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‘The law will set you free’ – lawyer Zviad Kordzadze on the origins of the legal profession in Georgia

Kordzadze Law Office has been operating on the Georgian legal market for more than 25 years, during which time it has established itself as one of the country’s leading firms. Investor.ge talked to managing partner Zviad Kordzadze about the origins of the firm, the importance of the law in the development of a free country and what freedom really means.

Photo: Forbes Georgia / Khatuna Khutsishvili

War and instability ruled the first part of the 1990s in Georgia. Why open a legal firm at that time?

Graduating university in 1994, I went out into the world and saw there was nothing out there. Becoming a member of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association at that point was the only way to survive and find like-minded people. There was a real idea at the time in the association to establish several legal firms. We were idealists, not in it for the money. And so I started my own firm in 1996 with the belief that I could help turn the situation in the country around.

My dedication to the idea that Georgia needed change in the legal sector was solidified during a three-week trip to America in 1996 organized by the U.S. Embassy for local professionals.

Imagine what it was like. The war here had recently ended, but there was still no electricity, no hope for the future: even the airport from which we left was dark. And straight out of this situation I found myself in Washington, New York, Chicago. And I saw that life elsewhere was the same–the only difference being that those people worked, while we still didn’t. This gave me the confidence that things could turn out alright in Georgia as well.

What were some of the other cultural takeaways of that trip?

It made me reflect on what freedom actually means. In Georgia we often discuss freedom through the lense of independence, but that’s just one part of it. A country’s freedom isn’t enough if you’re not free inside. I mean personal liberation, the ability to speak, be heard and not face repercussions. In Georgia we still haven’t understood that freedom of speech means that when a person says something with which you disagree, you at the very least have to listen until the very end and let them speak. But I think the generations growing up in today’s Georgia should be able to achieve this freedom fully.

Another thing I took away from this trip to the U.S. concerned the speed of life in America, and the effect it has on the country’s welfare. Georgia—as does the rest of Europe—moves along at an entirely different pace. I realized that it’s important to keep up the momentum, because if you ever lose it, getting back in the saddle becomes very difficult.

In my opinion this dedication to work has contributed much to America’s success in the sense that it has turned into a lifestyle, and everyone knows that working hard is the rule of the game. I don’t think Georgia will be able to live at this speed, and I’m not saying it has to. But there are some takeaways from this: you must apply yourself. Without hard work, nothing will happen. You have to use your ideas, your energy for the cause; nobody will do it for you.

Another thing I found interesting about America is that it’s a union of separate states that are quite different from one another. And yet there is consensus about the importance of the stability of the law as a mechanism, as a condition that allows so many players to continue playing the same game. As it stands today in Georgia, there is too much legislative instability. This instability is bad not only for the local population, but for the prospect of attracting investors.

Did you have any sense of the likelihood of whether you would sink or float when you were just starting out?

Lawyers at that time were more like mediators who went between the prosecutor, the police and the court to move a case along to its end.

I knew I wasn’t going to follow this path. We knew what being a lawyer meant elsewhere, through films and other depictions. So that’s what we started doing. To tell you that back then we knew what the future held, that we’d be where we are now 25 years later, would be wrong. But there was enthusiasm. There were ideas. And there was believing in your ideas. And most importantly, I wasn’t alone.

You see, at that time it was very clear: we knew that whatever existed at that time [mid-1990s] was undesirable. If we didn’t try and do something new, then it wasn’t going to be a field to stick around in. And now we can see how much that worked. The legal profession is entirely different today to what it was in 1996. The lawyers of my generation have played a great role in this process.

The risks at the time never hindered me. When you defend someone, you become their hope. And then this role becomes a part of your character after some time.

Two and a half decades later, there are now multiple law firms in the field. How do you differentiate yourself from your competitors?

We have one advantage which sets us apart quite a bit. In the beginning, I decided we would offer a full array of legal services. There are firms that work with foreign investments, firms that specialize in criminal law, and so on. But we have all these services available. So when a client comes to us, they don’t need to then go elsewhere to receive another type of legal service. This sets us apart from most other firms, which have taken a narrower approach.

What about advertising?

Billboards and the like don’t help. Advertising is done more by word of mouth, and satisfied clients. Interviews, on the other hand, aren’t so much about advertising for me. It’s more about allowing people to see your firm’s philosophy, and to learn about the people with whom they’d be working. It’s one thing to be a professional in your field, and another thing to gain the trust of clients. You must have some values in common.

You’ve now been around for more than 25 years. What have been the main benchmarks of your firm’s development?

Most of the benchmarks coincide with the crucial points of the country’s history. The first one was, as I mentioned, our starting moment and then self-assertion. It took us about three years to gain some recognition. Then there was the first wave of judicial reform at the end of the 90s, when we enjoyed a brief period of functional courts and judges.

The next stage came after the Rose Revolution, when the entire system was changed on a legislative level, and corruption in the courts was addressed.

Following that there was a breakdown in the court system, and things took a bad turn. This was a very bad period for lawyers, as they lost their role. What saved me was the fact that I worked both in the criminal and civil sectors. I wouldn’t take up criminal cases, as there was no point. From 2006 to 2013, I didn’t have any criminal cases.

The change of government once again altered the situation. These political processes automatically influence the profession.

At the same time, I have to add, your own aging is an important aspect of all of this. It’s one thing when you’re a 23-year-old boy. You’re full of enthusiasm and ideas. Now at this stage, it’s more about responsibility. If you lose when you’re young, it’s not much of a problem—nobody really notices. Now we don’t have that luxury. When you are on a certain level, you must maintain that level. That’s how I’d divide our development into stages, both based on the country’s development and my own aging.

In the past eight years I’ve been giving lectures, and I’m not seeing the generation I brought up is already opening legal firms. We keep in touch, they call and ask for advice. I’m on a different level now. When you are an authority for somebody, making a mistake is not only about you. You are responsible for the generation that you taught.

Last but not least, what future plans do you have?

By the end of June we’ll probably have moved into our new office on Gorgasali Street in Ortachala, Tbilisi. In addition to being a lawyer, I’m a winemaker. We’ve been on the market for two years now. We found a 20th century cellar in Gorgasali, which I bought and renovated for the business, Barbale’s Marani. Then I discovered that having two different businesses in different locations was tough, so I took up the first and the second floors. The legal firm will be on the first and second floors, and the wine cellar will be below. Conceptually, it will be interesting. Also, we’re not a large legal firm and such a location suits us better.

As for business-related plans, we’ll have several new offerings in the coming months. I don’t want to talk specifics yet as we’re still in the finalizing process. But the changes will regard service affordability, some new concepts which will be new for the local market. If these endeavours work well here, we may introduce them in neighboring countries as well.