia, Minsk and Budapest.

• In May Schönherr created an Italian desk in its Bucharest office after hiring corporate lawyer Daniele Iacona from the local arm of Italian firm Tonucci & Partners.