Moscow: Global corporates are turning their back on Russia in their droves: It’s time for law firms to step up

Legal IT Insider asks international law firms with a Moscow office what their plans are for the jurisdiction. The time for legalistic twaddle is over, argues editor Caroline Hill. 

If there is anything positive to be taken from the abhorrent attack by Russia on Ukraine it is the global unified condemnation in response, and the solidarity being shown with the besieged country. From sporting organisations to global energy giants, all, it seems, are turning their backs on Russia, with BP announcing on 3 March its astonishing but laudable decision to ditch its 20% stake in Russian state oil giant Rosneft. Shell swiftly followed in saying that it is divesting its stake in the Sakhalin-2 liquefied natural gas project. Exxon has said that it will exit its Russian oil and gas operations and halt new investment.  

For many law firms, however, the war in Ukraine has been a PR nightmare, whether it be Norton Rose Fulbright telling lawyers they can’t comment on sanctions, to the many firms that have issued vague, legalistic statements when asked if they will sever ties with Russia. Then there’s the business of Tory MP Bob Seely exercising parliamentary privilege to allege that lawyers from Harbottle & Lewis, CMS and Carter Ruck, plus a barrister from Matrix Chambers are ‘amoral for working with Putin allies.’ 

Many international law firms have an office in Moscow, and we asked the majority – based on Legal 500’s Russia directory – what their plans are in and for the region. As a quick preface, we also spoke to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which said (our words not theirs) that it’s not an option for law firms to ditch their office in Russia BP-style. But lawyers can speak up against the Ukraine invasion. They can decline new instructions. They can end relationships with Russian entities. And in many cases they are obliged to. So, are they? 

Allen & Overy, which has 24 lawyers in Moscow and advises companies including VTB Leasing and AerCap, has issued an unequivocal statement condemning the actions taken by Russia. The magic circle firm is reviewing its Russia-related portfolio, and says that it will refuse new instructions and stop all Russia-linked work that goes against its values. Its full statement is below.  

Norton Rose Fulbright, not to be caught on the back foot again, told Legal IT Insider: “Norton Rose Fulbright unequivocally stands with the people of Ukraine. We are reviewing the firm’s relationships and making the appropriate adjustments to ensure compliance with new laws and sanctions. This will result in us ending certain of our client relationships.” According to Legal 500, the firm acts for companies including Rosneft and Gazprom. 

While Morgan Lewis didn’t pass public judgment on the invasion, spokesperson told us: “Across our global offices we are and will remain in full compliance with the sanctions regimes outside of Russia where we practice, including with respect to ceasing and declining client representations.”  

Similarly, White & Case said: “We are reviewing our Russian and Belarusian client representations and taking steps to exit some representations in accordance with applicable rules of professional responsibility. Our Moscow office is open and continues to operate. We are complying fully with all applicable sanctions, and we continue to closely monitor this rapidly evolving situation.” 

A more heartfelt statement came from DLA Piper, although it’s unclear how big the statement is on teeth. A spokesperson said: “We have watched in dismay and disbelief at the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. We stand with the people of Ukraine and our thoughts are with them and all those in the region, and beyond, who are affected by this tragedy. We are closely monitoring the rapidly changing situation and providing support to our people and their families wherever we can. We are of course complying fully with all applicable sanctions worldwide and are urgently reviewing all Russia-related client engagements to ensure we do not act in a way that conflicts with our values.” 

And a slightly less committal Hogan Lovells said: “We can’t comment on specific client relationships but we continue to closely monitor the situation and the fast-evolving laws and sanctions globally and to align our client work, and our operations, accordingly.  That may mean ceasing work where appropriate.  We continually evaluate our operations and portfolio of work and any new client mandates to ensure we are complying with sanctions requirements and local government guidance, including the advice from UK, U.S. and other governments.  Our thoughts are with all those people affected by the situation in Ukraine, including many of our own colleagues who have relatives in the region.”  

The spokesperson added: “We are currently able to continue to operate our Moscow office. As this is a fast-evolving situation we are closely monitoring any changes and reviewing our position as required.” 

Last and least, a spokesperson from Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner said: “As with most multinational organizations operating in the region, we have been closely coordinating to navigate the complexities of the situation. We are adapting to comply with applicable sanctions and responding as required in the circumstances. Due to confidentiality, we are not able to share more.”  

We’ve got nothing back from Eversheds Sutherland, Akin Gump, Dentons, Latham & Watkins, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Clifford Chance and Dechert, all who have offices in Moscow. 

Extreme times call for extreme responses and law firms need to be seen to stand shoulder to shoulder with the international community in being brave and coherent in standing up for international law. The time for legalistic twaddle or silence is over. If BP can exit Rosneft, if Shell can divest its stake in Sakhalin, if Exxon can leave $4bn in assets, if the World Cup and Olympic Games can kick Russia out, law firms can do much better.

Full statement from Allen & Overy 

We have been deeply shocked by the increasingly tragic scenes we are now seeing every day, as Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine causes ever greater damage and a growing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and neighbouring countries.   

We have been very moved by the stories we have heard from the people in Ukraine, who have been put in such a horrific position by this unlawful invasion.  

A&O supports governments around the world in their response to this senseless invasion and condemns Russia’s actions.  

We are reviewing our Russia-related portfolio, and as a result we will refuse new instructions and stop all Russia-linked work that goes against our values. We will, naturally, vigorously implement all political decisions and comply with applicable sanctions and rules.  

A&O prides itself on its values and we are committed to doing all we can to support those friends, colleagues and their families, and clients who are affected, wherever they are in the world.  

Our firm is actively seeking pro bono opportunities and has donated to the Red Cross, which is working on the ground to support Ukrainians in extremely difficult circumstances.  

We support and encourage the international community in bringing pressure to bear to end this brutal conflict, including the selfless efforts of the governments, charities and people in neighbouring countries who are helping refugees.  

The Ukrainian people have shown extraordinary resolve and bravery in the face of appalling attacks. Our thoughts are with them” 

1 thought on “Moscow: Global corporates are turning their back on Russia in their droves: It’s time for law firms to step up”

  1. Excellent coverage – tho it seems many law firms haven’t yet woken up to the prospect of long term reputational damage. If the war in Ukraine escalates they could find themselves in the invidious position of being like a London law firm still taking instructions from Nazi Germany during the Blitz – claims of client confidentiality won’t wash then:

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