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Inside Insight: Interview with Sergei Stefanishin, Head of Legal CIS and South East Europe at DHL

Inside Insight
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Sergei Stefanishin became the Head of Legal CIS & SEE at DHL in Moscow in November 2015. His previous experience includes working for EY, first as a Director and later as a Partner and CIS Transactions Law Leader. Prior to EY he was the Head of the Moscow Representative Office of Bech-Bruun International, which he joined as a Senior Lawyer in 2001. Earlier still, he was a Senior Lawyer with InSpace Consulting and a Junior Lawyer with Baker & McKenzie.


What prompted the move to DHL from EY? 

S.S.: All in all, I’ve spent 19 years in legal consulting. I started working with Baker & McKenzie back when I was a law student. I found it a great learning opportunity as I was combining work with my studies. I first worked there as a paralegal and, after graduation, I became a Junior Lawyer. Then I moved to a Russian law firm specializing in space and telecoms. In particular, I represented the Russian Space Agency on the first two space tourism flights, which to date I still consider to be the greatest legal project of my life. It was the first time a civilian went to space as a tourist – a very interesting project since there was no precedent for it. 

Then I moved to a Danish law firm – a team that I joined as a Senior Lawyer and later became Head of its Russian practice. Next I moved to EY as a Senior Lawyer and then, soon after joining them, I became a Partner in the legal services group. As a Partner I spent 5.5 years with EY working as the CIS Transaction Law leader. During my time there, I also established and headed a dedicated group of lawyers providing legal services for life science clients.


Why did you decide to move in-house?

S.S.: It was a bit difficult but well-thought-through decision. I had a feeling that I had already spent too much time in consulting, which was great because it allowed me to work on different projects, with different clients – today life sciences, tomorrow TMT, next week corporate – but did not allow me to see the actual results of my work. Yes, arguably a contract, or a concluded deal, are the results of your work but I felt it should be something more tangible, so I thought I should try myself in a completely new world. And for me, that meant moving to an in-house role. 

So a while ago I thought that I’d like to both upgrade my legal skills and knowledge but also get some insight into the business side – which is part of the reason I enrolled in a joint program of the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago and IE Business School in Madrid that combines an MBA and LL.M. Upon my graduation in the summer of 2015 I started looking for a job and was lucky enough to be invited by DHL to join their team. 


What was it about the company that excited you the most? 

S.S.: First it’s the fact that it was a truly global company – maybe one of the most global ones out there. Second, I am responsible not only for DHL Express (the most commonly known area of business) but also for some other areas such as global forwarding, freight, e-commerce, and supply chain – all in all a very diverse scope of responsibility that I found quite exciting. 

I will also say, the feel is very different now that I only have one client – well, there’s different businesses involved but it really just feels like one big client for me. I love that I get to act as a real business partner with my colleagues in ensuring that the projects we implement are in full compliance with relevant law. 


When you talk of the different feel of being a business partner – how does that translate in practice?

S.S.: The best way to describe it is what I noticed in my consulting days when I was talking to different companies who were a bit reluctant to see legal consultants joining their in-house legal teams. I know they dreaded having to deal with long notes and a lot of disclaimers … and still end up needing to make a decision on their own. During my consulting times I benefited from having some great partners around me who taught me to really help and partner up with the clients and support them beyond a mere “here are the risks to keep in mind,” but also help them actually make the right decision.

When working in-house, this becomes a vital part of your day-to-day work. Your colleagues from senior management really expect you to step in and take responsibility in picking the right option to move forward. It is not the case that I rely on someone else to decide on my behalf, and this is a new level of responsibility which I have to take on here. This brings a great appreciation for the job for me. 


On that note, how did you discover you needed to adapt the manner in which you were talking about legal matters to business people?

S.S.: I wouldn’t say there was a dramatic change, since throughout my previous experience when talking to clients I was often talking to CEOs, CFOs, investment officers, or board members. As a result, for me it was not that difficult to cope with being a board member with DHL. When I joined DHL I made a plan for myself as to what I needed to do for the first couple of months. I decided I needed to understand how the actual business worked. For me, this is key to do even when starting to work as an external consultant with a new client – but it is especially critical as a new General Counsel. 


So what was the first step you took to achieve this?  

S.S.: What I did first is approach the Operations Director and say: “Look, I need to see how the business works and learn the specifics.” His answer was simply: “Do you have 3 days?” 

As a result, I then had a very intensive crash course in the DHL world. My first day started with a ride with a courier delivering the packages and he’d explain how it works, how the shipment is registered, filling in the bills, and all these specifics. I then returned to the station and was shown how the shipping process works, how they are organized, how they are moved to the airport, etc. My brain was about to explode because I was receiving so much info from my colleagues by this point. 

I met people from finance, operations, billing, customs, security – all very useful for me to understand how the business worked from the inside. 


What about your induction to the legal team?  

S.S.: In the region our team is not that big compared to others: We have 5 people working in the CIS region on the DHL Express side plus two or three lawyers on the other businesses (Global Forwarding and Freight). But the core team is five, including myself. 

We started with an introductory meeting. One of my colleagues is working outside of Moscow so I had to take a trip to St. Petersburg to meet him (you really need face-to-face sit-downs rather than just calls and e-mails). The team is really great, and all of my lawyers have been working for quite a long time with DHL. The team was already in place, and the professionals here knew how the business worked, making it easy to adapt myself to the new environment. I’m very grateful that there’s a team in place like the one I have. 


Will you restructure the legal team?   

S.S.: No major changes are planned in the short term. What we’ve tried to implement recently is to communicate with and adapt to other departments a bit better. We’ve split responsibilities and made our focuses clearer for other departments, so they know that if they have a particular inquiry on, let’s say tenders, there is a specific person they should go to because she’s very good on tender or procurement legislation. At the same time, I always tell my colleagues that they should not hesitate to write me if they are in doubt, and I will involve the best person within the team. We don’t put that identification burden on the shoulders of our colleagues, but it is also helpful to know that you have a point person for specific areas. 


What were the first couple of weeks in the office like? What were the first things you had to learn and what was your first significant project?  

S.S.: For me it was more important to learn the business and meet the people (both in the core Express and other businesses, but also outside suppliers and the like). I spent time meeting with CEOs and Board members to get to know them and get to know their needs. Also I had to plug into the day-to-day work right off the bat. More notable was the compliance work that I have to supervise and implement as a country compliance coordinator – I had to verify the existing processes and policies that the company was running under. 

Another big part was related to personal data protection since Russian law has changed in that area and there are quite a few updates, and the state is carefully looking at compliance on this front. If I were to call it a project, this is likely “the biggie” for us now, as we need to implement a few projects/policies to make sure we are compliant.


What were the main compliance objectives you set out to achieve?

S.S.: We have a special global compliance program that all entities have to implement regularly and maintain regularly. I have to make sure this is implemented by the relevant group heads. It is a “yes, we have done what is required” bit of routine work, but at times I also need to adapt global compliance directives to local rules in Russia or other markets, and that does require you to focus on them slightly differently at times.

This Article was originally published in Issue 3.2 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

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