The many crises that have arisen during the more than twenty years of my legal practice show that, if you remain professional, you will be in demand regardless of the market or jurisdiction in which you practice.
1998-2004: In 1998, as a 3rd year law student at the Kyiv Taras Shevchenko University, I started as a paralegal with the Kyiv office of Altheimer & Gray. In 2000, I was lucky to pursue LL.M. studies at the Columbia Law School. Upon graduating, in 2001, I joined the Kyiv office of Baker & McKenzie as an associate in the banking & finance group. My new mentors David Scott and Serhiy Chorny left me no time to get bored. Soon the amount of interesting finance work overwhelmed me, including what ultimately seemed to be my career anchor, Kyivstar’s Eurobond issue – the first Eurobond issue ever out of Ukraine (although I eventually worked on dozens of other Ukrainian Eurobond deals).
At that time, all premium cross-border work primarily flowed to the local offices of a handful of foreign law firms that had moved to Ukraine in the early nineties expecting a “gold rush” similar to that they had found in other CEE jurisdictions. Foreign clients paid hourly rates by default. There was a joke that clients were ready to pay an hourly rate just to hear that Ukraine had a civil code. Local firms were unable to compete decently with ILFs for such work and the best talent.
While Ukraine was close to overcoming the economic crisis of the 1990s, the growing interest of foreign investors cooled down in the aftermath of the Kuchmagate and Kolchuga scandals. The ILFs already in Ukraine, which dominated the premium market segment, grabbed most of few big-ticket deals, but deal flow was insufficient to seduce any other US or UK heavyweights to follow them into the country. As a result, Baker got the crém de la crém work, providing me with the best training I could get as a junior associate.
2004-2008: Economic growth from 2004-2008 due to positive legal and political factors (e.g., the adoption of new important legislation and the Orange Revolution) streamlined the legal industry. The flow of diverse legal matters tested the ability of Ukrainian legislation to accommodate the requirements of innovative and complex deals. Demand for legal work was rapidly increasing. I had no “work-life balance” words in my vocabulary as I was too hungry for the growing number of exciting lending, Eurobond, and even securitization financings.
Local law firms learned by, often, acting as local counsel to leading foreign law firms, and “old” ILFs gradually lost their dominant positions, as newcomers like Beiten Burkhardt and Gide Loyrette Nouel, then CMS Cameron McKenna and Clifford Chance landed in Ukraine. As 90% of deals were executed under English law, top UK and US law firms started wining more good mandates, handling them from bases in London or elsewhere around the world. The war for talent sent salaries skyrocketing and ensured long-awaited promotions. I rode the wave and made partner at Baker & McKenzie in 2007.
2008 – 2020: Several crises (including the 2008 financial crisis, the economic crisis after the Revolution of Dignity, and the political and social upheaval that followed the 2014 annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and military conflict in Eastern Ukraine) reshaped the Ukrainian legal market. Many ILFs – including Beiten Burkhardt, Gide, Chadbourne, Noerr, and Clifford Chance – pulled out of Ukraine. In addition, the rules of the game changed within partnerships, which prompted a number of spin-offs and the birth of new local players, some of which were founded by lawyers with ILF backgrounds. To survive in the premium segment and to develop referral relationships with top international law firms, local firms began to excel, meeting the high bar for quality and efficiency and actually breaking ahead of the ILFs in competition for clients. The change in the legal rankings speaks for itself.
In the middle of this, in 2010, I decided to develop a finance practice from scratch at a new firm recently co-founded by my former Baker & McKenzie colleague Mykola Stetsenko. My reputation and credentials made me busy fast. Since then, there has been little time to relax as post-crisis debt restructurings were followed by waves of different new money financings and regulatory work.
For the last 20 years, the Ukrainian legal market has seen 4-5-year cycles of crisis and recovery. Many things, like politicians, legislation, technologies, generations, and court practice have changed. The need for professionals, however, remains intact.
I believe the COVID-19 crisis will prove that again…
By Glib Bondar, Partner, Avellum