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Raising the Bar: The Budapest Bar Association’s In-House Arm

CEEIHM Issue 1.1.
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In 2019, the In-house Counsel’s Section of the Budapest Bar Association was established to create a knowledge exchange platform for in-house lawyers. Tunde Hegyi, Corporate Senior Counsel at the MOL Group, who is also President of the In-house Counsel’s Section of the Budapest Bar Association, describes the initiative. 

CEEIHM: To start, tell us a little bit about the In-house Counsel’s Section of the Budapest Bar Association initiative.

Tunde: The initiative started much before the actual setting up of the Section of the Bar Association. Let me mention that the Bar in Hungary has around 145 years of a tradition – it was not started just yesterday. However, until 2019 only attorneys-at-law could be members of the local Bar Associations. Well before in-house counsel joined the local Bar Associations, a strong need emerged within the ranks of in-house counsel to work closer to each other, to share knowledge and information, to set up and maintain a network, to learn better practices, and, last but not least, to have fun together.

I would call this the “inside” need. At the same time, we noticed that there was also an “outside” need created by the judiciary, the regulatory agencies, the legal society, and our clients – our employers – to somehow standardize in-house counsels’ knowledge, practice, manner of handling matters, and appearances before the judiciary and governmental offices. Accordingly, based on Act LXXVIII of 2017 on Advocate Activity, in-house counsel may, and in certain cases must, become the members of the local Bars.

The road to where we are today within the Budapest Bar Association was long and sometimes bumpy. We had to face lots of concerns from our own community, the Bar leadership, and the attorneys-at-law members as well. The actual work for integration started back in 2017 when a group of in-house counsels, mostly GCs, started discussions in order to identify the main topics and review the draft Act. Finally, at the end of 2018, when the general officer election of the Hungarian Bar Association and the local Bar Associations took place, the election of the leadership of the Budapest Bar Association’s In-House Counsel’s Section also took place, with the election of a 9-member Board. Not much later the leading officers of the Section had been elected: me as President, plus two Deputy Presidents and one Secretary. Further members of the Sections’ Board are coming from prestigious private business organizations and the public sphere. It is important to mention that the In-House Counsel’s Section consists of members from both spheres: private and public. The President of the In-House Counsel’s Section is the Vice President of the Bar Association ex officio as well.

CEEIHM: What’s the mission statement of the Section?

Tunde: Let me start what the mission of the Bar Association is in general, to put this question in context. Probably the most outstanding role of the Bar is – at least in my view – to organize, permit, and control the training of the trainees and legal clerks working within an employment relationship. The Bar Association is a public organization – a self-governing association. It fulfills the tasks assigned to it by law and its bylaws, it represents the interests of its members, and it manages the budget of the organization. And if I first emphasized the education mission of the Bar, I would say that in the mid-term our main mission is probably to organize and carry out the education of in-house counsel. According to the Advocacy Activity Act, each member of the Bar shall acquire a certain number of credit points via education organized by, or under the umbrella of, the local Bar, in order to maintain his or her license to practice. So, the law changed, and not only trainees and clerks need to pass exams, but now licensed members of the Bar Association must also pass exams periodically in order to keep their knowledge up-to-date for their license.

My personal view is that the education provided by the Bar Association is the differentiation between a Bar member and a non-Bar member in-house counsel.

In summary, I would say that the education carried out by the Bar Association is some type of quality assurance towards the employer, the judiciary, and public organizations performing permit and control functions, as well as towards the legal community as a whole. In the long run, I firmly believe that the members of the Bar Association stand to gain an advantage in the labor market, because they will represent higher professional quality – both their hard and soft skills will be more developed and more efficient. Second, our short-term mission is to integrate the in-house counsel community into the Budapest Bar Association. This means maintain information flow, participate in the leadership of the Bar, represent the interest of on-house counsels internally and outside, organize and carry out educational programs, and provide opportunities for networking.

I think that we are doing fine on this front. A lot happened in 2019, and the integration is almost over. And all parties involved – from the President of the Budapest Bar Association to the Board, to my peer leaders – think that we have made very good progress, if not surpassed expectations.

CEEIHM: What, specifically, is that progress in terms of integration, and what’s the next/subsequent objective?

Tunde: I think progress can best be described in contrast to initial expectations. Again, going back a bit to the initial stages of this initiative, we are talking about an organization that has over 8,000 attorneys. Many were afraid of the new initiative because we were talking about incorporating new members into the Bar that came from a completely different context – organizational culture-wise. We were talking about incorporating a lot of new members coming in, including from public bodies (military, police, etc), into an environment that nurtured a very open conversation platform. Indeed, members of the Bar tend to be quite open, adamantly outspoken even at times, and there was a concern that the whole tone of conversations going on within the forum would have to adapt to the new arrivals.

When I talk about the integration going well, my main point is that we managed to build that joint platform for a healthy collaboration between these two types of lawyers – and, maybe most important, nurture mutual respect between the two and their set of values.

CEEIHM: That sounds like a very “soft” area to attempt to tackle. What do you think the key to success was?

Tunde: Proximity really. Putting people in the same room and gearing them towards a common goal will usually bring people together – it fixes the “narrative of the other” issue. We did proactively try to go beyond that by trying to engage both types of lawyers in projects like the Arsboni Day, where we spoke about both legal professions with those young individuals who could be interested in becoming internal or external counsel, but I think proximity and exposure to each other is the critical first step.

CEEIHM: Why did you decide to get involved?

Tunde: I have been a lawyer for a couple of decades. I started as a trainee of a President of a local Bar Association, who occasionally involved me in administrative tasks. I saw closely how much he worked pro bono, and how important what he did for the legal community was, as a whole, and I noticed the respect he earned wherever he got involved. It brought invaluable opportunities to meet legislators, leaders from peers across the legal professions, and similar organizations. I decided then that when I grew up I would do something similar. Additionally, I am driven by the simple rationale of giving back to the community and being a positive figure representing the profession.

In the past, I was a private attorney for 15+ years, and during those years I was the main contact of a prestigious international law firm for the Budapest Bar Association. I was always close to the Bar as a result. Although I changed my career path in 2009 and became a Senior In-house Counsel of a giant American conglomerate, my work included managing the external lawyers working for my legal department, so I remained invested in the private practice world. Similarly, I took an active role in setting up the MOL Group’s panel of external advisors. As such, even after moving in-house, I stayed close to the sector.

At the same time, I am a true believer in life-long learning and engaging in pro bono activity.

Between all of the above, I feel it was somehow coded in my CV to end up running for a position where I would manage the integration of these two worlds.

CEEIHM: How many members do you have at this point? How does one join the organization?

Tunde: Right now, the Budapest Bar Association has approximately 2,000 in-house counsel members, with two thirds coming from the private sphere and one third from the public sphere. The application for membership and communication happens through an electronic surface and within the public process. After the submission of the necessary paperwork, employment certificate, diploma, and paying the registry and membership fee, the membership is live. Most of our members join because membership is mandatory in their legal activity, but some come just purely out of interest and for the feeling of belonging.

CEEIHM: You mentioned the new credit requirements for lawyers in terms of lifelong learning. When did those come about and how do they affect in-house counsel?

Tunde: The credit requirement was introduced in 2020 and each member must run a five-year cycle, within which a minimum of 80 credit points must be collected. The accredited courses may be taken online or in the classroom – it depends on the choice of the member. Preselected videos are available on the portal of the Budapest Bar Association addressed to the in-house legal community. The topics are selected by the leadership of the In-House Counsel’s Section of both the Budapest and the Hungarian Bar Associations. Most of the Bar leaders run trainings, and I myself have been the main editor of training materials and films and wrote a presentation related to Anti-Money Laundering tasks of the in-house counsel. To prepare the training material and videos was a huge effort, which took place towards the end of last year. In addition to the Board members, many senior lawyers cooperated in great spirit. Leading lawyers of big organizations who had never met before cooperated, devoting their free time to this effort. They have been willing to share their knowledge and best practices – from companies like OTP, MOL, Telekom, EON, and the City of Budapest, to mention just a few.

CEEIHM: What specific projects has the organization engaged in already and what’s in the works?

Tunde: Last year was very busy. On top of organizing the mandatory trainings, we created certain control processes of the Bar Association, such as the disciplinary procedures and the reports related to anti-money laundering activities. In the fall we had a very well-received conference, in about 200 in-house counsel participated. We created our own procedural rules, cooperated via membership in the Bar Board in the renewal of the By-laws of the Budapest Bar Association, and established a prize for outstanding in-house counsel work, which will be given for the first time in the General Assembly of the Budapest Bar Association in August, based on our suggestion. We also started an In-House Counsel Workshop series, where information and knowledge can be shared in a smaller, more focused practice group. We had the first practice group meeting this spring related to Corporate Law, focusing on the new Shareholders’ Directive. I am very proud of this workshop, where internal and external lawyers could work together and openly speak about their practices, ideas, and concerns. What could be a better example of good networking than this? And finally, we have lots of fun together. After the nine-member leadership board got to know each other, we became a well-balanced body, and have monthly meetings in a good mood.

CEEIHM: Are you aware of other, similar organizations organized in other CEE jurisdictions? Do you try to cooperate in any way?

Tunde: We ran some research on this last year and realized that there are 14 similar organizations in Europe. At this initial phase, we focused on engaging with the big organizations such as the International Bar Association and the Union Internationale des Avocats. With the latter, we have been working to organize a conference in Hungary addressing interesting issues for in-house counsel with speakers from industry-leading business firms’ from both European counties as well as Hungary. Although it was originally scheduled for this fall, due to the COVID-19 we had to postpone it to next spring. It is still a question of how we will continue the workshop series and whether we will be able to organize an annual face-to-face conference.

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