Marcell Clark is a Partner in Dentons’ Bratislava office and is legacy Co-Chairman of the Real Estate Finance team of the firm’s Global Real Estate Group. Clark has over 15 years experience in cross-border transactions and is active on major real estate finance transactions and restructurings throughout CEE. Before joining legacy Salans in 2007, he spent 7 years as Associate General Counsel with TIAA-CREF (one of the largest American pension funds), and spent the last three years of the 20th century with Jones Day.
Run us through your background, and how you got to Slovakia.
M.C.: I’m a New York lawyer. I speak Hungarian and German fluently and French on an intermediate level. After working 10 years in the US, I joined Salans (now Dentons) to help build up their CEE real estate finance practice. I initially worked in Budapest but after 7 years was looking for a change of location. Bratislava was an attractive option because it is close to Vienna and my banking clients there.
Was it always your goal to work abroad?
M.C.: No, although it was always a possibility for me. In the beginning I wanted to work at a large firm in New York and I was very happy to have that opportunity. I then moved in-house and worked for a large financial institution, which I also enjoyed immensely. It is relatively rare for a business transactional lawyer to be able to work abroad, and when the opportunity came, it seemed like the right choice. Having built up good experience and a strong understanding of my practice area in the US, I had an ambition to give it a try overseas. I felt confident that it would go well and that my life, and that of my family, would be more interesting as a result.
Can you describe your practice, and how you built it up over the years?
M.C.: I am first and foremost a real estate lawyer and have deep experience in real estate finance and restructuring in addition to the run-of-the-mill real estate deals. After working as an associate in a large law firm, I worked in-house for a leading global investor in real estate. This experience was phenomenal, because I was able to work with some very smart people and learn the industry inside out. When I moved to Salans, I believed that my skills as a lawyer and excellent service would bring me a client following. It does, but this alone is not enough – it is critical to build relationships. I am fortunate to work with wonderful clients on interesting projects. I gained many of these clients after working for or across from them on transactions. Developing a long-term relationship with a client and helping them achieve their goals is particularly rewarding both on a professional and personal level.
Do you find Slovakian clients enthusiastic about working with a foreign lawyer, or do they prefer working with Slovakian lawyers?
M.C.: I cannot say too much about Slovaks in particular, as my clients are nearly all international, but I do not think that clients are very different from country to country. Without question, it is easier to communicate with people with whom you share a common language and culture and I always include strong local lawyers from Slovakia and other Dentons offices on my team. However, ultimately you are being engaged to give legal advice, and if you give excellent quality service, then clients will be enthusiastic no matter where you are from.
There are obviously many differences between the English and the Slovakian judicial systems and legal markets. What idiosyncrasies or differences stand out the most?
M.C.: I work on cross-border deals involving several jurisdictions, including Slovakia. My focus is on achieving the right overall outcome for a transaction by implementing exactly the commercial deal that my client has negotiated with his counterpart, and a critical part of this process involves understanding how the local law works. There are large differences between common law and civil law systems and from country to country, but in truth I never focus on the differences or idiosyncrasies as such but on what effect the local law will have on the transactional structure or a particular point of a deal.
Similarly, you’ve worked in both Slovakia and Hungary. What differences do you see, as an outsider, between the two legal systems and legal cultures?
M.C.: I work largely outside these legal systems and legal cultures because of the international nature of my work, so this is hard to answer. What I can say though is that in either of the two legal systems, the most valuable lawyers are not those who are only able to recite the law, but those who are able to help advise on possible solutions to legal impediments.
Do you ever plan on heading back to the US?
M.C.: I go back to the US to visit my friends at least once a year. I have no plans to return to the US to work or live, but if that opportunity did arise and it felt like the right thing to do, then I would gladly make the move. I think both Europe and the US have plenty to offer and they both have their own drawbacks. We are living in very interesting times, so who knows what the future will bring!
What particular value do you think a senior expatriate lawyer in your role adds – both to a firm and to its clients?
M.C.: A senior expatriate lawyer gives credibility to a firm’s offering. It’s difficult to sell legal services to multinational companies without having lawyers who understand fully their environment and have themselves worked in that environment. They understand the clients’ goals, objectives and way of doing business. From the client’s perspective, they have this international perspective, plus the benefit of having a lawyer who knows the local environment intimately and can give them the same level of service as they are used to obtaining back home.
Outside of Slovakia and Hungary, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most?
M.C.: It would be hard to beat the Czech Republic and Austria in terms of historical sights and beautiful natural landscapes, but each country I have been to has something exceptional. For example, when I was in Moscow last time, I visited the Tretyakov State Gallery and the Russian landscape paintings were very impressive. It is not easy, but if at all possible I try to build in time to take in some of the sights when I am traveling for work.
What’s your favorite place in Bratislava?
M.C.: I like winding down at my neighborhood wine bar La Putika 5, which has a very relaxed atmosphere and is a perfect place to kick back at the end of the day.
This Article was originally published in Issue 3.1. of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.
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