MAGISTERS LAW FIRM EXPANDING DESPITE SLOWDOWN
Jonathan Holmberg, Editor, Kyiv Post, Kyiv, Ukraine
Thursday, November 13, 2008
KYIV - With 120 internationally-trained and locally experienced lawyers, Magisters is already the largest law firm in Ukraine and a formidable
homegrown competitor to international law groups that have flocked for a share of this promising market.
This fast-growing Ukrainian law firm isn't stopping yet. Rather, it is steaming ahead with plans to become one of the international big boys. The firm hopes in coming years to continue expanding across Ukraine's borders into new and lucrative markets in the former Soviet Union.
Magisters has a Moscow office with 25 attorneys and plans to open offices in Belarus, Georgia and Kazakhstan in the near future.
The firm was founded in 1997 by Oleg Riabokon and partners. They had an edge early on. These were the days when few Ukrainian lawyers could boast Western law degrees. As a result of the firm's edge, Magisters won over lucrative contracts from some of the country's biggest industrial groups and also
defended Ukraine internationally in trade disputes.
But the firm took a big step in 2006 when it merged with Pravis, Reznikov, Vlasenko and Partners. In doing so, they brought in "superstar" lawyers such
as Serhiy Vlasenko and Oleksiy Reznikov. They were regarded as masters of courtroom litigation after 2004, when they represented then-presidential
candidate Victor Yushchenko in the now-famous and televised Supreme Court case. Their successful razzle-dazzle techniques set the stage for the
cancellation of the fraudulent 2004 election and a repeat, won by Yushchenko.
The law firm merger brought Ukraine's top legal talent - from courtroom litigators to corporate lawyers - under one roof. Pravis' reputation in court complemented Magisters' international trade negotiation skills, thus improving the firm's competitiveness. The law firm boosts political and judicial connections that are the envy of the country's legal community.
"We are one of the oldest law firms in the country and our practice leaders are the foremost experts in their fields. But the single most important
advantage we have is local knowledge, know-how and strong relationships," said Jason Bruzdzinski the firm's Chief Operating Officer.
The firm has acquired a reputation as a farm team for politicians. Founding partner Yevhen Korniychuk, now not formally with the firm, entered politics
a few years ago taking a seat in parliament with the bloc of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. He currently serves as deputy justice minister.
Serhiy Vlasenko followed suit. He recently took a seat in parliament within the ranks of Tymoshenko's team and also serves as deputy head of the State
Tax Administration. But the firm's clout doesn't stop there. Korniychuk is the son-in-law to Ukraine's Supreme Court Chief Justice, Vasyl Onopenko. Both attorneys have since left the firm.
Challenged by increasing competition with the arrival of multi-national legal giants over the past several years, Magisters claims to be the nation's
most profitable law firm, with more than $35 million in 2007 revenue.
"Magisters is the largest firm in Ukraine in terms of business volume, client base and revenue," Bruzdzinski said. "The arrival of multinationals
has been a catalyst. It was a positive development for the market and has raised the bar. We welcome the competition."
The global financial meltdown has not yet been fully felt in Ukraine and will change the legal business. "We expect the crisis will have an effect on
the legal services sector. The nature of the work will change. The mergers and acquisitions will slow down and litigation could increase," Bruzdzinski
Magisters lawyers says Ukraine's often corrupt, non-transparent court system complicates their work. They want reform in banking, taxes, intellectual
property rights, technology media telecommunications and, most of all, in real estate. Ex-partners, Vlasenko and Korniychuk, say they went into politics to push for precisely such change.
"The real estate sector is in need of a lot of reform. It is very messy at the moment and will continue be an area where good legal counsel is sought
after. But the law needs to be advanced as well," said Bruzdzinski.
Magisters partner Andrew Mac, a U.S.-born and educated lawyer with Ukrainian roots, agrees. The need for fundamental legal reform is paramount, but he
believes that the court system's nature needs to change and the most important issue is the consistent enforcement of the existing legal code. "Legal reform is practically moot if the courts are not transparent in interpreting laws" he said.
Another issue that plagues Magisters and other law firms is finding and retaining qualified lawyers. This is compounded by the limited quantity of
qualified young lawyers. Ukraine's institutions of higher learning simply do not always churn out the cream of the crop.
The firm believes it is difficult to recruit from local schools because the graduates do not often have the skills, legal English and reasoning needed
to service the international market.
So to help fill the gap, the high-profile firm has established programs to identify and develop talent at elite universities: Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Kyiv
School of Economics and Washington's Georgetown University, alma mater of managing partner Oleg Riabokon. "We are digging deeper and deeper into the law schools here and abroad to find young talent to recruit, develop and retain them in our organizations,"
As for the future, the firm is prepared to bear the brunt from the financial crisis while holding firm to expansion plans. Next year, Magisters will
expand its Moscow office and open offices in Kazakhstan and Belarus. The company says its future growth will come from expansion.
"I think we've reached the sweet spot in Ukraine and the growth rates we saw during our first decade will slow down. We plan on open offices throughout
the region's capitals to ensure robust future growth," Bruzdzinski concluded.
NOTE: Magisters is a member of the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council (USUBC).