A Lawyer’s Tour of Poland

Conference at Hotel Polski in Old City Krakow

Conference at Hotel Polski in Old City Krakow

In October of 2010, a Polish company hired me for litigation arising from the erratic operation of a costly machine that it had purchased from a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer. I went to Poland the following summer, attending days of videotaped inspections in Czestochowa that showed the machine doing things that brought production to a halt, while defying the best efforts of company employees to find a solution.  Between morning meetings, unexpected issues and constant communication in English and broken German, I developed a good relationship with company management, and we stayed in touch after the case settled favorably in November 2011.  We had dinner in London while I visited with my family in July 2012, and exchanged occasional emails afterwards.  Early this year, I learned that the firm’s in-house counsel had started his own small firm, and by May 2013, Michal and I formed a plan to give two presentations on US litigation, in Katowice and Kraków, to illustrate that yes, a Polish company can successfully file suit in the United States.


My preparation had three main components.  First was to prepare a PowerPoint covering our main points in direct terms that could be readily understood by audience members who spoke English as a second language.  Second was to write a more detailed course outline for attendees who wanted to learn more about the details, such as federal diversity jurisdiction and emerging limitations on discovery.  Third was to gather examples from actual cases – of depositions, pleadings and motions –  to illustrate in concrete terms the concepts we would discuss.  When the first versions of materials were complete, Michal proposed new topics, and the reordering of others, to make the presentation more relevant for an audience of Polish lawyers.  It took about five weeks to prepare the course materials, and as my departure date came closer, I was glad to have started early.


I left Philadelphia after a Court case on June 24, taking AmTrak to Newark, where I caught a direct flight to Duesseldorf and an immediate connection to Kraków.  In transit, I was able to persuade the Lufthansa crew to allow my electric cello into the plane, and to have a good conversation with a representative of an HVAC company, each in passable German.  It was my plan, after the presentations were complete, to spend a few days practicing and then perform movements from several Bach suites in the Rynek, an expansive flagstone plaza in old city Kraków which is said to be the world’s largest.

Michael met me at Kraków airport and drove me to his home just outside of town, where after a traditional Polish breakfast, we continued to work on the presentation.  The apartment he shared with his fiancé was ultra modern, with stone surfaces everywhere and a green balcony garden.  Learning first-hand that jet lag is tougher in an easterly direction, I did not fall asleep until early the following morning, after staying awake for about 32 hours.  My room was in a beautifully restored building on ulica Biskupia (Bishop’s Street), and from the top floor window I could see an expanse of tile roofs, chimneys and steeple top crosses that looked unchanged from the 18th century.  The following morning, we had breakfast with a Polish lawyer who had taken the Widener University LLM course and passed the New York bar, and then hit the road for Katowice, to be preceded by a short visit to the city court of Bedzin.  The road was fast, with a new surface, no highway patrols and light traffic.  The contrast to covering the equivalent distance between Philadelphia and Reading on Route 422 was evident.


In a new country, everything can be a learning experience, and I probably tested Michal’s patience by asking about the pronunciation and meaning of many Polish words on passing trucks and highway signs as we drove northwest into Upper Silesia.  History is omnipresent in Poland, and I learned as we approached Bedzin that it was in the Russian-occupied portion of Poland during the 123 years (1795-1918) that the country vanished from the European map, while nearby Katowice was in the German part, and that Kraków was in the Austrian sector, its citizens largely content with that arrangement, and apparently devoted to the Austrian crown prince whose assassination sparked the First World War.  Most of Bedzin (like much of Poland) was under renovation, and the exterior of the courthouse had been recently restored.  Waiting for Michal to review a court file for clues to the ownership timeline of a nearby plot of land whose owners had long ago emigrated to Israel, I was struck by the basic similarities between this building and county courts throughout Pennsylvania: Court clerks emerged from offices with stacks of files on wheeled carts, schedules for the days’ proceedings in civil, criminal and family court cases were posted on each floor, parties to cases waited for their lawyers and asked for directions.  An appreciated difference was the lack of any metal detectors or noticeable security presence at the front entrance.

While waiting, I learned from Michal’s law partner that there is no public access to a Court file in Poland.  Instead, the client must provide counsel with a recent power of attorney each time the lawyer wants to review the file, and this PoA is closely reviewed by Court staff prior to releasing the file.  After obtaining the file and taking a few I-Phone photos of key documents, Michal concluded that the limitation period for ejectment had passed years ago, and that his client probably had no viable claim for return of the property from the present owner.  We walked back to Michal’s car (parked on the sidewalk, as usual in Poland) and pressed on to Katowice, center of the “conurbation” of Upper Silesia, a succession of industrial towns which over the years has blended together in a manner that reminded me of northern New Jersey.

A century ago, Katowice (then known in German as Kattowitz) was already a prosperous city, and clues to the source of that wealth can still be found on the city flag, which displays the profile of an industrial steam-powered hammer, of the sort used in a steel plant.  If Pittsburgh had adopted a trade-descriptive flag in the same era, it would have looked much the same.  That prosperity, combined with the scarcity of lawyers in Silesia, created circumstances that allowed the local Bar Association to purchase its own building, a spacious, five-story structure with an archway through the middle and a courtyard with parking in the back.  We were welcomed in, treated to coffee and cold drinks, and then visited by a succession of local lawyers, all of whom stayed for the presentation.  The letter of introduction provided by the Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association was much appreciated by Adwokat Roman Kusz, the Dean of the Katowice Bar Association.

Although the clear majority of the audience understood me in English, the Bar Association had arranged for simultaneous translation, a difficult task at which our translator excelled.  Our audience was particularly interested in the wide scope of discovery in the US (in Poland, discovery can only be obtained in Court, where the Judge often asks the questions), and they were evidently shocked by the news that Pennsylvania judges are elected officials, who are politicians before they become jurists.  The Bar Association provided cake and pastries during intermission (served on real China plates), and when it was over, I received a bouquet of roses, a framed panorama of the Katowice skyline done in pencil, and a set of cufflinks with centerpieces made of two Silesian coal chunks.  Michal pointed out that my cufflinks, of material at least 30 million years old, were destined to be collectables.  It was late in the evening when we returned to Krakow, where I did some online reading on the industrial revolution in Katowice before ending a long day.


Our presentation site in Kraków was a restored, historic hotel on the edge of the Old City.  The conference room we rented for the occasion was state of the art, with remote controlled shades over the skylights, a pair of high-resolution projectors, and two certified translators doing real-time translation (as done at the United Nations) from English into Polish.  As lawyers continued to arrive, we slightly delayed the start time, and ended up giving the presentation for nearly 100 attendees.  Earlier in the day, I had reworked the PowerPoint to emphasize topics that had gathered the most attention in Katowice, and these final adjustments helped keep the interest of our crowd.  We were grateful for the attendance of some of the leading lawyers in Kraków, including Wojciech Bergier, local counsel for Microsoft, and Ms. Kinga Konopka.

As in Katowice, the audience was interested in discovery, and closely followed our re-enactment of an American-style deposition.  We also took many questions on the respective roles of the judge and jury, the differences between the federal and state systems, and methods to execute on a final judgment.  On this last issue, the audience particularly enjoyed my explanation of the role of the Sheriff (the all-purpose law enforcement guy) in Pennsylvania judicial proceedings.  After the presentation ended, I was glad to spend another 45 minutes or so answering individual questions and getting contact information from many participants.  That evening, we had late dinner at a wine bar down the street from the Church where Pope John Paul II served as a parish priest early in his career.  Once again, history in Poland was waiting around every corner.


After a weekend roadtrip to Berlin, I spent my remaining four days in Poland attending a divorce proceeding, finding notable bargains on Polish-made gifts at the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) in the center of Old Town, jogging past historical landmarks, and also spending a few hours playing cello on the Rynek Square.  The divorce case (the short bit I was allowed to see) was fascinating.  The presiding judge wore a flowing black robe, together with a chain necklace from which hung a silver Polish eagle.  The overall impression was similar to the famous painting of Chancellor Thomas More from the mid-1500s.  On either side of the judge, in slightly lower chairs but wearing similar dark robes, sat a juror drawn from the community who intently listened to the testimony, but unlike the judge, did not ask any questions.  Michal explained afterwards that Polish jurors are free to dissent from the judge’s ruling, and that if one dissents, the judge must write a written explanation of his or her decision, and that if both jurors dissent, their decision overrules that of the judge.  This bit of direct democratic action was quite different from what I learned about civil law systems at Georgetown, but Michal further advised that activist jurors are not very common.

As for my classical busking in the Rynek, many stopped to listen, contributions were appreciated, and I was able to buy my colleagues several rounds of good Polish beer with the proceeds.  Driving back to the airport the following day was a time of mixed feelings.  It would be good to return to Philadelphia and my family, but the ten days in Poland had been a truly productive adventure.  We are already making plans for more presentations.