Following the departure of one of the firm’s founders, Zdravko Baburak, partners Dijana Brezak and Zrinka Grabas are carrying on with business as usual. They even kept the same offices in the centre of Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, so clients old and new know exactly where to find them.
“We continued working just as we did before,” Grabas confirms, “looking after company and employment cases, as well family, inheritance and property law. The only difference is we will not be doing so much criminal law. We represent a lot of companies, but also work for private clients; the share is about 50:50.”
The country’s legal landscape has changed considerably since Grabas qualified, as Croatia joined the European Union in 2013. The need to harmonise local legislation with European directives has brought about major shifts in the law. And modifications to real estate regulations that let foreigners own property in Croatia have seen lawyers move with the times.
“In the last 10 years, we have seen liberalisation in the property market,” Grabas explains. “Previously, you had to set up a business to buy a home here, now you can do so as an individual. That means law firms do less company formation for the purpose of buying property in Croatia”.
Most of their corporate clients are small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), Grabas says, many serving the Croatian market, although a growing number have interests abroad, especially in the real estate sector. They include construction companies, manufacturers and publishers, some keeping the firm on a retainer, others working on a case-by-case basis.
Around 20% of the firm’s clients are from overseas, Grabas estimates, mostly from the neighbouring nations of Italy and Slovenia. She and Brezak are court translators for Slovenian and Italian respectively, an advantage when working with foreigners, as it “helps make them comfortable, being able to communicate in their own language,” she adds.
Both are familiar with all their clients, but divide up workloads and do not tend to get involved in each other’s cases. Competition in Zagreb can be fierce, with 2,500 lawyers for 1.2 million residents in the metropolitan area. Most are either single lawyers or small firms, Grabas says, with only a few larger players in the marketplace, making long-term relationships and loyalty key to any firm’s success.
“We get most of our clients from referrals,” Grabas insists, “based on our good work. We take the time to talk face-to-face and adopt a personalised approach to cases. I try to put myself in their shoes, to understand them and build trust. And, as an all-female firm, I feel we are well-suited to be empathetic, particularly in cases involving custody, where we can talk woman to woman. Good lawyers care about real people.”
The firm became the Croatian member of TEN, the European Network of Law Firms, in June 2018, having been introduced by Anton (Toni) Grilc, one of the partners at the Slovenian firm of Grilc, Starc and Partner, with whom Brezak and Grabas have a long working relationship.
“Dijana and I attended the Annual General Meetings in Florence in 2018 and Marbella in 2019,” Grabas says, “which were a great way to develop relations with colleagues from other countries. But TEN is not only about networking. It helps us recommend lawyers our clients can trust and allows to get contacts in other markets.”
Already, Grabas notes, they have worked on cases with NJP Grotstollen in Germany and Grilc, Starc and Partner in Slovenia, as well as Kanski Kapczuk Kniat-Borsut from Poland: “Maciej Kazczuk referred us to create a new company for some Polish people,” she reveals, “and we did a good job, because they’ve recommended us to another client.”
At the same time, Brezak and Grabas have passed clients along to fellow member firms in Germany and Slovenia, Grabas points out: “It works both ways and has really been quite successful in the first 18 months.
“We are happy with the work we have,” Grabas adds. “It is just right how it is and we get to devote our time properly to each case. We collaborate with others if necessary, but have no need to grow. We are successful enough for now.”
Grabas did not set out to become a lawyer, having originally trained to be a pharmaceutical technician. But, having tried pharmacy work, she went back to do law at university in Zagreb. She joined the firm 12 months before completing her degree and combined her studies with work alongside Brezak. In Croatia, to be eligible for the bar exam, lawyers are obliged to gain 18 months’ experience, either as a trainee in a law firm or in the courts. To become an attorney at law, you need to pass the exam and have at least three years’ experience as a law trainee or four years in other legal affairs.
Grabas was offered partnership after five years and has been with the firm for 15 in total: “I was very happy here, ever since my first day at the office,” she says. “The most satisfying aspect is protecting people’s rights and freedoms. It produces an incredible happiness to see smiles on clients’ faces after a successful case.”
When not at the office, Grabas likes to get away as often as she can to her vacation home in the country with her partner, where they pass the time looking after their vegetable garden: “It helps me clear my mind and replenish my energy levels,” she smiles. “The change of scene means everything is green. It may be three hours’ drive away, but you get to have two days for yourself.”