Lawyers on the winning team in Sochi

As the Sochi Olympics approaches its end, Morgan Lewis’s Moscow partner Brian Zimbler talks about the legal issues surrounding the world’s biggest winter sports event.

Despite leading the team advising NBC’s 3,000 on-site staff, Morgan Lewis Moscow partner Brian Zimbler had to wait in line for a Sochi Olympic hat. “Almost two hours,” he recalls. “Vying for position with grandmothers, children and tourists, Russian-style.”

NBC, which paid $775m for exclusive US broadcasting rights for the Olympics, turned to Dewey & Le Boeuf’s former Moscow team led by Zimbler – still known locally as the “Le Boeuf” group despite joining Morgan Lewis in 2012 (4 May 2012) – for legal advice. The “Le Boeufs” were chosen by NBC Sport Group’s vice president of legal Brett Goodman, the chief in-house lawyer for NBC’s Olympic unit.

Unlike most Russian lawyers working on the Olympics (25 November 2013), Zimbler and associate Kirill Ponomarev actually got to go to Sochi. “This was a rare perk,” says Zimbler.

Did the snowstorm of legal work fail to materialise? Sources in the area have already suggested so, despite the work kicking off when Sochi was awarded the Games seven years ago.

“Many of the projects that generated work for Russian and international law firms – one of them being large construction projects for the Olympic venues and hotels, and the financing of these – were largely financed by Russian state-owned banks or wealthy oligarchs friendly to the government,” notes Zimbler. “So there was a lot less legal work than expected.”

But there was an additional set of assignments involved with supporting suppliers to the Olympics, Zimbler continues, meaning extra bits of work have come in related to tax, customs, visa planning and contract negotiations.

“In the case of Sochi 2014, all of these arrangements and negotiations had to be conducted in a very short time, putting great pressure on the lawyers advising on these matters,” he adds. “A lack of local talent and infrastructure in Sochi magnified the problems: until December 2013, there were relatively few companies set up in Sochi to support the Olympics, and most negotiations took place in Moscow.”

Having been given a $51bn face lift, what will happen to the Black Sea summer resort when the skis are packed? 

“Further private investments will be needed to maintain [the venues] after the Olympics and convert Sochi into a popular international resort destination, which is the Russian government’s expressed plan,” notes Zimbler.  

”[Another] issue has been continuing allegations of corruption in connection with the construction of the Olympic venues and the huge amounts spent. There are rumors that new investigations will be started after the Olympics are over.”

And once the Winter Olympic Games and the Winter Paralympic Games are done, Russian thoughts will turn to the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The football tournament will be held in cities across Russia, including Sochi, and preparations have already begun.

Quite the avalanche.