In 2018, Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP), including its Russian practice Goltsblat BLP, and US law firm Bryan Cave LLP announced a merger. The Russian practice became part of the global firm and is now known as Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (Russia) LLP. The firm’s Managing Partner in Russia Andrey Goltsblat speaks on what it means to become an international firm with large-scale US involvement – amid sanctions – and how the team has had to reinvent itself.
People would ask me, ‘is it congratulations or condolences?’
The merger with Bryan Cave is a logical step forward in our development as a team of like-minded professionals that has been taking shape for over twenty years and forms the backbone of today’s firm in Moscow. Twenty-five years ago I registered a small law practice. After several years, we teamed up with Sergey Pepeliaev, forming what was at the time one of Russia’s best national law firms. The firm carried on until the end of 2008 when a number of partners and I decided to merge with Berwin Leighton Paisner, a well-known UK law firm, setting up Goltsblat BLP as the Russian practice of the international law firm in 2009. The Bryan Cave merger came as the next logical stage. We are now another step forward professionally and part of a global law firm. At the same time, despite the merger, we are still a law firm with very strong Russian law expertise, which places us firmly as a Russian company as well as an international one.
The new firm, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, has considerable resources and huge global coverage from North America to Asia. This gives rise to a new, empowering sensation.
Naturally, we had some doubts about how we would position ourselves further on, what we would offer the market and what strategy we would pursue. We also had many concerns in connection with the sanctions. All this stirred up discord in our life and gave rise to certain issues we needed to address, including social ones within the firm. I think we have coped fairly successfully. We now have started offering our global capability, including US expertise, more actively in Russia. Of course, we have lost something, but we have reaped more benefits because now we can tap in to global resources. We’ve got started on some new big work and found new high-profile clients, such as a big international airline and major companies with government involvement.
We had to adapt mentally – in terms of policies, as well as philosophy. Many people asked me, often very gingerly, ‘Do we congratulate you or sympathise?’ And I would say, ‘Congratulate, of course’, though I had my doubts. Now I can answer without doubt or hesitation, ‘Congratulate!’
Change of brand is also part of my personal story
For nine years, we worked within a certain space in tune with the Goltsblat BLP brand philosophy, having an understanding of the strategy we pursued on the market. A change of name definitely required a paradigm shift. Our vision of who we are, what we are now and how we are going to work and evolve further on has changed.
There were also quite a lot of emotions I had to deal with on my own. My colleagues, fellow workers and family helped, of course. So I got over this phase and now, looking back, I do see that the benefits quite outweigh the drawbacks. For instance, the new global status has already enabled us to bid for tenders held by two Russian state-owned companies, which we won. Without the US offices and expertise, it would have been virtually impossible. Sanctions are at the very top of the agenda these days.
We continue fostering relations with other major Russian corporates and foreign investors who have come to appreciate our firm’s new global status.
I have always believed the brand to be very important, yet we all know dozens of cases when, after a swift change of brand, the old one faded from memory. So what we have to do now is not cling to the past but invest as much as we can in new things, to help the market see and understand as quickly as possible what the new brand is, why it is better and how it is more efficient, why we have reinvented ourselves and not just changed the nameplate at the door. True, Goltsblat is no longer in the company name, but I think my personal brand is still there. I continue communicating with clients, I lead a number of ambitious projects. Though I work under the Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner name, Goltsblat is still here and this is another massive advantage for me. I remain who I was, yet I now have at my disposal powerful resources which enable me to offer even more varied capabilities to clients.
Unfazed by the sanctions
I believe the market has tightened up a bit since 2014. There are several reasons: sanctions and their impact, adverse economic effects. The rouble is volatile and business is far from happy about this. The legal market directly correlates with the economy and I am still convinced that a multi-practice international company has more opportunities for growth and development than a narrow-focus and small one. Even against the backdrop of sanctions.
Of course, sanctions lost us something, but we, as a firm, have won more by going global and being able to offer new resources. Governments can pass whatever laws they like. I am quite unfazed by this. We lawyers should stay pragmatic. In 2003, we were told that only advocates may act for clients in courts and we registered ourselves as advocates. When the Constitutional Court cancelled this rule we retraced our steps. If they say we have to join a monopoly – OK, we’ll do this. How our work is organised is not critical. What is critical, though, is what we offer clients and what is the most effective way to deliver this. If you are a professional, you will always find a platform for your skills.
Partners leaving ‘to keep clients’? It’s all smoke and mirrors
There can be different reasons for partners breaking up or groups of partners spinning off from law firms, including personal incompatibility with the MP or other partners. I believe that in many cases where the commonly voiced reason is ‘to keep clients’, this is a smokescreen. Sometimes, indeed, the move might be driven by a desire to retain clients (for example, because of the sanctions). But it is far from certain that clients will follow, because they like to feel secure. Big companies have their brands, guarantees, warranties and indemnities. What do those who spin off have to offer? A group of three, even if they are great guys and excellent lawyers, is still only a group of three. Are you prepared to put a five-billion deal in their hands?
Over the recent years, the market has seen many successful small firms emerge. These include firms like Kulkov, Kolotilov & Partners, Korelskiy, Ischuk, Astafiev & Partners, Nektorov, Saveliev & Partners. National companies like these enjoy a number of advantages. First, they have their market niche in which they prosper. Second, they are more independent in decision-making and have a sense of ownership, so they feel more self-fulfilled than ‘just’ lawyers. We live in a feel-and-sense reality and the sensation you get professionally is a way of saying you are self-fulfilled and wanted. When people forget about you, don’t call you, when your immediate superior or senior partner stops communicating with you, all this generates stress. Smaller companies cultivate this sense of self-fulfilment and being wanted so that you feel satisfaction and a kind of happiness.
Can Russian law firms cope with all the work by themselves?
Let’s imagine, theoretically, that tomorrow all foreign law firms are banned from the market. Russian law firms just would not cope with the huge amount of work (note: this was proposed in the initial version of the countersanctions bill). Second, the state-owned companies would be the first to suffer as they wouldn’t be able to get the expertise and quality they need.
This is primarily because of the difference between legal systems, plus it will be difficult to go on without common law, given the current scale of business. In addition, our educational system does not teach the skills needed for students to master international legal mechanisms routinely used on major deals and financing transactions. You can learn how to handle them as you go, but you won’t be sufficiently qualified. Russian lawyers that work in a foreign firm acquire a deep-seated understanding of how businesses and shareholders interact, etc., which is essential. Take, for example, a financing transaction in which a bank extends a loan.
All that is interpreted quite narrowly by the Russian legal system. But if you understand the underlying legal concepts generally accepted at the international level you can go on working in any jurisdiction. If we take mergers and acquisitions, there is a bunch of commonly used international legal mechanisms, such as warranties and representations, put and call options, etc. These are not taught in Russia. True, now we do have them in the Civil Code, but they have not yet been properly understood and comprehended, nor have they found their way into practice.
Those who think Legal Tech will make lawyers redundant have never been in court
I see technology as a supporting product that makes routine processes more efficient and helps us connect better with clients, colleagues and the outside world. I call it technological development in legal business.
AI-based products are just another helpful tool for automating certain manual functions. We used to have typewriters – no email, just a fax machine. And now that we’re talking about whether legal professionals can be replaced by robots, we face a curious dilemma: if lawyers give way to robots, will justice also be administered by robots? If so, they should deal with robots only! And then the question will really be: are humans really necessary?
Clearly, certain routine and cut-and-dried actions such as standard court filings and handling traffic fines can be done by robots, but so many other activities are impossible without the human ability for analysis, including situations where emotional intelligence is involved.
People advocating blanket automation in the legal profession just don’t understand what they are talking about or have never been in court.
We make the most of technological solutions, integrating them into our processes and looking into every product on the market. These include knowledge management systems and all that intellectual legacy can offer, timekeeping instruments and a platform for client communications. Quite a lot of things! We don’t do that internally because we don’t need to. We can buy products off the shelf but we can also request some customisation. What we need is broader opportunities for us, as lawyers, to apply our knowledge and skills. No need to replace us, though. We will do this ourselves, if need be.
A paralegal can become partner in nine years
We take on a lot of students and usually have about 20 to 30 trainees working in the office, mainly students from Moscow State University, MGIMO and HSE. They undergo training while we watch them closely and employ the best ones as junior associates when they get their degree. Trainees learn and develop within the team and have mentors. Prior to getting a degree a student may only work as a paralegal. After graduation they are promoted to junior associates. At this level they work a year or two, depending on their ability for personal development and building up expertise. Then they work as associates for three years and as senior associates for several years. So it normally takes seven to nine years for a young talent to become a partner.
We obviously accept lawyers from outside, from other law firms, but associates nurtured within the firm better tune in to our culture, values and traditions. Those recruited from the market normally come from a different cultural environment and have to adapt to what we have in the firm. We can take over something good from them as well, but a law firm’s culture should be monotheistic. In fact, this holds good for any organisation. Efficient work is impossible without that.
One very important and potent aspect of training your staff is putting improvements in place: sorting out what they don’t do sufficiently well or where they depart from the established standard. While some partners don’t bother to do this, guided by the good-enough principle, I will demand that the lawyer deliver an impeccable product and will spend as much time as necessary till I get what the client wants and what matches my requirements on quality and company standards. Then, after some time, I will be able to send the lawyer to the client without hesitation and be certain that they will do no wrong. If partners do not devote time to trainees, juniors and associates, the firm’s product will not find much demand. The client may just not come back next time. Mentoring is a matter of the entire firm’s professionalism.
Upward mobility in the legal profession
Forget about the hackneyed ‘my father works for Rosneft’ and ‘my mother works at the Ministry’. The only means of upward mobility are your work, your persistence, your diligence and your professionalism. This is what will help you join a big company like ours. And it’s a very good springboard for professional growth, not just for becoming an advisor within the firm. Potentially, this could win you a very good position as an in-house lawyer. Not everyone is born to be an advisor, some people just don’t fit that profile. But when they go out to join a client company they thrive and blossom – a win-win outcome.
A candidate is expected to have a fundamental, institutional knowledge of law. Knowledge of English is a prerequisite as you cannot expect to succeed in the profession without it. Other languages (say, perfect Japanese or German) might give you a slight head start but the world’s business speaks English.
A person must be punctual and accurate and a willing worker. Though diligent, they must also be creative and capable of suggesting other, more appropriate or efficient ways of doing things. And good leaders and partners should know how to listen. The best of them will also be strong enough to admit their errors and agree with a better suggestion so that the client gets an immaculate product.
Another essential quality is social adaptiveness. When someone joins us, they should embrace the firm’s culture. We all have a different innate ability for social and mental adaptation, so here we do our best to extend a helping hand. You just have to ask yourself if this is what you really want, if you can really succeed in this. You may start a physics course and then realise this is not your thing, then enter a law school and become a brilliant lawyer. Understandably, it is very difficult to make a final choice when you are 16 or 17.
Much has been said about our high school system, the key complaint being that there is no understanding of what is required for professional work. I might be mistaken and things might have changed, but I don’t see that students are well trained to present information to clients or communicate with them properly, including at meetings and so on. Students are taught how to be a prosecutor, field agent, investigator, etc., but not the other important things. This is where we, as professionals, take over and maybe this is how it should be.Money is an issue for some lawyers
I would never agree to do any work involving shady deals that might violate someone’s rights or breach ethical standards. You see cases where lawyers are used for an illegal takeover or a lawyer acts as an intermediary between a bribe giver and taker or even facilitates negotiations between the two. For us here, this is totally unacceptable.
You mustn’t set out to deceive a client, even if guided by the best intentions. You should tell the client everything about how things stand, straightforwardly but competently. Unfortunately, many people want to seem better than they really are. If you tell the client the work will take a certain amount of time and you’re very likely to achieve a certain result, you must deliver on that commitment. If you are a true professional and have the necessary expertise, this will most likely be the case 80-90% of the time and the client will really appreciate you.
Money is another issue for some lawyers. For them, the money becomes the be-all and end-all and so they go all out for it. But there is a simple remedy: instead of repeating the mantra ‘I must earn more money’, you must remember the guiding principle ‘I must develop as a professional and, if I offer my clients a professional service, the money will follow.’
I could write a book about how stress hits lawyers
Much has been said and written about this, but it is still true: drowning stress in alcohol does not help. Socialising more and doing sports and generally leading a more active lifestyle is the answer. Stress will remain a part of our life anyway but it is easier to manage it if you are not burdened by an addiction.
Tough situations are not novel in both personal and professional life, but I dare say I have learned to cope with them on an emotional level as well as mentally and intellectually. I never did drugs. It is clear that this kind of stimulation amplifies stress and magnifies the problem and your vision is very likely to be twisted and distorted. It is important for a lawyer to be fit, successful and content so that they can instil confidence in clients. No one will trust their project to a lawyer that looks jaded. And, of course, the watchword is always: Client First.
I swim. I try to go to the pool at least twice a week, though I do not always manage it. A one-kilometre swim is normally enough. I got into water polo at school and I still enjoy swimming. Music is also relaxing. I’m a child of the Sixties and in the evening, when I need to disengage myself mentally from work, I’ll listen to The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull. I collect vinyl records and have quite a lot now. I only look for vinyl, of course, not replicas recorded from digital files – you might as well use iTunes. I have a good sound system and still have the Melodiya-3 player my father got as a present for his birthday in 1982. I connect it up to my modern audio system and get sound that’s amazingly clear and natural, better than you get from even the high-end turntables. Though that might be a matter of taste.