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Lawyers Must Not Betray Their Clients’ Trust

Date of publication: 11 December 2017

Yurydychna Gazeta interviews Mikhail Ilyashev, an Attorney at Law, the Managing Partner of Ilyashev & Partners Law Firm, about the particularities of the Ukrainian legal market, importance of having trust between the lawyer and the client, career development and professional clichés.

– This year your company has celebrated its 20-th anniversary. This is a significant term for a relatively young Ukrainian legal market. In your opinion, what helps Ilyashev & Partners Law Firm to stay ahead for so many years?

– In order to develop, it is necessary to look forward and work tirelessly. Business may be compared with a metro escalator which is moving down when you are moving up. If you stop you will immediately move back. If you move slowly you will actually stay in the same place. If you want to move up you need not just go, but run. The faster you run, the sooner you reach the top. Thus, no matter what leading positions a company occupies at a certain moment in time, if it stops and decides that it is at the top stage, it will immediately begin moving in the opposite direction. In order to claim leadership position you must always think about the development.

– Once you said: “In order to be called “top notch”, a law firm must be engaged into “high-profile” cases”. In what high-profile cases is your firm currently engaged?

– Our firm is engaged into a number of high-profile projects: Ilyashev & Partners protects interests of its clients not only in Ukrainian courts, but also in the ECHR, international courts of arbitration, and also in the courts of the Russian Federation. Our company is involved in up to 25% of top-rank cases in Ukraine. In particular, Ilyashev & Partners participates in the settlement of disputes both in Ukraine and abroad on the recovery of losses in the amount of more than USD 10 bln., which were incurred as a result of fraudulent acts committed in several countries by the former Chairman of the Board of BTA Bank – Mukhtar Ablyazov. The firm represents interests of the State Enterprise Ukrinterenergo in Russian courts in the case against PJSC Inter RAO UES regarding compensation of energy charges. In the course of the expiring year we represented the producers of confectionery products in Ukraine in the anti-dumping investigation opened in relation to the imports of chocolate from the Russian Federation, we provided legal support to the national network of construction of hypermarkets – Epicenter K – in the process of reviewing special measures for the import of porcelain dishware and cutlery to Ukraine, advised State Enterprise Antonov regarding the restructuring of the indebtedness towards the state under the bonds of Aircraft Factory Aviant, protected the IP rights of pharmaceutical companies to a number of well-known pharmaceutical drugs etc. We filed a lawsuit to the ECHR in the interests of Feodosia Shipbuilding Company “More” concerning protection of the company’s rights violated as a result of illegal nationalization of its assets in the Crimea. We successfully completed a long-standing dispute between State Enterprise Antonov and General Directorate of State Airports Authority and its insurers on compensation of losses suffered as a result of an aircraft incident at Ankara airport.

However, legal companies measure their success not only by their judicial cases. One may say a lot about a law firm by taking a look at its clients. In essence, the level of the company is reflected by the scale of its clients. The clients with whom we work for 10-15 years have been growing and developing along with us all these years. So, you may talk about success, efficiency and leadership positions as much as you want, but all of this must be based on who your clients are and how long have they been working with you.

– What is the difference between your law firm and other legal-market «longtimers» at the current stage?

– First of all, in my opinion, the main difference is that our firm has a stable body of staff of lawyers and attorneys, some of have been working with us from the end of the 90s and some of them – from the beginning of the early years of 2000. If you compare us with our competitors, you will see that they have a rather intensive staff turnover rate. According to the international standards, it is normal to have up to 25 % of staff turnover annually. We do not have even 2% of this rate. Secondly, we have never been afraid to take high-profile cases. Our task is to protect and work for or client’s interests. Our people often identify the client and the lawyers/attorneys who represent him. This is an opinion, which is widely accepted in Ukraine, but not so widespread around the world. In the majority of jurisdictions the legal culture is different: there is an understanding that while protecting his/her client an attorney does his work and is not liable for the client’s actions.

– Does the clients’ reputation affect the reputation of the company? Does it help or interfere with the work?

– In Ukraine, the client’s poor reputation, unfortunately, has poor bearing on the reputation of the law firm. If you deal with the companies with ambiguous reputation or defend state officials who are accused of corruption, the negative attitude towards them passes on to you as to their legal representative, although, in reality, the primary task of each lawyer is to defend his clients. For example, a lawyer only helps to show the flipside of the coin during the court trial. If we do not mention the court cases, but talk about projects, of course, there are less risks and negative implications here.

– Is it important for a company not to have double standards in such situations? For example, advertizing righteousness and high moral grounds, but still defending corrupt officials?

– I would like to emphasize once again that, sometimes, the work of a lawyer is to protect people who are suspected of committing a crime. At the same time the lawyers must not attach labels on such clients. Your question bears an erroneous perception of the situation which is generally characteristic of Ukraine. Every person must start with himself. Stealing something small at the workplace, giving bribes, but speaking about hatred against corruption, etc. – this is what we call “double standards”.

It is very important not to confuse rights advocates and attorneys at law. After all, attorneys honestly say that they defend people and charge money for their work. At the same time, an attorney may simultaneously be engaged into pro bono activities. Attorneys fright for the clients, and rights advocates work for the truth.

– Let’s get back to the personnel issues. Have you key criteria in the recruitment of new staff members changed over the years?

– We do not profess ideology according to which it is necessary to develop competition among employees inside the company. We all form a single team, so that everyone within the team must strengthen their own positions at the market, rather than show their competitive advantages to their colleagues. Competition must be maintained outside the walls of the firm.

In fact, our company takes a rather conservative approach towards recruitment, even on the issues of dismissal. Clients would rather like to see one and the same attorney whom they contact for many years, than a new attorney every time. In my opinion, stability within the company shows its strength. And if the company is strong the clients feel safe.

– What is prevalent: professionalism or personal traits? How to find the balance between them?

– It is clear that professionalism must not be compromised. Professionalism is not to be risked. At the same time, the company must not just look for professionals, but those who fit it mentally. Once I talked to the Managing Partner of one of the leading international companies in England and we were discussing issues of staffing policy. It turned out that they do not have such a problem as «professional competence«. Almost all the candidates are competent and well-educated. Unfortunately, in our country it is very difficult to find a true professional. So, at first you must look for the professional qualities, and then consider the rest.

Each company has its own ideology. In some companies people work from “nine to six”. Some companies put the results above the need of keeping an employee at the workplace. There are companies where professional hierarchy plays an important role, and there are those for which it is not of fundamental importance. Therefore, it is better for the company to look for its «fitting» employee, and the employee is better to look for his/her “fitting” company, so there would be no need to “bend anyone across the knee”. But, anyway, the professionalism of each potential candidate must be unconditional.

– If we talk about your company, does it take a light- or hard-handed approach?

– We are looking for self-motivated, ambitious, and dynamic lawyers. We stipulate a lot of bonuses for our employees, but we also demand a lot from them. For example, a lawyer must always be dressed formally. At the same time, our company is not vertically integrated, that is, we do not maintain any complex hierarchical grading of positions from paralegal to partner.

– In the course of three recent years you have opened three new offices. What influenced your decision to expand?

– No legal firm in the world runs ahead of its clients, but goes “elbow-to-elbow” or follows their footsteps. When you see the spheres where your clients might require your advice, it would be advisable to set a foot in certain regions for your clients first, and, then, to develop in the domestic market of a certain country. If you look at world practices, many law firms have expanded their geography because they originally followed their clients. Another competitive advantage in this matter is the language that can be shared by certain people in different countries (for example, Spanish, French, English, and Russian).

– One year ago your company opened its office in Estonia. What are the results of the firm’s first year in this country?

– The first year is the hardest: according to statistics, about 70% of start-up companies do not survive even a year. We have managed to go through and have positive dynamics. The volumes of work are increasing, the staff has been carefully selected, and the employees are working at a steady pace. We believe there is a reasonable chance of success.

– How does your company organize its business processes in technical sense? How do the offices in Ukraine, Russia and Estonia communicate with each other?

– All our offices in the three countries communicate through an inter-company platform – LegalSvit – which is used by the lawyers, financial specialists and administrative staff in their daily activities. All the processes, starting from billing to document management, as well as the project management, are fully computerized.

– In the course of as little as two years your new practice of International trade law has become one of the most successful at the Ukrainian market. What is the secret of success?

– We have analyzed the situation and realized that this practice area and this branch in general are going to actively develop in Ukraine. We assumed that due to the loss of a certain part of domestic market, Ukrainian companies will try to preserve their market share by blocking and preventing imports, which would increase the number of anti-dumping investigations in order to save the volumes that existed in the market before the crisis. Actually, we were holding these tendencies in mind when we were creating this area of practice and forming a team of lawyers. Now we can say that Olena Omelchenko, the Head of this area of practice, has successfully coped with the task of taking leading positions in this area.

– What are the current strategic goals of the company?

– The strategic goal is to be No. 1. First of all, it implies having satisfied clients, as the welfare of any law firm depends on them.

At present, the number of transactions at the market is decreasing and, consequently, decreasing is the number of disputes and litigations. This will continue to be the trend in the future.

There is no doubt that it has a negative impact onto law firms. Recently a lot of banks have withdrawn from the market. We should understand here that each bank was advised by one or more law firms at the same time.

Now the situation has developed in such a way that it seems that this volume of work has disappeared. But it hasn’t. It has transformed into another type of work (legal support of bankers in criminal proceedings, legal support of bankruptcy processes, etc.). However, all this happens by inertia, and it will be over sooner or later.

We need to look for new opportunities for further development. The search for such opportunities is our primary task.

– May the decrease in the amount of court disputes be a result of the improvement of pre-trial procedures of disputes settlement or to the judicial reform?

– I do not think so. If there were any changes here, we would have been able to see the results in a few years. I have not met anyone who would say that he does not trust the courts, and, therefore, does not want to sue. In countries other than Ukraine people go to court to seek justice. A Ukrainian client goes to court to win. He needs a completely concrete result, not an understanding whether he is right or not. This puts the lawyers under great pressure.

Actually, this is why we have so many petitions of appeal and cassation petitions. In England, for example, their amount is much smaller. There is a fundamental difference in the approach: if English lawyers say that there is no legal position to build and there is no use suing, the client will not say that the lawyers are bad, but will be only grateful to them. They even sometimes act as a “procedural filter” against unfounded lawsuits and abuse of the procedural rights.

In some countries, “success fee” (a form of payment for the attorney’s services when as attorney is paid the fee when he wins an action) is forbidden, as it is believed that this breeds corruption once a lawyer must receive his fee for the high-quality work done, and not for winning the case in the court.

The amount of clients in Ukraine who try to hire attorneys on a “success fee” basis is constantly growing. It is not hard to imagine how it would affect the lawyers’ behavior. For us such conditions are unacceptable and we hope that our main competitors will maintain the same attitude.

– What rules and the inviolable principles do you profess in your work?

– The paramount principle is that the lawyers must not forget that they are acting in their client’s interests, and not the interests of their own. Of course, lawyers also do business and they also have to earn their living. However, making money cannot not be the priority. If it takes 10 hours to draft the documents, you must not spend 25 hours drafting them. If one lawyer is enough to participate in a court hearing, there is no need to send three of them. The clients find it difficult to perceive such matters. Thus, the lawyers must not abuse their confidence. I am sure that decency pays in the end.