Advokátní kancelář Pokorný, Wagner & partneři, s.r.o.

Pokorný: I don’t know anything about manipulated verdicts - Czech business weekly

Adéla Vopěnková
The reluctance of judges to listen to new arguments is one of the systemic problems seen by Radek Pokorný, a senior partner at law firm Pokorný, Wagner & spol.
And while the period of economic growth meant a lot of work for business law firms, the new hot area might be family law.

When law firm Pokorný, Wagner & spol. was established in 1994 it focused on advertising. However, it made its name when it represented bank Československá obchodní banka (ČSOB) in the disputes the bank inherited from Investiční a Poštovní banka (IPB). Pokorný, who likes to joke about himself as “a villager in the city,” came under the spotlight in his early 30s, when he took a seat on the supervisory board at Komerční banka in 1998 as it prepared for privatization. Pokorný is a man of many activities and interests. He started his career as a legal trainee in the law office of Rychetský & Hlaváček. Thanks to that position, he was able to make many contacts with politicians. That was also one of the reasons why he has been frequently labeled a lobbyist. He does not like this label much and strictly declines to talk about politics. “I’m a lawyer and I say that politics and law cannot be mixed,” he said.

Q: You seem to have two main characteristics. In some materials you are called an advocate but in others you are called a lobbyist. How do you see it?

A: I think it is quite simple. This is a law firm. The label lobbyist stems from that fact then in past, as a student, I worked for the Federal [Czechoslovak] Assembly where I made a lot of contacts. But the fact that we run this big office does speak against the lobbyist version. If we really wanted to focus on lobbying we would not have to have such a monster. Lobbyists usually work individually or in tiny offices whereas we are a proper law firm that specializes in business cases.

Q; Still, where do you think the descriptions of you as a lobbyist originated?

A: I think that it stems from the assumption that everybody who knows certain people might be a lobbyist. However, certain jobs require meeting people. In Prague it happens frequently that someone writes something and others copy it. This can be, on one hand, rather helpful because it makes your name more known, but naturally its consequence is that from time to time individuals with strange requests come to meet me.

Q: But have you ever used the contacts from past for your current work?

A: The question is what it means to use. Of course, sometimes people notice me because of [my lobbyist reputation]. That is the reality. Another question is whether that is an advantage or not. Anyway, we never worked for the state, which is quite unusual for a company of our size.

Q: And have you ever been offered a job as a consultant to a politician?
A: No. I think even when I worked for the assembly I showed that something like that would not be in accord with my character. My ambition has been always to be independent.

Q: Which of your cases do you consider crucial for your office?

A: When it comes to individual cases, it is sometimes difficult to disclose information but if I were asked to talk about those that have been in the media I would mention our representation of [agrochemical group] Agrofert in its great arbitration against [Polish refiner] PKN Orlen. We have also represented ČSOB in its case against [food and chemical producer] Setuza and against [lawyer] Věslav Nemeth, which we won [in February]. Editor’s note: The Nemeth case involved claims for compensation from ČSOB for the losses Nemeth allegedly suffered when IPB used his knowhow to create off-shore funds (see “ČSOB should help the state in arbitration,” CBW, April 18, 2006, and “Setuza: cancellation of debt tender a ‘step back,’” CBW, July 24, 2006).

Q: The Nemeth case has been coming up regularly. What is your perspective on it?

A: The thing is still alive, since many people were involved. For me it is difficult to assess it from my personal view. I can only speak as a lawyer who was hired by ČSOB to legally resolve the bad loans and the bank’s bad assets. From my professional view as a lawyer who concentrates on commercial law, I thank God it turned out as it did because if the bank went bankrupt without any recompense it would have had fatal impact on the Czech economy for couple of years.

Q: Where do you see the origins of this infamous end of a famous bank?

A: Undoubtedly, the ’90s lobby inexperience played a major role there. Also I am not so sure the bank’s management fully perceived the universal banker’s basic duty—to protect the money and reproduce or develop it. Evidently many of the operations they indulged in were extremely risky from the very beginning.

Q: What do you think Nemeth’s was role in the case?

A: Nemeth required Kč 6.5 billion (€ 255 million) in the end plus some small change. Gradually they would sell the claim pieces. In my opinion, Nemeth was used as an instrument for the debtors of IPB who used him to get rid of their debts. But you’d better ask my [fellow lawyer] Nemeth whether he feels he was used as an instrument.

Q: Your name has been connected with then-Minister of Finance Bohuslav Sobotka. How would you comment on this?

A: Well I would not like to discuss this. I met him at the times when I was in secondary school, and the fact that we were two villagers in the city made us somehow close.

Q: But still isn’t it interesting that Sobotka is a man who has been publicly blamed for nonstandard relationships with ČSOB?

A: First, I do not think that was true. And anyway I do not have anything to say here. You should ask those who claim so why they claim that.

Q: From your point of view, what do you consider a phenomenon that stirs the local economy and what are the consequences?

A: First, as the economy is boiling many firms are sold, are merging and there are many restructurings, etc., that fit into the characteristic mergers and acquisitions. These are actions that we participate in. Then there is also a major wave of lawsuits, especially arbitrations, that are a result of contract clauses made in the end of ’90s.
Also it is interesting to follow the activities of (Office for the Protection of Economic Competition) ÚOHS, which in times of [former chairman] Josef Bednář was maybe too active, and so the new management came with another approach— competition advocacy and communication with the market, which I personally welcome.

Q: What are the prospects of Czech law firms?

A: As the economy settles more and more, I assume there will be less work for lawyers, especially in the field of business law. What has not been functioning well and will become a great opportunity for those willing to focus on it is the administration of private property [in family law and divorces] as there will be more affluent people in future.

Q: How do you see Czech justice?
Do you see some major problems in the field that should be solved urgently?

A: There has been a serious aversion against the courts, but I would not be that skeptical here. Personally, I have not seen clearly manipulated verdicts. What might be seen as a problem is that judges tend to be too stiff and lack imagination and so they are suspicious of all new types of legal arguments. It is hard to find a judge who accepts new ways of arguing cases.

Q: What concretely do you have in your mind here?

A: Take for example the situation related to the antimonopoly office. Very often it finds that public contracts procedure was not in accordance with law. So what it does is penalize the violator and that is it. It is very rare that ÚOHS [disqualifies the contract winner]. This signals to the market that if there is no other way, you can receive a fine but you can still proceed. According to the law, such a contract is not valid but ÚOHS does not stop it, which should be its next step. So if you are the one who did not get the contract and you try to appeal to make the antimonopoly office to change the resolution you are absolutely defenseless. So we have changed the strategy and now we are trying to enforce justice through common courts arguing unfair competition. This is a way that is functioning well abroad but here we have not been very successful. We have been losing these cases repeatedly.

Q: Recently you said in regard to the case of commercial director Alan Svoboda from ČEZ that it was interesting that confidential information got into the media more quickly than it got to your client or your office. How do you see the Czech media culture then?

A: In that particular case I think it was not the police who passed on the information. The fact was that we learned about the suit from (Czech News Agency) ČTK and not from the state prosecutors, who should have let us now before that. Generally, the media are used as a fighting tool. Sincerely, I really do not believe that the media are responsible; it is a business like other in the end.

Q: Do you think the media is monopolized?

A: I do not think that here the main problem is that there would be too much concentration of the ownership on the market, however undoubtedly the smaller the country is, the less free its media are. The problem is that everybody knows each other and their interests mutually interlock. Unfortunately, it is not just the case in the media but also in other fields—state regulation, police and everything.

Foto autor| Jakub Stadler