Postcard from… Kazakhstan

Like most aspiring lawyers I have attended numerous interviews, and like many when asked to describe our strengths I would reply “I like to face new challenges”. Yet when I found myself on a flight bound for Almaty to work as a legal assistant for GRATA, there was a small part of me that wished I had answered “I’m quite good with numbers”.

Postcard from... KazakhstanLike most aspiring lawyers I have attended numerous interviews, and like many of us when asked to describe our strengths I would reply “I like to face new challenges”.

Yet last January when I found myself on a flight bound for Almaty in Kazakhstan to work as a legal assistant for GRATA Law Firm, there was certainly a small part of me that wished I had answered “I’m quite good with numbers”.

Kazakhstan was going to be a unique challenge and when I arrived and the temperature was minus 25 degrees, I knew without any doubt that the next few months would be unforgettable.

I was lucky enough to have the chance to work in Kazakhstan at a hugely important point in the country’s development. As the economic boom and wild spending at the beginning of the new millennium began to be checked by the harsh realism of the credit crisis, the long-term future of the country rests on the policies introduced and the direction taken by the government over the next few years.

Further moves towards nationalization and proposed taxation increases for foreign companies threaten the relatively good relations that Kazakhstan has developed with most of the western world since becoming independent in 1992.

It was an exciting time to be in Kazakhstan and the bulk of the legal work at GRATA reflected the country’s two major growth areas: natural resources and banking and finance.

Working alongside other top international law firms on global projects provided a fascinating insight into international legal practice and the structuring of these types of deals. At GRATA there was a real opportunity to make a contribution to large scale projects – and not merely by doing the photocopying.

A particularly enjoyable aspect was providing business and legal English lessons to lawyers and clients. With the relative freedom to create and develop my own curriculum the lesson topics ranged from client care and contract law, to negotiation scenarios and interviewing skills and it provided a fantastic platform to get to know the GRATA team and to exchange knowledge and ideas.

Training and development of staff and searching for local talent is certainly not taken lightly in Kazakhstan and the brightest students are snapped up whilst at university.

For those who have the ability, promotion is often swift, and it helps to create a dynamic and creative atmosphere at firms when people know there is no glass ceiling or age requirements barring them from matching their ambitions.

Outside the office, Almaty is a delight for any twentysomething lawyer who is looking for good times and whose expectations are not unduly high after spending most of his formative years in the North West of England! Almaty is a genuinely cosmopolitan city with cafes and restaurants serving a mix of Asian and European cuisine. Manchester is famous for 24 hour party people and yet Almaty can claim to have the best nightlife in the steppe, ranging from old fashioned expat friendly pubs to more exotic venues where the Kazakh glitterati like to strut their stuff. One thing is for sure, you will never forget your first, and quite possibly your last glass of Kumis (fermented horse milk) or Shubat (camel milk).

Similarly if you join any Kazakh birthday parties, it’s generally best not to make any plans for the following morning.
I was fortunate to see more of Kazakhstan than just Almaty, and traveled to the oil producing regions of Atyrau and Aktau, in what is fondly referred to as the wild west of Kazakhstan, to see for myself how GRATA operates in these cities.

Atyrau is notable for the sheer number of foreign accents you hear whilst walking down the street – Scottish and Italian are particularly common, whilst Aktau is saved from being just another city in the middle of the desert by the Caspian sea and the beaches, which give some credence to Aktau’s bold billing as the “new Miami”.

Yet it is immediately obvious in both cities that people are making money and the number of branch offices from companies which require legal support, whether it is licensing or contracts, means that GRATA, which is the only major law firm in kazakhstan to have offices in these cities, is uniquely placed to be able to assist them.

For many people who have never visited Kazakhstan, it is impossible to form a mental picture of the place (misleading Borat references aside), and for those who have it is very difficult to forget.

Abiding memories will be skiing down the Chimbulak slopes with GRATA’s senior partner, Aidar Sarymsakov, on a freezing January morning, eating shashlyk (Kazakh meat kebab) whilst camping out at the Charyn Canyon and getting sun burnt as only an Englishman can whilst rafting down the scenic River Ily with the whole of the firm to celebrate its anniversary.

All these experiences were immeasurably improved by the fact that they took place in Kazakhstan and there was always a chance that something weird and wonderful was just around the corner.

Therefore I will leave Kazakhstan with a great deal of new friends, much improved legal experience and commercial awareness and with a far greater appreciation and knowledge of Central Asia.

Most importantly the friendliness of the people, their capacity for welcoming strangers and their even greater capacity for making toasts and consuming vodka meant that living in Kazakhstan quickly ceased to become a challenge to overcome and became a genuine pleasure.

Gerard Aston is an English legal assistant at GRATA in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

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