Ágnes Bejó is the head of corporate and M&A at Jalsovszky, the ILN’s member for Hungary. In this episode, Lindsay and Ágnes explore the role of women and the impact of the pandemic, how a lawyer’s practice area impacts their desire to work remotely, and the way in which the pandemic shined an even brighter light on mental health in the legal profession.
Agnes: Thank you very much for having me here. I’m I’m really excited too.
Lindsay: So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your law firm and your practice?
Agnes: Thank you. Our law firm is Jalsovszky firm. That’s a middle size Hungarian, independent law firm based in Budapest. When I say middle size, it’s like rather upper middle sized in Hungarian terms, which means that we do have 25 fee earners, which does not sound much or many, but it still is, in the Budapest market, I’m heading the corporate and M and A department here. We have quite a sizeable team now like eight or nine lawyers, one joining just next month. It has been growing over the years quite fast. From origin, our managing partner is a tax guy, a tax lawyer. So the main focus has always been on tax but now I can say we are an almost full fledged business law firm. As I said, the M and A and corporate is quite strong, but we also have a banking and finance department, real property, IP, employment, litigation. We are very strong in tax litigation, for example. So, all areas of law that can be interesting to business enterprises, basically. We don’t do like really niche stuff like telecom or energy, this is not our bit, but other than that, almost everything.
Lindsay: So we’re going to jump right into the subject of our conversation today, which is around how the pandemic has disproportionately women in the workplace, or not. I’m curious as to your thoughts on how you feel that may be the case in Hungary, in your market. So how do you feel the pandemic has disproportionately affected women in the workplace?
Agnes: The role of women lawyers has always been a my favorite subject, or a subject that I quite like. This is partly because Hungary in my mind has still quite a traditional approach as to the role of women and their part in the household and dealing with the kids. I think that we still have a lot to do, or a way to go, but I think that has improved over the years. But for example, in my case, it has really been a nightmare, but I have three kids, two very lazy teenagers, doing homeschooling and then a six year old, or sorry, a four years old at the time who couldn’t go to preschool. My husband is a sole practitioner, having his own office, so he just went into the office every day and I was just home with the kids. So, it was really tough.
I mean, as far as conference calls, I think I can write now a book, about what can happen and what cannot happen. So it was really, really very tough and I think that that applies to a lot of women in similar roles, because we just needed to have the team together and also do the work. So, it was really difficult time, at least in the first wave, it was rather tough. But as I said, I think our situation or my situation was a little bit extreme and this whole home office and doing the calls from home, doing the work from home, this has affected almost as much men as women, but I think in Hungary, it’s still much more different than I can imagine in the US, or in the Scandinavian countries, they’re developed in that respect.
Lindsay: Do you think it was something that firms considered or was it just something that firms thought women and men, as you point out, obviously men dealt with it as well, that people just needed to handle on their own? Or was it something that firms thought needed to be discussed as part of the consideration of the pandemic?
Agnes: I think firms did a lot of things to keep the spirit up and to try to ease the situation of lawyers, but I didn’t see any particular measures or actions made just for women. I think all of the law firms just needed to survive and introduce actions and rules very suddenly. There were a lot of work to be done. So, I didn’t see any kind of additional support for women, but there was a lot of support from the firm’s management, especially from [Per 00:05:38], I mean, he was just coming to the office whenever he could, and try to organize the work from there. But as I said, there were a lot of things that tried to ease our lives. I mean, in the US, was there something different? Were there any special things for women to make their lives easier?
Lindsay: I would say, no. I think it was one of the things where it was discussed and I think some firms would try to … I think there was more acceptance maybe of when work got done, there was maybe more flexibility in terms of clients were more accepting, but I’m hoping that was the case everywhere, just because of the pandemic in general and people understanding that everyone was at home and everyone had this disrupted working life. But I wouldn’t say that there necessarily was any sort of special measures taken. I think everybody understood that it was an issue, but I don’t know that anything was actually done about it.
Agnes: I’m really with you what you are saying. I think that goes for Hungary too, that in terms of clients and the dynamics of a transaction, for example, and this has brought a lot of, lot of changes to attitude. Now you could see actually into each other lives and that gave a very personal flavor. For example, once I’ve been a closing meeting with many people from many countries, and then at that time I was at home, there was severe lockdown. Then my little one just came into the room and said he had to pee. Then I said, “Okay guys, excuse me, now I just need to step up.” Nobody was surprised or hurt. I mean, you could just not imagine this before, so yeah, in terms of acceptance and in terms of accepting that others have a personal life too, I think this has brought a lot of changes.
Lindsay: Yeah. I always remember that clip from the BBC that happened before with the kid and the-
Lindsay: I think all of us had that moment during the pandemic at some point.
Agnes: I had many, many moments like this, really.
Lindsay: It’s so true. So, how do you think it’s affected women in terms of leadership and leadership opportunities? Do you think women have been disproportionately affected and maybe limited in some ways, because we’ve had these two plus years where you’ve had these dual … I mean, women have always had the dual role obviously, of course. But has it been more so because you’re also acting as teacher at home and all of these other roles that are much more in your face?
Agnes: I mean, I would say it has and it hasn’t in the sense, I mean, it hasn’t that, the requirement to get promoted, or the opportunity to get promoted did not go or did not change. But of course the road there, was a little bit more difficult in terms of, once you had the work done, then you have the chance, but it was now as you said, more difficult to get the work done. But in Hungary, at least, it was a really limited time. So our office was closed … I can’t remember now, but only three or four months. So, I think it’s different than in other parts of the world than that was even one or two years, like in the UK for example.
So, I don’t think that leadership opportunities, or women, were just prevented from get promoted or leadership of opportunities, just because of that. On the other hand, I think senior partners or clients I said, are now more understanding, or have a more insight of what is required from women in leadership positions. Me personally, I always have the appreciation from our managing partner that he really appreciates how, and he just cannot imagine how, women can do those things at the same time. So, I would say it doesn’t have a real detrimental effect and it really had some upside in terms of acceptance and understanding as well.
Lindsay: That’s great, yeah. That’s really helpful. And then on the flip side of that, I’m curious about the impacts on young lawyers. We’ve talked a lot about that throughout the history of this podcast, the impact of the pandemic on young lawyers in general. I’m curious about young women lawyers. I think, some of them especially are dealing with young children and are unable to focus as much time maybe as they would have in the past on being present in what might be typical working hours. Then they’re also missing out on being in the office for those opportunities to be called in on a client call and those mentoring opportunities that might have happened just being there. So, I’m curious what your thoughts are on that and how that might change going forward as we go into a post-pandemic world where we’re going to be maybe working remotely more often?
Agnes: I think in our office, it’s a little different. So, we are special in a way that we do have senior women lawyers who already have children, like me, and who already were in that situation and have worked out the patterns and the tools, how to deal with these dual, or I don’t know how many side, roles. So we don’t have women lawyers with small children, or young women lawyers with children in fact, as I can think about. So, I don’t have really the experience there.
I mean, what we realized, but you probably discussed it, on our podcast that it was difficult to keep up the spirit of young lawyers, not being able to socialize. We did a lot of things like, I don’t know, wellbeing course or online pub events, because we do go to a pub every first Thursday each month and we just had to do it online, but we had other gatherings. For example, we had our Christmas dinner online and food was delivered and we went to an online escape room and things like that. So, we really tried to keep young lawyers together who really needed the spirit and the power of being together.
But as regards, especially for young women, I couldn’t see any special impact or any special. What was more interesting, at least for me when speaking about young lawyers, is that I just expected that all the young lawyers were just miserable and suffering at home and they just couldn’t wait to come back to the office, but actually it wasn’t the case at all, in the sense that we now introduced or maintained a kind of a part time home office possibility for lawyers who would like to work that way.
So those who want, they can stay at home two, three days a week. And actually some of the lawyers, some of the young lawyers, who are very sociable and very nice people, they chose to do that because there are some areas like litigation that you need to be more focused and work on a submission for several hours without interruption. That was interesting to see, that some of young lawyers, the different reactions that I would have expected.
I mean, I’m a transaction lawyer, so I like to be in the office when never I can. I would expect my team to be in the office whenever they can, because in a transaction, there are very tense periods. It’s much easier just to go next door than to make a Teams call in situations where there’s a time pressure or pressure from clients. So, I think it also varies practice by practice. But just to get back to your original question as regards young women lawyers, I did not really have the experience because there were no special situation just because they are females.
Lindsay: That’s really interesting though, you’re right that it may vary practice by practice, but I wouldn’t have considered that before, but that makes a lot of sense that it does. Yeah, that’s something to consider. So, that’s really interesting.
So, how do you advocate for yourself during a time of global crisis and how … I mean, you’ve talked a little bit about that already, and then also how you support others on your team and in your office, but talk a little bit more about that.
Agnes: That’s again, something very interesting for me because I just got promoted to head of M and A and corporate during the pandemic. We had calls when we were at home and it was really distressed, we had this wellbeing calls just to … we just picked up various subjects and there were some calls which were really depressed. I was really concerned because it was very difficult to build up a good team and to keep a good team at that times. And especially that two of our young lawyers left, one to competition, which has never happened before. So, we just hired three more young lawyers, trainees and one young associate, just to have the interview online, that’s already something that is very difficult because just you don’t have the personal contract, that actually one of the guys just came out very differently online than he was actually in person. So, it was very difficult to build up a new team.
I would say we got the real team last summer, so that was the time when I felt that now we are complete and happy and just ready to speed up, but that required quite some work and time. That was a new role for me as well. So when you say, how do you advocate for yourself? It was various things needed to be aligned.
How do I support my team? I mean, now it’s easier because we are working in the office, actually all of us. As I said, in transaction work, it’s much more easier and they appreciate and accept that. Of course, they can work from home if they want from time to time, but we have now gatherings again, we have coffees, one-to-one coffees. We have meetings every week and before Christmas, we went out for mulled wine. So, I’m really trying to keep up the good spirit and I think at the moment we are quite successful in that, they are happy. At least, this is the impression I have.
Lindsay: It sounds like you’ve really built a good team. It’s an interesting point you make that building a team during a remote period is very challenging. We’ve done the same because we’ve brought in some new members during this period, it’s strange
Agnes: Yeah, I know and very successfully, I have to say, as you explained earlier.
Lindsay: But it is strange to only meet people online and as you say, you’re taking a leap when you’re not getting the chance to connect with them in person, but I suppose that’s going to be the new way for a lot of us for a period of time, and on both sides. On both sides, you’re taking a chance and you hope that you’re making the right decision. And then when you meet in person that seals the relationship.
So, the legal industry has made a lot of change, as I think we all know, and over recent years I actually just wrote a blog post about this, that I will publish next week. But obviously, those changes have had to accelerate over the last two years, but somehow we still managed to have one of the largest incidences of mental health crisis of any profession. I think that’s due to the pressure and intensive nature that the legal profession has. So, I’m just wondering if you think that will ever change the way that the profession frames personal and professional success to alleviate some of these pressures? I think, you framed that very well earlier when you were talking about the dual pressure you were facing early on in the pandemic. So, I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on this question.
Agnes: I mean, I think absolutely. So, I think our approach needs to be changed and I think it has changed a lot during the pandemic. I mean, just if I think of our management, what they’ve done and what we do for as you said, mental health and wellbeing. This is something that this especially important for me, because I mentioned that two young lawyers of our team have left during this period. One of them was a girl who left during the lockdown, a young and really bright girl. She was under a lot of pressure, a lot of client pressure, and just because we could not meet, I just didn’t realize that she not happy. Then she left and I was just like, “Okay, but why didn’t you tell me these things before and then we could try to handle?” And of course they don’t tell because they don’t want to have the impressions that they want to leave or take themselves in an uncertain situation. So they just say you at the very end and they are unhappy, and this needs to be changed.
I mean, people needs to be watched out and really handle in the way just to make sure that their mental health and wellbeing is kept up. So, this is why I’m now trying to have these one-to-one conversations with every lawyer in my team. Also, we introduced coaching possibilities, I mean, for senior level lawyers, but I think this is something that is important and I think we should broaden this possibility for your and lawyers as well because that works really well.
Lindsay: Yeah. I think that’s really wonderful. I think, the actions you’ve taken with your team really will make a difference as you say, because that is really the only way to know how everyone is actually doing, is to have those touchpoints with them. That’s great. So, what are your main challenges then today? I think you’ve talked a lot about that transition then, from how tough things were at the beginning of the pandemic, and then how you’ve really worked through that, to where you are today, which is incredible, it’s a really great transition. So, what are your main challenges then now?
Agnes: Well, we still have a lot of challenges, of course. We are now getting back to normal in terms of the work, is the new normal, as they say, because the time has gone when you just call a cab that spent half an hour with traveling, being there for two and a half hours and then get it back. So, now it’s calls everywhere, which makes life a lot easier, of course. So, there are a lot of changes on that front as well.
But I think in my situation, or in my team, we are now extremely busy. I mean, you may know that and the M and A market is crazy at the moment. It’s really booming and we just have so much work that we are just really done and overloaded. So this is one challenge, which is a nice challenge, of course, and I hope that this will remain with us for quite long. So, this is one thing, and again, keep people happy, enthusiastic, while there is a lot of pressure and a real workload.
So, we haven’t experienced, I don’t know, a quiet week, since last summer, I think. Maybe the first week of January was a little bit more silent, but that’s it. So, that’s one thing that … how to allocate work. How to allocate the work in the sense that everybody is doing what they would like to.
There is another challenge that maybe comes from that as well, is that it is very difficult, I’m sure you’ve heard that from others before, it’s very difficult to find a bright and young lawyers now in today’s marketplace, as you say. So, it’s really an employer’s market, and it is very, very difficult to attract and keep young lawyers and make them happy and keep them enthusiastic. Especially, really young lawyers just coming out from university or students, we still face the challenge of being as attractive to them as an international firm, because there’s still a perception, at least in Hungary, I don’t know whether this is case everywhere, that they are the top and they are the places to go, which time, I mean in my opinion, it has long gone, but yeah, this is the other challenge I would mention, just to find right people and keep them happy and enthusiastic.
Lindsay: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I think you’re right, I think that is a challenge for a lot of midsize firms. Although, I think as you mentioned earlier too, with lawyers looking to find more of a balance in their lives and have that … now that mental health is such an issue. I think a lot of lawyers are also finding that they get better mental health when they’re with a midsize firm.
Agnes: Absolutely. I mean, I just remember, one ILN session, I think that was in Toronto when … I can’t remember the person, but it was a very interesting session, just comparing millennials and us. I mean, not us, us, but like generation X, for example.
Lindsay: I’m gen X.
Agnes: No, you’re not.
Lindsay: I am, I’m right on the cusp. I’m right here.
Agnes: No, I can’t believe that.
I remember when I tell these lawyers that when I was with … I was Allen & Overy for quite some time, “When I was with Allen & Overy, I billed like 17 hours a day.” Then they look at you, “Are you crazy? Why did to do that?” Then your whole perspective and, I don’t know evaluation of things, just got challenged. So yeah, it’s difficult.
Lindsay: Yeah, it’s true. Absolutely, yeah and you wonder why you ever did that.
Agnes: Yeah, you’re right.
Lindsay: Well, this has been great. I’m going to ask you one final question that I ask everybody, and that is outside of all of this, what is one thing that you’re enjoying right now? I know, it’s a tough one.
Agnes: Enjoying? I mean, I’m really enjoying being … maybe that sounds boring, but I’m really enjoying being with my small son. He’s six now and I’m at the age when I can already see that how fast things will change and how fast these times will go, because I have these two teenagers at home, who are already men and horrible, really. So whenever I can find the time, I’m with him and making the most of his small childhood, because that’s the sweetest. So, this is what I just came up to my mind now.
Lindsay: That’s wonderful. Yeah, six is such a great age, they’re so fun.
Yeah, that’s great. I love that. Well, thank you so much for doing this, Agnes. I really appreciate it. This has been a wonderful conversation.
Well, thank you for taking the time and thinking of me. I really enjoyed the conversation too.
Lindsay: And thanks so much to all of our listeners. We’ll be back next week with another guest. And in the meantime, please take a moment to rate, review and subscribe on Apple Podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you so much.