Vladislav Nikolov is the General Counsel of Overgas, Bulgaria’s largest private natural gas company. He’s worked at Overgas since 2006.
Before that he spent more than a year with the Bulgarian Commission on Protection of Competition, in the Antitrust sector.
You moved from the Commission on Protection of Competition to an in-house role with Overgas. What led you to make that change?
V.N.: The work at the Commission on Protection of Competition (CPC) is very specific and very attractive at the same time. Due to the intenseness of the working process and the short period of time available CPC experts are required to dip into different business areas, which allows them to acquire skills and accumulate knowledge which elsewhere would require much more time. Still, I eventually decided that a role as state expert was not my preferred route for professional development.
The offer by Overgas some ten years ago came in parallel to an invitation to join the legal team of one of the Big Four. My strong interest in the areas of Energy and Competition law influenced my decision to choose Overgas.
On the other hand, the legal work of an in-house lawyer is not so different from that of my external colleagues. The differences are only in the perspective and the way you approach the client/employer.
For several years with Overgas you were a Senior Legal Advisor in charge of litigation – but you had never operated as a litigator before. How were you able to oversee and manage the many litigations a company like Overgas has ongoing at any given time without first-hand experience in court?
V.N.: Actually, litigation formed an essential part of my work at the CPC. The law is so broad and diverse, and lawyers are lucky to have many choices when looking for their area of professional dedication. I started at Overgas as Senior Counsel and initially I was involved in literally every kind of legal issue. During the first couple of years there happened to be a number of legal proceedings, mainly in the field of administrative law, and I got the chance to gain substantial experience in litigation. Subsequently the management established a separate department responsible for litigation and arbitration, and I was delighted to head it.
According to the Mission Statement of Overgas on its website, “the major priority of Overgas Inc. AD has always been to help shape a positive business environment in Bulgaria. Therefore, the company actively participates in legislative initiatives in the energy sector, adheres to good business practices in relations with partners and accepts competition as a driving force in market development.” Is that unusual in Bulgaria? How is that commitment to a positive business environment reflected on your legal team?
V.N.: In fact, the targets set in the company’s global mission statement are not unachievable or unusual. Unfortunately, however, their implementation in practice still faces lots of barriers in Bulgaria. In particular, the attempts to introduce measures for building a positive business environment often encounter serious resistance and remain primarily as hopes. Overgas’s commitment to create a better climate for business has led to many administrative and court cases in which the legal team of course plays a direct and leading role. Legal proceedings before the Energy Regulator, Courts of Law, and the European Commission are essential to achieving application in practice of the European rules in the Energy sector.
Tell us a little bit about your legal team. How many people are on it, in what roles?
V.N.: The size of our in-house legal team has varied over the years. Since I joined, some of the colleagues have changed their employers and areas of legal practice. However, Overgas is a school! And this is best confirmed by the fact that all of my former colleagues who have left the company are very successful in what they are doing now.
At present the team consists of six lawyers, but we plan to increase a bit in number. Our goal is to achieve better internal specialization in areas like Energy, Contract, Construction, Corporate, Competition, and Public Law. Generally, in my understanding, an internal legal team should be organized and function as a small law firm.
How is your average day structured?
V.N.: The day begins with a short update on the development of key legal issues within the Overgas group. I try to prioritize the tasks and make a timeline for their execution. However, lately the days have been so intensively rich that often the initially set plans and schedules need to be adjusted to cover a number of unexpected meetings or appointments. Still, this is more an exception than the norm.
What is your biggest challenge – the most regular source of frustration – in your role as General Counsel of Overgas?
V.N.: The biggest challenge is always success – in any of its shapes. The most regular source of frustration may be the illogical or sometimes predetermined actions or decisions of the state bodies. I guess this is the typical disincentive for anyone who wants to live in a world of things that happen.
Overgas is the largest private gas company in Bulgaria. Are the legislative and regulatory regimes in the country favorable or unfavorable to your company and industry in your view? Why?
V.N.: Overgas has been a leader in its area of business over the last 25 years. That means surviving different legislation and legislative regimes. Since Bulgaria gained EU membership in 2007, the most significant obstacle before the company has been the state’s continuous attempts to keep the monopoly position of the existing energy operators stable and unchanged. Liberalization remains distant and practically impossible – even though it is provided for in the national legislation.
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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