The latest sign that life in Russia is getting tough for international firms came today (5 September) as two of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld’s key Moscow partners quit to launch an independent firm.
Heavyweight litigator Ilya Rybalkin and corporate veteran Suren Gortsunyan have launched Rybalkin, Gortsunyan & Partners (RGP) alongside 11 associates, counsel and paralegals from the US firm – a team which claims to have been involved in transactions cumulatively worth over $80bn.
The move comes as growing tensions between Russia and the West and US sanctions against leading Russian business owners are increasingly hindering western firms from servicing Moscow clients.
‘A team spin-off of this calibre and scale from a leading international firm is unprecedented in the Russian legal market,’ said Rybalkin, who was one of the top earners at legacy Hogan & Hartson before quitting shortly after its 2010 merger with Lovells and is credited with building up Akin Gump’s key Russian dispute resolution and investigations practice.
His clients included investment group Renova, whose owner Viktor Vekselberg was included in the latest US sanctions on 6 April and who saw billions of dollars in foreign assets frozen. The sanction regime also prevents US firms from supporting individuals included in the lists, a clear issue for western law firms with a large Russian client base.
‘At a time when sanctions and other geopolitical measures are distracting law firms from their main goal of serving clients, we expect to attract further senior lawyers from international law firms, added Rybalkin.
Alongside Rybalkin and fellow Hogan Lovells alumni Gortsunyan, former Akin Gump counsel Oleg Isaev will also start as partner at the new firm, which aims to have at least 15 fee-earners by the end of the year.
RGP will work with Akin Gump on a non-exclusive basis, including on current matters. Akin Gump’s Moscow office is now left with 18 lawyers.
Sebastian Rice, partner in charge of Akin Gump’s firm’s London office, said that the move will allow the team ‘to continue to support a number of established client relationships which would be impossible for Akin Gump to serve in the current international regulatory environment’.
‘We are disappointed that current events have resulted in their departure, and look forward to working with them closely in the future, where we are able to do so.’
Once regarded as the western legal elite’s El Dorado, international firms have been on the slide in Russia since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, which prompted the US and EU to publish subsequent lists of sanctioned Kremlin-linked oligarchs and plunged the local economy into financial crisis.
The Russian operations of international firms has been under increased scrutiny lately, with Britain’s foreign affairs select committee criticising Linklaters for its role in the $1.5bn IPO of energy company En+, owned by sanctioned oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
Meanwhile, even New York firms like Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Skadden Arps Meagher & Flom, which built a substantial part of their business on Russian clients, have scaled down their local presence since 2014.