Panattoni Legal Director Kamila Dutkowska-Wawrzak talks about her background and in-house transition, building up the in-house legal team, and their current workload.
CEELM: Tell us a bit about yourself and your career path leading up to your current role.
Dutkowska-Wawrzak: I knew I wanted to be a lawyer around the age of 10, inspired by Ally McBeal and my passion for connecting with people. After studying law at Warsaw University, I briefly explored a career in diplomacy through around five months spent at the Polish embassy in the US and one month in Dublin. Following my return to Poland, an encounter with my future boss at Deloitte changed my career trajectory – I was offered an internship in their real estate department. I was in my final year of study, and the hands-on experience convinced me to continue with real estate law after graduation.
I transitioned through law firms like Hogan Lovells and worked for Blackstone. The in-house work appealed to me more as it offered a closer link to business operations, allowing me to engage across various legal domains and collaborate with non-lawyers. This holistic approach to law fascinated me and I was drawn toward it in my career path. I finally joined the Panattoni team five years ago.
CEELM: What was the biggest shock when transitioning to the in-house world?
Dutkowska-Wawrzak: What I found the most shocking was that when someone asked a question, I had to provide answers within a minute, as multiple departments were waiting for a response. In a law firm, you either have the time or you at least have other sets of eyes to look over your question and even your answer. In business, things move much faster and there is an urgency to the answer which does not allow you to become a bottleneck. As the first lawyer in Panattoni, I received 200-300 emails daily, all seeking guidance.
CEELM: On the flip side, what was the most pleasant surprise?
Dutkowska-Wawrzak: As for the most pleasant surprise – despite the fast-paced business environment, cooperation among departments was seamless and amicable. Working with great people was definitely the most enjoyable part from the start.
CEELM: You mentioned you were the first lawyer in the Panattoni in-house team. How large is your in-house team currently and how is it structured?
Dutkowska-Wawrzak: Initially, I focused solely on assisting the project management team – that was the case for approximately two years. We later added another lawyer, and another after, bringing our team to three experienced professionals. While still dedicated to project management, we now also collaborate with other company departments. Our primary focus within project management involves addressing various legal issues, particularly in administrative law. We aid in decision-making, securing permits, handling environmental concerns, and managing administrative processes. I specialize in negotiating with general contractors due to our extensive construction contracts.
CEELM: How do you decide if you are outsourcing a project or using internal resources?
Dutkowska-Wawrzak: We have expertise in various areas of law. As I mentioned, my specialization lies in negotiations, particularly in handling significant contracts with general contractors. Our team members concentrate on other areas such as corporate affairs and lease agreements. Identifying team members equipped with the relevant expertise in the specific field of law is crucial. For matters beyond our scope, we engage external legal experts, especially for complex M&A transactions.
CEELM: And what criteria do you use when picking which external counsel you’ll be using in a specific matter?
Dutkowska-Wawrzak: Being able to feel our company is the most important. We know many law firms but not so many feel the dynamic of our work. Our process is very fast and we need lawyers who know that. Honestly, it simply boils down to good communication. We go for firms that can keep up the pace and are quick to respond, plus genuinely understand our business’ vibe. It’s a gut feeling in a way. When I talk to someone, I just get a sense of things. When I sense that we’re on the same wavelength, I’m confident our teamwork will rock. That’s why I guess I’m drawn to diplomacy too – it’s all about staying connected to people and diving into projects with real passion. If I have a short chat with an external lawyer for 15 minutes, I can usually tell if we share the same passion and rhythm.
CEELM: What has been keeping you and your in-house team busy over the last 12 months?
Dutkowska-Wawrzak: It’s been really tough in Poland due to the economic and political situation. After a challenging pandemic, we’re now struggling with the impact of the war in Ukraine. The past year taught us a lot about managing political challenges that affect the economy. Now, we’re feeling more stable and hopeful, despite the ongoing slowdown. The hardest time was the pandemic, and just as things calmed, the Ukrainian crisis hit.
I hope that, in the next 12 months, we’ll continue to grow as we did during the pandemic, that our political position will stabilize, and that we will build as much as we did in 2021. I think everybody is waiting for better times and for the economy to get past the current slowdown. Investors remain cautious but they are asking us about construction projects and the timings of new projects, which is a good sign for us and I hope we’ll be able to kick off a few new projects.
CEELM: What do you foresee to be the main challenges for GCs in Poland in the near/mid future?
Dutkowska-Wawrzak: Regarding Poland’s in-house lawyers in general, there’s an anticipation for the war to end, which holds significant implications for both our political landscape and economy. Skyrocketing inflation is the biggest challenge not only in Europe but also globally. The aspiration is for this inflation rate, currently at around 20%, to regress to around 7%. The current setting is challenging for all lawyers, as both the business sector and individuals without legal backgrounds ask for many solutions.
Zooming into real estate, my hope is that no new legislation is on the horizon, although you may never know. We hope that the status quo remains in place as we feel our current processes function well.