Full of eastern promise
19 May 1998
Paul Rainford finds that young solicitors are being increasingly drawn to eastern Europe to give their career a boost. Paul Rainford is a freelance journalist.
For budding lawyers who face the prospect of working out of a windswept office in Slough, there is always the lure of working in some remote city somewhere in the crumbling remains of eastern Europe.
However, many new lawyers are drawn to eastern Europe. And it is small wonder because, like most largely unexploited areas, it is seen as a land of opportunity. They are even prepared to put up with climates that make rain-lashed Britain seem positively balmy in order to get a piece of the action.
Trainee solicitor Janet Foyle recently completed a nine-month stint at Freshfields' Moscow office (She has since qualified in Paris.) She was pleased that she made the long trip out east: "It was a really stimulating environment. Things are so much less predictable than they are, say, in London. I was working with a very cosmopolitan group of clients - Russians, Italians, French and Germans."
Foyle's life was made easier by the fact that she is fluent in Russian. It enabled her to break out of the close-knit ex-pat community and mix more with "real people". She was also able to do pro bono work once a week at the UNHCR's refugee reception centre. Much of her work involved establishing refugee status for new arrivals from the various troubled outposts of the former Soviet empire such as Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia. It also led to her compiling a major report on refugee law for UNHCR.
But not everyone assimilates as successfully, according to Jan Grozdanovic, a partner at Seddons' Prague office, who is both Czech and UK qualified. "Some British lawyers come out here expecting things to work in the same way as they do back home - but they don't. And the attitude of the Czech clients is sometimes interpreted as rudeness, when it isn't," he says.
"Initially, all that western lawyers needed to do was to turn up, look knowledgeable, and they would get the work. Now they have to work harder."
Gouldens partner James Campbell, who spends much of his time at the firm's office in Uzbekistan, agrees: "Often you can't simply pick up the phone here and get things done straight away. You have to go and see the people concerned and go through the necessary pleasantries."
The type of work lawyers can expect to be doing varies from place to place. Privatisations provided the initial workload for foreign law firms in many eastern European countries, but these have now largely dried up. Now a mixture of commercial, banking and finance work prevails, much of it tied in with the burgeoning energy sector.
Energy law is a particular interest of Ruth Jaun, a trainee who has just flown out to Moscow to join Malcolm Broom, head of the energy group at Denton Hall's office there, for six months. She is looking forward to the increased responsibility that a foreign posting invariably brings.
"I expect to be more involved on the negotiating side of things. For example, my predecessor is hammering out the terms of our new lease and I will have to take over the reins of that once I am out there."
In fact, one European partner from a top 10 City firm says that an oversees post was at one time seen as virtual banishment, but now top firms are sending their brightest prospects to eastern Europe to give them a broader range of experience.
Most British lawyers who head east will have to interact with locally-qualified lawyers. Gouldens partner James Campbell says these tend to be young and relatively inexperienced.
"The old school - those who qualified before the collapse of the Soviet Union - were somewhat stuck in their ways, so it is the younger, more recently-qualified lawyers who tend to be favoured by foreign firms."
But what about quality of life? According to Jeffery Roberts, partner in the Moscow office of Freshfields, things have certainly improved.
"When I was first here all the talk among the ex-pats was about the difficulties of the weekly shop but now it's not a problem, as there are so many western-style supermarkets opening up."
Allen & Overy's man in Warsaw, partner Michael Davies, says that Warsaw has come a long way on the leisure opportunities front as well.
"When we first came out here, there was very little in the way of bars or restaurants. But now it's very livable - we don't have to rely on cabbage and vodka."
In Uzbekistan, the attractions begin to dwindle, as Gouldens' Campbell, who spends much of his time there, admits: "Moscow is very different to central Asia. You have to have a vocation to come here."
Campbell also warns that flying around the former Soviet Union is still a worrisome occupation: "We know a firm of accountants that actually has a sign on the wall advising its troops, "Before you get on the aircraft, check it for safety'."
At least in Uzbekistan you are unlikely to encounter the Russian mafia. The activities of the men with the Kalashnikovs, muscles and diverse business interests have been widely covered in Western media.
Denton Hall's Malcolm Broom reports a colleague being confronted with the messy aftermath of a mafia hit outside a hotel he was staying in. The police came, he says, but only after the corpse had lain there for three hours.
But most lawyers who have spent time in East Europe say that the problem is overstated.
"The only mafia we come into contact with is the taxi mafia," says Barbara Kadar, an Allen & Overy solicitor who has spent the last six months working in the Prague office.
Freshfields' Jeffery Roberts also dismisses the problem: "As a lawyer, you're only likely to come across the mafia if you go to the wrong nightclubs."
But that is all right, of course, because young lawyers grasping their big opportunity out east with both hands would not have time for nightclubs - they would be in the vodka bar instead.