Brief encounter: allen & overy

The promises of riches to be reaped from the energy sector persuaded Allen & Overy to open its Moscow office in 1993.

While it has been working with Russian-based clients for a number of years, the firm took the bold step of opening in the region, led by energy lawyer Doran Doeh.

Doeh had previously worked as an in-house lawyer at Burmah Oil (North Sea), the British National Oil Corporation and Britoil, and was well-placed to help the firm build new fee earning opportunities.

Allen & Overy began to branch out into project finance and corporate finance work and recruited David Slade and Irina Mashlenko from Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy.

Slade arrived with clients including the US Export-Import Bank, as the firm endeavoured to differentiate itself from others in the area.

Doeh had managed the office on a dual basis, spending time in both the UK and Moscow before becoming the official resident partner in 1995.

But as the firm's Russian office became more financially focused, banking partner Chris Roberts migrated to Moscow to head the office on a full-time basis in 1997.

With Roberts came a list of impressive clients including Chase Manhattan, Goldman Sachs and ABN Amro, which were pouring money into the booming Russian economy.

With Roberts' arrival, the staff count in the office increased from 18 fee-earners in May 1997 to 27 in November 1997, as it moved to consolidate its position as a leader in capital markets and project finance.

Firms were reaping the benefits of a bullish economy. But on 17 August 1998, calamity struck. The country's economy went into meltdown and work was cut down.

Allen & Overy reacted quickly by cutting six lawyers from its Moscow office. The firm also looked at where it could buoy up its practice now that areas such as project finance were beginning to dry up.

At the end of August, Allen & Overy sent out project finance specialist Calvin Walker, who eventually took over running the Moscow outfit from Roberts, who left in 1999 to head the western Asia region.

The Moscow team attended creditors meetings to try to recover assets from companies which were beginning to fall like dominoes – as was the number of lawyers in Moscow.

The financial situation is now beginning to crawl back to normality for some firms including Allen & Overy. Others, such as Eversheds, have been forced to shut their Moscow offices.

But financial-based work is starting to grow for Allen & Overy. It is working as part of a consortium including Arthur Andersen, advising the new government on the restructuring of Russian telecoms giant Svyazinvest.

Also, Allen & Overy shares the sentiment of a number of the other major firms, that the election of Vladimir Putin will bring legal reform and closer ties with the West, which may equal investment.

Allen & Overy is taking things slowly at the moment but caution is the right approach. Only next year, when an upturn in project finance and capital markets work is predicted, will Allen & Overy be prepared to make bold moves.