Vilius Bernatonis is the managing partner of TGS Baltic, a top-tier commercial law firm in the Baltics and a member of the International Lawyers Network. In this episode, Lindsay and Vilius discuss the war for talent, why collaboration and leadership are essential across all levels of law firms and how that benefits clients, and the current market in the Baltics.

You can listen to the podcast here, or we’ve provided a transcript of the highlights below.

Lindsay: Hello and welcome to the Law Firm Intelligence Podcast. I’m your host, Lindsay Griffiths, Executive Director of the International Lawyers Network. And our guest this week is Vilius Bernatonis from TGS Baltic. Vilius, we’re so happy to have you join us. Thank you for being our guest this week.

Vilius: Hi Lindsay. Hi, thank you for inviting me.

Lindsay: Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your firm and your practice?

Vilius: Yes. Well, maybe I’ll start about the firm because that’s my function basically, because I’m managing partner of TGS Baltic and chair of the board for Baltic States. Because TGS Baltic is full-service firm, we’re working in the three Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and we are a leading firm in all of these jurisdictions and acting as a single entity for the purposes of everything related to international work.

So, my personal practice, now I’m answering the question saying, well, my practice is managing right now, that’s my focus I think. That’s where I have to focus right now. When I’m in the role generally as a lawyer, I’m energy and arbitration lawyer, but now I’m focusing on management mainly.

Lindsay: Which is a big role. So, what would you say, I mean, and it’s a big job to do, managing, especially across three countries, three offices. I know they’re fairly close together, but it’s still a big role. So, what would you say is your biggest challenge at the moment and how are you working to overcome that?

Vilius: Yes, we’ve got lots of projects. It’s really interesting job to do, you know? Actually, you mentioned we are small countries, but we speak English to each other. So, the languages are different. I mean, there’s lots of cultural similarity, but also there’s differences so it’s really interesting to do. But the biggest challenge we have in, I think, in all the three Baltic states is the talents, the people. So, gaining and retaining talents is the biggest challenge that we have because we have quite a strong growth in all three offices, and for that growth, we need experienced people and it’s really hard to get. And also, there’s a lot of pressure from various businesses. So actually, primarily the clients are putting pressure on our talents and the lawyers. So, we are very often finding ourselves competing with the clients for good lawyers because there’s really a lot of attractive job offers from the clients right now.

Lindsay: That’s really interesting, and that’s a challenge that I’m hearing from a lot of firms is this sort of war for talent. And I’m wondering how that’s going to play out over the next five to 10 years and what the impact of technology is going to be on that.

Vilius: Yes, yes. Yes, yes, exactly. Yes, technology is another point, but with respect to, it’s a good fight to fight, I would say, because this also helps us to really… and helps people to select the correct place they want to be and what I mean, if you’re in a law firm, you’re basically having your own business. So, it’s like a different approach to life so probably law firms have much less appeal in terms of prestige or even in certain positions in terms of financial offering. But having this freedom of having your own business is still quite appealing and it’s good that we can connect to people who have that internal desire to do their own business.

Lindsay: Absolutely, absolutely. So, can you talk to us a little bit about the current state of the market and what that means for you and your clients?

Vilius: Yes, so in the Baltics, the economies have been doing surprisingly well, I’m saying surprisingly because people were talking about a crisis looming because of COVID and because of Russian aggression against Ukraine for the whole of the past year. Last year in November we were talking about the crisis coming, recession is coming, and people are still talking more or less the same. Basically ’23 has been a very good year for the legal market, but also not such a bad year for local businesses actually. But now of course the situation in the world is volatile and that does impact business decisions of our clients and impacts our business. So of course, we take it as simply a call to focus on more disputes work and more distressed work and so we are ready, even if the recession comes after all.

Lindsay: The beauty of being a full-service firm is that you’re never short of legal work.

Vilius: Yes, that’s true.

Lindsay: Absolutely. So, what is the biggest area, either related to what you do as managing partner or the legal industry in general that you’re curious about, at the moment?

Vilius: Right now, what we’re doing, and this is a very Baltics thing but maybe that might be interesting for listeners because in the Baltics, since these are, although small but three different countries, most of our competition are three different firms just acting under common brand. And this is what we used to be, but now for the last two years we’ve been doing an integration project which basically we have merged equity-wise for international work. So, we basically are sharing costs and profits of international work, and that includes a lot of interesting work. We have a company which is a joint company among the three countries, and we have many projects related to that, branding and public and business development. So that’s a lot of my focus right now is really interesting.

In the market we see, of course, lots of work related to energy transformation in the Baltics because we are champions. The three Baltic states are champions of ditching the fossil fuel. So, when Russian aggression started, we were the first ones in Europe to fully close any imports of Russian energy and that’s a big achievement because we used to be fully 100% dependent some years ago. But since we developed infrastructure, which also had a lot of interesting legal work related to it, we now are fully energy independent. And part of it is that there are lots of developments in renewable energy, in wind and solar energy, offshore wind, onshore wind. So, lots of interesting things happening there, lots of transactions so this is a big mover of the legal markets right now.

Lindsay: That’s really interesting. And it shows that it is possible. I know it can be difficult for countries that are larger to move their dependence on foreign oil, but it shows that it is possible to do that.

Vilius: Oh yes, yes and actually there was a lot of concern about the price volatility, but I would say even the current market trends are showing that renewables are really putting a cap on prices of energy. So yes.

Lindsay: Of course that has to happen too.

Vilius: Yes.

Lindsay: And I think it’s really interesting too what you said about moving from the model of the multiple offices operating under a joint umbrella, becoming more of a merged office, because that is something that a lot of firms operate under, not just obviously in the Baltic states, but across other countries as well.

Vilius: Yes.

Lindsay: So, that is really an interesting topic. And even when you look at more of what firms are doing, bringing in a lot of lateral hires and figuring out culturally how someone brings their entire practice into a new firm and figuring out how culturally you can work together and fit. And that’s happening so much these days, bringing in lateral hires and figuring out how they fit within a new firm and making sure that people can work together really well. I think that’s an interesting challenge to work with.

Vilius: Yes, yes, absolutely. And there’s huge opportunities because as soon as you become kind of one business entity, you find out that your team is also kind of fluid. You can use expertise across country boundaries because it’s only partly kind of jurisdiction-specific expertise because lots of international work especially, look at M&A or capital markets. The expertise is very, very fluid across country boundaries. So, you can make a much better offering to the client also using expertise from different offices, which we didn’t used to do previously.

Lindsay: Absolutely, and I think that’s the way the world works today. Clients are less concerned about knowing the full brand as much as they are being confident that the team that is doing the work knows each other really well and can do that work competently and confidently.

Vilius: Mm, yes.

Lindsay: Yes. So, switching gears a little bit, can you tell us something interesting about yourself that most people don’t know?

Vilius: Oh yeah, well, whatever I do at the law firm, this is my second job because my first job is my family and together with Velina, we have seven children.

Lindsay: Wow.

Vilius: So that’s what many people don’t know. So that’s why our discussion about timing this today. So that’s my first job and that’s a lot of interesting work there. Well, and then it’s also very rewarding actually, so we are really, really busy and happy at the same time.

Lindsay: That’s great. What are your age ranges for your children?

Vilius: Yeah, I have all the ranges. I have from 18, the oldest is 18, the youngest is four months.

Lindsay: Oh, wow. That’s a big range.

Vilius: Yes.

Lindsay: That will certainly keep you busy. Absolutely.

Vilius: Oh yes, yes. It keeps us busy and it keeps us interesting. It’s really interesting kind of growing up with them.

Lindsay: Absolutely.

Vilius: We learn a lot every day.

Lindsay: That’s true, that’s true. Children certainly do teach you plenty about yourself and them.

Vilius: Yes, yes, yes, exactly, exactly.

Lindsay: How about someone who has been a mentor over your career?

Vilius: Mm. Yes, mentoring is actually also a very interesting topic. We have a centralized mentoring project right now for all the leaders of practices in our Vilnius office, but my career mentor was Eugenija Sutkiene, the founder of our firm in Lithuania. So, we’ve been together for 20 years now this year. So, it’s been a long journey and that was really, really a person I learned a lot from. So that was a big… So, she was and remains a very important mentor for me, professionally. Also, during those years I’ve met so many really bright people to whom I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn.

Lindsay: That’s great. Would you say that there’s one important lesson that you’ve learned over your career, maybe from your mentors?

Vilius: You know, I would say a lesson I’m learning still, but I know, so learning in a sense, it takes effort to acquire the skill, but really, and this is maybe not so much from mentors, but maybe from my partners is ability to listen, especially as a lawyer, I tend to have an opinion very quickly and the clients kind of like that. But in a team this is not always helpful. So ability to listen really and understand what the other people are saying, the other kind of point of view, maybe some point of view I don’t immediately agree with is really a big lesson, but as I said, I’m still trying to learn.

Lindsay: That, I think, is a lifelong lesson for all of us.

Vilius: Yes. Yes, probably.

Lindsay: I don’t know anybody who’s really good at that.

Vilius: Probably.

Lindsay: What is something that people misunderstand about your field of work?

Vilius: You know, that’s one thing I would say generally, and I’ll talk about management now, but I think in a law firm, partners very often underestimate the role of management. And I’m not only talking about my role as managing partner, that maybe is more understood, but role as manager of people, like group leaders. Very often this is seen as something in addition, something to be done after hours, so to speak. When you’re finished with your legal work, you kind of come to it. And this is the biggest mistake any leader could do. And this is what, as I said, we’re having this leadership project.

This is one of the things we’re trying to learn, that no leadership is your number one task and then come the clients, actually, and this is very hard for people to understand because obviously clients are more urgent, typically, and more readily demanding and so on. But still, so I would say this is the biggest misunderstanding is actually… the power of leadership is misunderstood, and I find that many people, many partners actually miss out so much on what they could achieve through other people through the group. So, I would say that is the biggest misunderstanding.

Lindsay: That’s a really important point. And I wonder if that’s because in law school there is so much this focus on obviously learning the importance of the law and studying the law and then also the first thing you learn is how to take care of clients, especially when you get out of law school is the first thing you learn is billing and dealing with clients. And so, you never really get to the point where you’re learning how to be a leader, either in law school or just out of law school.

Vilius: I agree. I agree. But also, all of the culture around law is, until very recently, it was single-person culture. Even the TV series are showing kind of superstars rather than these team players and team leaders. And this is what I think has to change if we don’t want to become extinct actually, because this individual merit and individual result that we can achieve is actually going to be under lots of pressure. And actually, team effort is what is going to bring us… Where the future lies.

Lindsay: Absolutely. It’s going to be a collaborative win for everybody. Collaboration is the future.

Vilius: Yes, and collaboration, you know, collaboration with other lawyers, but this is only first layer. Collaboration with non-lawyers, collaboration with IT people, collaboration with IT itself, you know? AI and so on. So, the sole kind of superstar from the [inaudible 00:18:35] is, yes, is history, I think.

Lindsay: Mm-hmm. I totally agree. I totally agree. Okay. So, can you tell us about a client that changed your practice?

Vilius: Mm. Yes, it was years ago, but that was really an interesting experience. I had one client who later became clients but that moment, we were on different sides of the table, negotiating, and that was probably the most difficult deal I had because the person was more into all of the details and all of the documents than the lawyer they had. And this guy was not a lawyer, and so he was into a lot of details and a really detailed person. So, every time you produce a longer text with a longer provision of an agreement, it would take hours and hours, we would sit into night with him trying to explain, “Okay, why do you use this word or that word?”

But this guy taught me to really not use, to write things in not too many words, not too few words, but not too many as well you know? Like every word you used has to have a function. So that was a hard learning but yeah, when you asked me, this was the kind of situation I would say where I really learned from a client. It was probably interesting for him. We spent hundreds of hours together and it was really, the guy was a heavy smoker, and in those days it was possible to smoke inside, so it was really kind of difficult experience, but a lot of learning.

Lindsay: Sometimes I find those challenging clients, they really do help you and teach you. You don’t understand it in the moment, but you do understand it looking back.

Vilius: Yes, yes, of course, of course. I mean, I know the difficult way because you think, okay, this guy doesn’t have legal education, so the questions are kind of basic, but at the same time you understand, okay, well if you can’t explain to a layperson, let’s not write this next time.

Lindsay: That’s right. That’s right. Okay. One final question to wrap up, and that is, it’s my favorite question to ask everybody. What is something outside of the law that you’re really enjoying right now?

Vilius: Mm. Yes, my kind of hobby is playing golf, but I don’t have time. Lawyers are notorious for that, so what I’m enjoying, I’m enjoying reading books about golf, at least that. Something I can do late at night or listening to an audio book. So, this might sound weird, but actually it a little bit compensates for my lack of time to go out and play a round.

Lindsay: If you can’t play golf, read about golf, that’s good.

Vilius: Yes, yes, yes.

Lindsay: That’s a…

Vilius: Yes. That’s my kind approach, yes.

Lindsay: That’s a good suggestion to all of our listeners. If you can’t do the thing you love to do, at least try to read about it.

Vilius: Yes. Yes, yes. And there’s lots of business lessons there actually. I was surprised.

Lindsay: Absolutely.

Vilius: I was surprised how many, yes, some really good books, which teach you much more than just about the game.

Lindsay: Of course. Yes. I mean, there is a reason business people play golf.

Vilius: Yes.

Lindsay: That’s because there are a lot of business lessons in the game of golf. That’s very true.

Vilius: Yes.

Lindsay: Thank you very much Vilius. I really appreciate your time today. This was a real pleasure. And for all of our listeners, thanks so much for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another guest. And in the meantime, please take a moment to rate, review and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks so much.

Vilius: Thank you very much, Lindsay.

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Photo of Lindsay Griffiths Lindsay Griffiths

Lindsay Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s Executive Director. She is a dynamic, influential international executive and marketing thought leader with a passion for relationship development and authoring impactful content. Griffiths is a driven, strategic leader who implements creative initiatives to achieve the…

Lindsay Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s Executive Director. She is a dynamic, influential international executive and marketing thought leader with a passion for relationship development and authoring impactful content. Griffiths is a driven, strategic leader who implements creative initiatives to achieve the goals of a global professional services network. She manages all major aspects of the Network, including recruitment, member retention, and providing exceptional client service to an international membership base.

In her role as Executive Director, Griffiths manages a mix of international programs, engages a diverse global community, and develops an international membership base. She leads the development and successful implementation of major organizational initiatives, manages interpersonal relationships, and possesses executive presence with audiences of internal and external stakeholders. Griffiths excels at project management, organization, and planning, writes and speaks with influence and authority, and works independently while demonstrating flexibility in thinking, especially in challenging situations. She also adapts to diverse and dynamic environments with constant assessment and recalibration.

JD Supra Readers Choice Top Author 2019

In 2021, the ILN was honored as Global Law Firm Network of the Year by The Lawyer European Awards, and in 2016, 2017, and 2022, they were shortlisted as Global Law Firm Network of the Year. Since 2011, the Network has been listed as a Chambers & Partners Leading Law Firm Network, recently increasing this ranking to be included in the top two percent of law firm networks globally, as well as adding two regional rankings. She was awarded “Thought Leader of the Year” by the Legal Marketing Association’s New York chapter in 2014 for her substantive contributions to the industry and was included in Clio’s list of “34 People in Legal You Should Follow on Twitter.” She was also chosen for the American Bar Association Journal’s inaugural Web 100‘s Best Law Blogs, where judge Ivy Grey said “This blog is outstanding, thoughtful, and useful.” Ms. Griffiths was chosen as a Top Author by JD Supra in their 2019 Readers’ Choice Awards, for the level of engagement and visibility she attained with readers on the topic of marketing & business development. She has been the author of Zen & the Art of Legal Networking since February 2009.