Bye to Britain: Schoenherr Sofia Draws Bulgarian Lawyers Home

06 May 2019 | bulgaria media coverage

First published on CEE Legal Matters, 30.04.2019

Unimpressed by Picadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square, Stela Pavlova and Katerina Kaloyanova have, in recent years, left positions with high-powered international law firms in London to return to their native Bulgaria and join Schoenherr’s office in Sofia. Both insist the trade-offs were less dramatic than many assume … and both credit Schoenherr Bulgaria’s Managing Partner Alexandra Doytchinova with making them feel right at home. 

Stela Pavlova

After obtaining her Master’s from the University of Oxford in 2013, Stela Pavlova completed Linklaters’ Legal Practice Course and worked under a training contract at Linklaters in London from 2015-2017, meanwhile also qualifying as a solicitor in the UK. “I think my plan was to return to Bulgaria at some point,” she says, “but I didn’t have a clear plan when. The idea was to gain as much experience as possible, then to return.”

Pavlova reports that the deals she worked on in London were “complex and interesting,” but ironically, she insists that that very complexity limited her professional growth. “To be honest, it’s the partners and the managing associates that do the challenging work, because those deals are so big. The junior associates and trainees don’t get as much client contact, and don’t get to do as much deal-structuring work.” Accordingly, she says, “from a timing perspective it’s easier to progress in a career in Bulgaria than in the UK, where the career path of a solicitor is sort of set in stone.”

And she says the opportunity to work in a smaller office, and on a more intimate team, was attractive as well. “In London, we worked on larger transactions with really large teams, sometimes of 15 people or more. I wanted to work on smaller teams, to get more client contact and experience, become more closely involved, and get more responsibility, sooner.” 

In addition, she says, the differences in remuneration are less significant than many believe. “Definitely, the money is better in London,” she says, “but the expenses are higher as well.”

Having decided to return to Bulgaria, Pavlova says, she applied to and interviewed with a number of firms, but she says that a meeting with the Schoenherr Managing Partner gave her all the information she needed. “The interview itself was really helpful, because it gave me a real sense of who Alexandra was, and I felt a massive difference between here and the other firms. In my particular case, in comparison to the partners from other firms, who tried to show off the achievements of their firms, Alexandra took an interest in me and my achievements and asked me what my plans were. That impressed me quite a bit. Once I came here I knew it was right.”

And she insists that, back in Sofia, she’s able to get the kind of challenging work she wanted. At Schoenherr Sofia, she says, “most of the M&A work we do is new for the market, and requires new ways of structuring deals to meet our clients’ needs. In Bulgaria there are lots of bespoke transactions, with sophisticated and intellectual clients.” Thus, she insists, “it’s not true that the deals here are less interesting.” 

All that, plus an attractive and welcoming atmosphere. “The culture of this particular firm is amazing, friendly, and supportive, which makes a lot of difference,” she says, “because I have friends at other firms in Sofia – purely Bulgarian/local firms – and they do not always have the same laid-back culture, and rarely have the same trainings and events where you get to know your colleagues better, and so on.” 

Katerina Kaloyanova 

Unlike Pavolova, Kaloyanova started her career in Bulgaria, working at a local firm before moving to London in 2006. After concluding her studies at the BBP Law School in London in 2008, she discovered she had four months to fill before her training contract with Hogan Lovells began. “I emailed a friend who was working at Schoenherr,” she recalls, “to ask if they would take me for four months or so, because I didn’t have anything to do. She told me to write to Alexandra and I did, and I asked if she would take me for four months, and she said yes. I was very happy, because – this was in 2008 – at that time, not many Bulgarian law firms would do something like that, because they would think ‘oh, we don’t want to invest for four months, and then you leave.’ Alexandra was very open-minded, to take me for just four months.”

She acclimated quickly, and when the time came to move to London, Kaloyanova recalls, she left Schoenherr with some reluctance. “I was so sorry that I had to go back to England after the four months because I became such good friends with so many people. The atmosphere was so nice, we had so many events outside of the office, that it was amazing.”

Still, moving to the UK was the right thing to do, Kaloyanova believes. “I didn’t feel I could learn as much as I wanted in Bulgaria. Especially because I wanted to focus on M&A work, and I wasn’t in the right environment in Bulgaria, so I decided to go to London, which is the hub for that kind of work. In London, the experience you can get is brilliant – I would say exceptional. I also spent six months in a secondment with SAB Miller – a client of Hogan Lovells – where I was able to see a transaction all the way from beginning to end.” 

Still, she says, “if I had stayed in the UK I would – as Stella said – have gone through this career path very slowly, like an associate doing not such interesting work, then an associate doing slightly more interesting work, and so on.” 

Happily, upon returning to Bulgaria, she discovered that her experience was even more useful than she had expected. “In two years I managed to learn so much that when I came back here I started working directly on projects like organizing due diligence work and managing transactions – I would say more senior work, rather than junior work.” And she notes that very few lawyers in the country have that kind of training and experience. “There aren’t very many UK-qualified lawyers in Bulgaria, so it gives us some kind of advantage. We’re able to do some English law transactions, and we can pass on our knowledge to other lawyers at the firm, and the clients – especially English-speaking clients – are very happy, because we talk the same and use the same concepts and understand the language.” 

Of course, Kaloyanova also recognizes the other, more familiar benefits of working in CEE. “It’s not just the work and the quality of work we do here – we have all we could have in the UK as lawyers – but we also have a work-life balance. The lifestyle here is very different than it is for lawyers in the UK. We have lives outside the office.”  And, like Pavlova, she insists the financial trade-off is less severe than traditionally assumed. “I would say the standard of living is much higher here. Because the UK has become so expensive that you must be a top lawyer to afford a good standard of living in the UK.”

Nonetheless, she says, “if it wasn’t Schoenherr, I don’t know if I would have come back.” And, like Pavlova, Kaloyanova credits her enthusiasm for the firm to one person above all others. “I liked particularly Alexandra’s open-mindedness,” she says, smiling. “The freedom she gives people, my colleagues, is amazing. I think you can give as much freedom to people as you have yourself.” 

Alexandra Doytchinova

For her part, Doytchinova waves away the compliments, insisting that hiring the two lawyers was a no-brainer. About hiring Kaloyanova for a short four-month period, she says, “this was at the time when work was pouring in, and we were happy for any quality support.” More importantly, she says, “we knew she was going away to get very good training, so this allowed us to get to know her and to decide if we’d want her if she came back. And even if she didn’t come back we knew we’d stay in contact and cooperate. So it was worth it anyway. You have to invest in people to get a return. You always have to do it.”

“To hire someone who is trained in the UK, in the UK system, with the big London firms – the additional training and know-how they gained is hardly comparable on the market,” Doytchinova says. “It gives us a huge advantage on the local market in terms of M&A transactions, to actually perform up to international standards, and not just to claim that in pitches.”

Although Doytchinova notes that her office does not offer English-law advice, she insists that the two associates provide significant value in other ways. “A huge value is their education and the training they received on the ground,” she says, as well as “the culture and working attitudes they bring.” According to her, “It’s otherwise difficult to get on this market. They manage to be efficient at the very highest standards. Clients appreciate that.”

The Right Choice

Both Kaloyanova and Pavlova are asked if they made the right choice in returning to Bulgaria, and in joining Schoenherr. “Absolutely,” they both laugh, in unison. Pavlova gets the last word: “I’m a British citizen, and even that doesn’t make me think about going back to England. I’m quite happy where I am.”