In 2009, deep in the throes of the global financial crisis, Mykola Stetsenko, a partner at Baker & McKenzie in Kyiv, stepped away from that secure position to start his own law firm. His ambitious move paid off, and now, eleven years later, the firm he launched – Avellum – is among the most successful and highly regarded in Ukraine.
“I always wanted to have a career that had an international touch to it,” Stetsenko recalls from his office in Kyiv. “I remember coming back to Ukraine in 1994 after a year in a high school exchange program in the United States and wanting to pursue a professional path that would allow me to experience worldly things with an international angle.” He remembers contemplating becoming a translator, and laughs at the memory of considering becoming “a secret agent – they travel a lot!”
“My father had a legal background – not a huge one, but he did have a legal education,” Stetsenko says. Indeed, Volodymyr Stetsenko started his career as a lawyer, but later developed a career working for the municipal government as a manager in the department of utility services. It was Volodymyr, his son recalls, who told the would-be secret agent that, “if you want to do something interesting and make an impact at the same time – with a strong possibility of having an international career – try and apply to law school.” Stetsenko, who was at the top of his class in high school, remembers thinking to himself, “why not!?”
As a result, in 1995 Stetsenko enrolled in the Institute of International Relations of the Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University. “I managed to get in on a free stipend from the government, otherwise my family wouldn’t have been able to afford it,” he recalls. In the course of his studies, his focus changed from international public law to international private law, before he ultimately settled on business law. In 2000 he got his Master’s degree with honors, and in 2004 he followed that up with an LL.M. with honors from Georgetown University in the United States.
From Baker to Avellum
After graduating, Stetsenko joined Baker & McKenzie in Kyiv, eventually spending nine years there, and he made partner in July 2008. He appreciated the education he got from the global firm, but reports not being completely satisfied. “Baker is a great firm and I got some amazing experience working there – I think it gave me a great skillset,” he says. “But to be honest, I always felt that the size and type of deals it mostly worked on was not always what I wanted.”
Stetsenko dreamed of being independent and “working with the best, like Magic Circle firms,” and in 2009 he left Baker & McKenzie and set up Avellum Partners with friend Kostiantyn Likarchuk. (The name of the firm, Stetsenko explains, “is formed of A and Vellum (parchment on which laws were written in Great Britain), where the A stands for A-class service and top quality”).
“To be honest, at the time the firm was founded, the decision seemed a bit irrational,” laughs Avellum Senior Partner Glib Bondar, who worked with Stetsenko at Baker & McKenzie and joined his friend at Avellum Partners in 2010. “It was in the middle of the financial crisis and nobody knew what the markets would look like in the future … but it turned out to be an amazing choice on Mykola’s part.”
“Looking back, I’d probably use the word crazy,” Stetsenko smiles, “but also, maybe, courageous.” In any event, he says, the time was right. He recalls that, as a result of the financial crisis, Baker & McKenzie was “slashing people left and right. A lot of good people were fired, which looking back seems pragmatic and logical, but was not very well-communicated at the time.” As a result, he says, the opportunity to pursue his dream of opening his own law firm was compelling. “I had been a partner for a year already at the time I decided to leave – so I had a well-formed client base of my own. This made the transition a bit more natural and easier.”
Coming Up to Speed
Avellum Partners hit the ground running on July 9, 2009. And Stetsenko and Likarchuk did not start alone. “I tried to save as many quality people as I could, leaving Baker,” Stetsenko recalls, pointing in particular to Yuriy Nechayev, who was a junior associate when he left Baker in 2009. Bondar describes Nechayev’s decision to follow Stetsenko to Avellum Partners as a significant sign that the new firm would succeed. “I mean, to leave an established firm for what was, essentially, a start-up,” Bondar says, “it had to be looking great from the get-go!”
Still, it was a small team at first, consisting only of four associates, Stetsenko, and Likarchuk. Then, in early 2010, Bondar joined to lead the Finance and Capital Markets practice, and the firm quickly hired quickly hired another three associates and three more support staff members.
The firm was able to build on Stetsenko’s reputation and existing client base and soon found itself working with international firms looking for Ukrainian assistance. “We persuaded some firms in London that we could be an asset,” Stetsenko says. “In the first few months, we did some work with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters, and in less than a year with Latham & Watkins as well.” Eventually, he says, Avellum Partners was working with “major firms on huge global transactions – something we wouldn’t have had nearly as much access to when we were at Baker.”
Before long, Avellum Partners – the “Partners” was dropped from its name in 2015 – had become a successful full-service firm. In 2012 the firm added a formal Dispute Resolution practice, then Antitrust and Real Estate practices, and most recently, with the February 2019 addition of Counsel Anton Polikarpov, an IP practice.
The firm’s partnership grew over time as well (although in 2015 Likarchuk left the firm to become Deputy Chairman of the State Fiscal Service of Ukraine (and then, eventually, a Partner at Kinstellar)). In 2018, Nechayev, who had joined at the beginning, was made partner, as did tax lawyer Vadim Medvedev a year later. Bondar points to Medvedev’s progress to partnership as a demonstration of the firm’s flexibility and meritocratic sensibility. “He grew quite fast and expressed, from the get-go, a desire to develop the firm’s Tax practice, seeing as how we didn’t have one back then,” he recalls. “Mykola and I, once we saw that he meant business, put our faith in him and now he is our Tax Partner.”
The firm, which started a decade ago with two partners and four associates, now has four partners, 35 non-partner fee-earners, and a 22-person administrative team. It has also, for the 11 years of its existence, worked on many of the largest deals in Ukraine. (See Box)
Bon Mots from the Market
Avellum Client Yuriy Kovalchuk remembers meeting Stetsenko, “long before Avellum, back when he was at Baker & McKenzie. We worked together on several IPOs for major Ukrainian clients while I was still with the ING investment banking team.” In fact, he says, he encouraged Stetsenko to move on from the global firm way back then. “When Mykola was contemplating leaving Baker and setting up Avellum I remember us going for lunch and discussing the idea,” Kovalchuk says. “I was all for it and told him that he should definitely do it or he’d regret it for the rest of his life.”
Kovalchuk speaks glowingly of the service his friend’s firm provides, noting that he enjoys “working with the Avellum guys because of their responsiveness, proactiveness, and creative approach.” He says that he uses every chance he gets to “speak good of them and I plan to keep on working with them whenever I get the chance!”
Clients aren’t the only ones offering up testimonials. Anna Babych, Partner at Ukraine’s Aequo law firm, says “I respect the way Mykola succeeded in establishing the practice and the firm in general.” Babych claims that her opinion is common among legal professionals in Ukraine, and that “M&A practitioners regard Mykola well, for his professional approach and friendly style.” According to Babych, “not only is he an excellent example of a transactional lawyer, but he also contributes greatly to Ukraine’s success by actively involving himself in law-making initiatives.”
“When we started working together at Avellum, Mykola and I didn’t really have much experience in running our own business,” Bondar laughs. “We had no bureaucratic policies devised, we thought we could avoid tracking time … we just went at it!”
Times have changed, but Bondar and Stetsenko still run their own practices – with Bondar on Finance, Capital Markets, Restructurings, and Energy, and Stetsenko on Corporate/M&A, Real Estate, Antitrust, and IP – while also working to grow the business. That’s not always easy, in an ever-more-competitive market. “Since 2009, the legal market in Ukraine has changed significantly, with many new firms appearing, spinning off, and merging,” Bondar says, “so we have to focus and think more about doing business development and marketing, not just core legal work, in order to remain competitive.”
But Stetsenko insists that he gets more satisfaction from doing good work than from playing King of the Hill. “Some firms like to boast that they’re the biggest, some that they’re the most innovative, or that they provide new types of services,” he says. “We like to think of ourselves as being the most prepared to tackle intellectually challenging work.” As part of this, he says, Avellum seizes every opportunity to “engage in complex and complicated transactions, Eurobond issuances, huge restructurings – difficult projects overall.” He smiles, reciting his elevator pitch. “We have a strong intellectual base in Finance, Corporate, Tax, and Real Estate – and we offer outside-of-the-box thinking to solve every problem.”
“Mykola, Yuriy, Vadim, and I – we’re a true team,” Bondar reflects. “Mykola and I have known each other for almost twenty years now and we spend a lot of time outside of the firm too. Of course, you can’t escape talking shop even then,” he laughs.
At the end of the day, Avellum is getting closer to the London Magic Circle firms it models itself after. “In terms of legal work in Capital Markets,” Stetsenko says, “I think around 70% of the Ukrainian legal market is us.” Bondar agrees, and adds that the firm’s spirit matches its success. “Our team is great, our culture is most enjoyable, and we’ll keep on doing what we’re doing!”