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From Estonia with Love

More than ten years ago, BPE developed a relationship with LEXTAL, a leading Baltic law firm, based in Tallinn, Estonia and an exchange program developed with young lawyers being granted the opportunity to spend a month’s secondment at each firm. Having assisted with the hosting of LEXTAL staff at BPE, I jumped at the chance to spend a month in Tallinn.

“It was clear that I was going to experience the practice of law in a very different way…”

It was clear from the start that I was going to experience the practice of law in a different way. Lawyers in Estonia are all general practitioners, with particular areas of specialism rather than qualifying into one specific area of law. When I was asked to assist with a family law case involving jurisdiction issues with proceedings in both the UK and Estonia on the first day, I knew I was going to have my work cut out for me!

The work was different from my usual litigation caseload. I was given the opportunity to research into insurance and competition matters in respect of mergers and acquisitions as well as attending events such as the American Chamber of Commerce (I got to have breakfast with the American Ambassador at his residence) and the British Chamber of Commerce (Thatcher’s cider tasting).

My most challenging project concerned English employment law.  The British Embassy had requested a comparison of Estonian and English employment rights as well as an overview of the judicial system in the UK. I was massively grateful to colleagues at home for checking and amending my notes (it has been 8 years since I last looked at employment law). It was an extremely valuable exercise. In many ways Estonia gives greater rights to employees, for example their maternity provisions far outweigh England’s, but in England we have more holiday entitlement and more varied options for work such as zero hours contracts which do not exist in Estonia.

Estonia’s legal structure is also very different to ours.  There is no distinction between solicitors and barristers, just attorneys who are authorised to conduct the day-to-day aspects of a matter as well as representing clients in all the courts. The country operates a civil law system where legislation is codified. The judge therefore applies the law to the case, rather than at home where our common law system applies past judgements to new cases to enforce legislation.

LEXTAL was a lot less hectic than BPE and certainly quieter. Estonia is hugely IT savvy (being the developers of Skype and Transferwise) and most business is done online, so it’s unusual to discuss business on the telephone. This made for a very peaceful working environment.

The use of IT has not only impacted on business, but nationally. Estonia has ‘gone online’ with a program dubbed e-Estonia (https://e-estonia.com/).  Legislation only exists on the Government pages, ID cards allow for documents to be electronically signed and then submitted, and speeding fines are emailed to an individual’s government email address.

Digital technology has gone further with the creation of an e-Residency. Here, an individual from anywhere in the world can register for an ID-card that allows businesses to be run from Estonia without the need for Company Directors to have a physical presence in the territory.

Estonia is in talks with Microsoft about securing these systems on a cloud platform so an ‘online Embassy’ can be established in friendly foreign territories, preserving the country even if the physical territory is occupied. Whilst there are still legal and technological arguments to be considered and developed, it is clear that Estonia is at the forefront of digital advancement in Europe.

“During my second week in Tallinn, the second annual Bar Association meeting was held and LEXTAL invited me to join them…”

During my second week the annual Bar Association meeting was held in Parnu and LEXTAL invited me to attend the conference. We drove through some beautiful countryside to the summer capital. I was amazed to see so many storks having never seen them in the wild before.

The conference itself was fascinating –lawyers were voting on the finances, direction and promotion of law in Estonia. For me, the best part was seeing lawyers being awarded with badges recognising their milestone years of admittance to the Bar – it was a lovely way to award dedication to the profession.

“LEXTAL not only kept me busy with work…”

LEXTAL not only kept me busy with work, but with social activities as well.  I was taken to play Disc Golf twice, where you play with a Frisbee and aim for a basket at the end of a fairway.

I also tried exercise classes, although this was a little more challenging than disc golf for me – much to the amusement of the LEXTAL colleagues. I knew I would struggle to understand certain things, but the patience and perseverance of the class instructor lead me to a better understanding of some Estonian words - as simple as üks, kaks, kolm!

Tallinn is not far (80kms) from Helsinki, and on my last weekend a group of us took the ferry to Helsinki’s Linnanmäki Amusement Park, home to many rides and games including a 50 year old wooden rollercoaster! Before returning to the ferry we took the opportunity to visit some of the incredible churches and took a ride on the Skywheel which gave us great views over the City.

“…I would definitely encourage our staff to take the opportunity to come on secondment…”

I loved my time in Tallinn and with LEXTAL and I would definitely encourage our staff to take the opportunity to take a secondment here as it is a fantastic opportunity to compare legal systems and to see law practiced in a different context. To clients and other readers of this blog, I cannot recommend highly enough a trip to Tallinn to explore the history and culture of this beautiful country.

These notes have been prepared for the purpose of articles only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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