Curse of the vampire

Dracula Park, intended as a new attraction for Romania, sounds a surefire winner. But as Alex Wade reports, the government is having a hard time finding local lawyers willing to get involved

Ask the average Romanian what they think of Count Dracula and they will shake their head wearily. “No, please, not Dracula again,” they will say, perhaps gazing at the beautiful Fagaras Mountains of Transylvania and wondering what they did to deserve Bram Stoker's novel. If Romanians do not actively detest the legacy of Dracula, they cannot be said to be aficionados either.

But for lawyers, the question meets with a different response. This is not to say that lawyers, Romanian or otherwise, have a special affinity with bloodsucking vampires; it is more a case of there being substantial legal fees around the corner if a theme park devoted to the bloodthirsty count goes ahead.

The Romanian government came up with the idea of a theme park around a year or so ago. Originally, the park was to be located in Sighisoara, an ancient village in the heart of Transylvania which is the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, the historical figure upon whom the Dracula myth is founded. Tepes was a fifteenth century prince who adopted a zero tolerance policy in his rule of the Romanian provinces of Transylvania and Wallachia, impaling his enemies (marauding Turks or homegrown dissenters) on stakes, then leaving them spreadeagled to die. Tepes is now something of a hero to many Romanians, who point out that in the Medieval era his methods were far from unusual. He is now seen as a wise lawmaker and a fighter for national independence.

The Romanian government decided to capitalise on the draw of Dracula and build a theme park, complete with restaurants, a zoo, arcades and other Disney-esque (if rather more Gothic) attractions. Kitsch, maybe, but also a source of employment and revenue for one of Europe's poorer countries, which was recently invited to join Nato and is hoping for EU membership in 2007. The project is conservatively estimated to require an investment of $31m (£19.6m).

Western pressure groups scotched the plan to set up the park in Sighisoara, arguing that doing so would destroy not only the heritage of the immaculately preserved village itself, but also acres of protected woodland. Conservationists also pointed out that Sighisoara was miles from Otopeni International Airport and, thanks to the savage Romanian winters, is virtually inaccessible for half of the year. A feasibility study was completed by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which concluded that Sighisoara was not a viable venue.

It now seems that the controversial park will be built near Snagov, a small village close to Otopeni Airport. Once formal approval is granted (sources indicate that it is “98 per cent certain” that Snagov will be selected) there will be an array of legal work up for grabs.

Except many of the bigger law firms are shying away from the project. The only international Bucharest firm to emerge as a contender seems to be Stephenson Harwood. The firm's merger with Sinclair Roche & Temperley in May 2002 saw it acquire the latter's longstanding practice in Romania. Historically, Sinclair Roche undertook shipping work in the Mediterranean and Black Sea, as well as work in the energy and utilities sectors. Thus Sinclair Roche had positioned itself as a regional firm rather than one that sourced its work from an entirely domestic base.

Stephenson Harwood senior partner Andrew Sutch made his first visit to the Bucharest office in March this year, and is keen to preserve the legacy of the Sinclair Roche office. “Given that we have an office here, given developments in Eastern Europe, and given Romania's EU aspirations, there are huge opportunities in this part of the world,” he says.

The Bucharest office is run by two ex-pat partners, Neil McGregor and David Stabb, together with a Romanian lawyer, partner Ligia Popescu. As with many Eastern European countries, local Bar rules stipulate that foreign firms have to practise in association with Romanian lawyers and must include at least one local associate in the firm's name. Hence Stephenson Harwood is linked to Popescu & Asociatii. Rival firm Linklaters is known as Miculiti & Asociatii Linklaters. McGregor, Stabb and Popescu work with around three assistants and two trainees, although the number is never entirely settled, with various secondees from the UK office arriving from time to time.

According to Stabb, who has worked in Romania since March 1998, business is good. “The market's buoyant, even if the high-water mark of globalisation may have been reached,” he says. “The past two to three years have seen an influx of Western investment.” McGregor agrees, but sounds a slightly more cautionary note, pointing out that there is a need to harmonise Romania's laws for EU accession purposes. As with many formerly communist Eastern European jurisdictions, the drive to Westernisation has seen something of a hotchpotch of Western laws and legal concepts adopted, in a way that does not always work. McGregor says this is something Romania will need to resolve prior to the hoped-for EU accession in 2007.

But Stephenson Harwood is about the only major firm to indicate any interest in the project. Take Nestor Nestor Diculescu Kingston Peterson, for example. The firm has seven partners and 33 assistants, all of whom are Romanian lawyers, with 15 support staff. Numerically, it is in among the top three in Romania. Core areas of work are corporate and commercial, finance and capital markets, privatisation, banking and project finance.

Despite both her and her firm's pedigree, Nestor Diculescu partner Christine Moore says the firm has “no particular interest” in undertaking any work in connection with the park. This may be because it simply has too much work ahead of it, with plans to establish a regional alliance in southeast Europe.

Moore has been with the firm on a full-time basis since August 2001, arriving after an unusual career that saw her work initially as an automotive design engineer with Ford in the US, where one of her hobbies was streetcar racing. She was sent to Romania with the Peace Corps, where she became involved in establishing developmental investment funds to help small businesses. She joined Nestor Diculescu originally on a part-time basis in 1997, and after a stint with ABN Amro (including as managing director for investment banking in Romania) she returned to full-time practice again in 2001.

The heavyweight international law firm in Romania is Miculiti & Asociatii Linklaters, which operates from an impressive Renaissance-style villa in the centre of Bucharest. Surely, then, with its huge capacity and international expertise, Linklaters is a prime candidate for the legal work on the Dracula Park project? “No,” says marketing executive Dana Tudose. “We've made a decision not to be involved in any way.”

Tudose says Linklaters' Romania operation was, after Moscow, the most profitable for the worldwide firm in Central and Eastern Europe for 2002. Much of the work has been in privatisation, although there has been major activity in the banking, finance and capital markets sectors. Project finance, energy and utilities work is also big, and Linklaters can boast Petrom, the largest oil company in Romania, as a client.

Romania's own largest law firm Musat & Asociatii appears lukewarm about the project. Director of marketing and public affairs Cristina Preda says the firm “will analyse the project” as and when it becomes clear what the Romanian government has in mind. Certainly, with core strengths in every major area of legal work and involvement in some of Romania's largest transactions in recent years (including advising Michelin on its takeover of part of the Tofan Group in a deal said to be worth $200m (£126.6m)), Musats would be well placed to assist – not least because the firm has also acted for the Romanian government from time to time.

As with Nestor Diculescu, Musat is comprised of entirely Romanian assistants, with six partners in a 52-lawyer firm. The firm is run on specialised departmental lines, and recently telecoms and energy and utilities work have been at the fore. Preda says that long hours are the norm, although the all-nighters (the consequence of the boom in privatisations two to three years ago) have declined. That said, the remaining state-owned oil, gas and electricity companies are due to be privatised this year, and so Preda and her colleagues may well be reacquainting themselves with the local pizzerias.

US lawyer Obie Moore knows a thing or two about the privatisation process in Romania. Moore first arrived in 1990 on a consultancy contract and has stayed put since his second visit in 1992. He is a partner with Altheimer & Gray, which is run in association with Romanian firm Moore Vartires & Associates. Moore and highly-regarded colleague Dana Vartires have been involved in a substantial amount of privatisation work, largely acting on behalf of multinational overseas clients. The firm also has an extensive employment law practice.

Moore says that “post-acquisition compliance” has caused its fair share of controversy in Romanian privatisations. He says Romania “has not been the easiest environment in which to build a business”, and believes that many local companies are still undergoing a learning process.

Until recently, privatisation as a legal concept was unknown in Romania; so, too, was the idea of equity in a company. The absence of Western business and legal concepts has been allied with an occasional lack of transparency in commerce. But, says Moore, the country has turned a corner, and a “paradigm shift is underway in terms of how companies interact with the government”. Nevertheless, Moore agrees with McGregor at Stephenson Harwood, that “a clearer, better legal system is required – international investors want certainty and transparency”.

So there may be a pick-up in activity, but it looks as if the highest-profile project around may not be quite the local lawyers' cup of tea. The Romanian government is shortly to make a final decision on the controversial park, with the town of Brasov making a late bid to compete with Snagov, the odds-on favourite for the venue.

Whatever the park's ultimate destination, it seems there is something about Count Dracula that makes even lawyers think twice.