Vasil Kisil: "The Secret of Success is to Have a Common Goal and Trust"


A company’s anniversary is like a birthday. It is time to summarize, draw conclusions, and outline a path for further movement. And when a company that pioneered the domestic legal services market turns a quarter of a century old, then you can also talk about how the legal services market has changed and continues to develop. This year, the 25th anniversary is celebrated by Vasil Kisil & Partners Law Firm. Senior Partner, Vasil Kisil, told the Ukrainian legal weekly Yurydychna Gazeta the company’s life story and shared the company’s operating principles, interesting stories and memories while also telling about how young lawyers differ from the old guard and what the latter can learn from them.

- Vasil Ivanovich, first of all, let us congratulate your company on the 25th anniversary! We wish it creative inspiration and further prosperity! It would be no exaggeration to say that Vasil Kisil & Partners is a legend in the Ukrainian legal services industry. You are known in Ukraine and abroad and you are an example for others. So what is the secret of your company’s success?

- The main secret of success is mutual trust in one another and commitment to a common goal we have agreed upon back when establishing the company. Under no circumstances do we depart from our basic principles. This is what has been uniting us for 25 years already.

- The story how your company was founded is as fascinating as a fiction book that could be turned into a marvelous movie. Especially the fact that you were persuaded to organize the law firm by your students who attended a private international law club, on the basis of which the law firm was eventually established. Did you then fear that your plans might not be realized? What was your goal in founding the firm? What did you think at that moment?

- It all started in the 1980s of the 20th century. At that moment, dramatic changes were taking place in the Soviet Union - “perestroika” (“restructuring”), “glasnost” (“openness”) and so on. I was an assistant professor and taught a course in comparative civil law and private international law at the Institute of International Relations (the then Faculty of International Relations and International Law of the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv). It was the only university in Ukraine, which taught not an ordinary civil law, but a comparative one. It was here that opportunities opened up for domestic businesses to have business relations with foreign companies when the latter became interested in us.

Students who attended my lectures informed that they had started a private international law club. In their eyes, I read: “At the lectures, you relate certain information to us. This is very good. But show it in practice. Will it be as good as you describe?”. At that moment, the only possible form of co-existence was a cooperative. That is why we initially worked as a student cooperative based at the University in Kyiv. Later on, we span off and registered a legal entity - a cooperative named Yurzovnishservis. This is where it all began.

You are talking about 25 years. Such is the age of the attorneys’ association named Vasil Kisil & Partners. In fact, my students and I started practicing law 30 years ago. Did we have any doubt? I had no doubt that we will manage to do that. At the same time, I was not confident that we would achieve the result we have today, because many things were not clear at that time.

Eventually, we became a limited liability company and then changed to a third form in which we still exist – an attorneys’ association. Perhaps, as you pointed out, we are a legend in the Ukrainian legal services market, I don’t know this for sure, but the fact that we have actually gone through all the stages of formation is a fact. Nowadays, many companies that started working concurrently with us no longer exist.

- Who among the founding students still works at the company? What helps you remain “one family”?

- Today, two founding students have been working at the firm, namely Partners Oleg Makarov and Oleg Alyoshin. Other founders of the company have different professional fates –  some have become prominent statesmen, some have started their own businesses. Interestingly, not all the founders were lawyers. An idea of opening the law club came to the students who studied at the department of international law. Having learned about this, the students from the departments of international economic relations and international relations decided to join them.

When we came up with a decision to register the cooperative as a law firm, not all members of the former club were able to become its members because they had no legal education. Thus, having gone through the formation process, some of the founders could not work for objective reasons. However, despite all these things, we still maintain a warm relationship. When we hold a celebration, we invite everyone. When they celebrate, all of us are there with them as well.

- Speaking of employees, what do you think motivates them to stay in the company and what, on the contrary, makes them leave?

- At the beginning of our conversation, I mentioned the principles and values that unite us. Believe me, it is not so easy to follow all the principles, especially amid the fast-changing state and business environment. We work with those who share our views on the fundamental operating principles of Vasil Kisil & Partners.

- Which of the prominent figures in the Ukrainian jurisprudence (perhaps politicians) were your students?

- I will speak generally, not specifically. One day, when answering a similar question, I made a relevant list. Then my former student who then held a high post called me and asked: “Why so? Why didn’t you mention me?” (smiles – editor’s note). They include Ukrainian presidents (including the incumbent one), presidents of other countries (until 1991, student groups were formed as follows: 5-6 Ukrainian students and 25 foreign ones), prime ministers, speakers, judges of the UN International Court of Justice, Ministers of Foreign Affairs of different countries worldwide. The most important thing is that I consider them all worthy people!

- Who was your company’s first client? Do you remember the details of the case?

- Yes, I do. This is a special story. The first client of the company was brought to us by Oleg Makarov. This was back in the 1980s. The client’s company name was such that I could not remember it. Even today I will not be able to name it because its name included both “ukr” and “techno” and “tara” and “standard.” Something like this. Just imagine: I had finally remembered the name, and a week later they changed the name to a more acceptable one. That is what made me remember the story.

The first fee we earned was a great surprise. Students showed the amount that was bigger than the salary of most university teachers. Later on, foreign firms entering the Ukrainian market began to apply to us. This was back in the Soviet times. When Ukraine became independent and we turned into a law firm, more opportunities opened up.

- Can you share an anecdotal moment with our readers?

- You know, we have such a religious community, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its other name is mormons. We provided legal support to them when they first entered Ukraine – we offered registration services and so on. There are two stories involving them: the first one is anecdotal, and the second is somewhat instructive. The first story was as follows. Since we provided services back in the Soviet times and payments were made in foreign currency, a bank carefully checked who pays, and for what. Sometimes fill-in boxes in payment documents were quite short. One day, we received a payment. The name of the payer was long, so the bank cut it short, leaving only two words. And our accountant witnessed the following. A group of people is waiting at the bank to make payment settlements and then the head of the branch of this bank comes out and says: “Guys, I don’t know who Vasil Kisil is, but that Jesus Christ is paying them is a fact. Here is the proof!”. I understand that that the man was not deprived of a sense of humor, that’s why he said that (smiles - editor's note).

There was another story related to the same clients. They stuck in memory as they paid always on the same day. As a month ended, the accountant notified that there was no payment. Some time had passed, but still there was no payment. We sent next month a new bill which they paid timely. Then we tried to know what this situation was about. They explained us that there was an error in the bill for USD 50. We recalculated the amount and everything seemed to be in order. The client explained then that the bill should be increased by USD 50 as they took into account the meeting I had with their manager from Frankfurt, which meeting we did not take into account. Such a caution tale it is.

- What key decisions of Vasil Kisil & Partners pushed the firm to develop?

- The key ones were transitions from one organizational form to another, of which I have already told, while increasing number of partners pushed to move forward. This was done differently at different times. There was a time when we increased significantly a number of partners. This was a great step forward for the firm to develop.

- If we compare legal profession in early days of your career and now, what differences can you tell?

- When my career just started, a lawyer who started a legal practice (especially, in the area of cooperative law or business) was like the Jack-of-all-trades. Why? Because the regulatory base was very scarce. We started with the Law on Commercial Companies and the laws on joint venture. Today it is not possible to be a general-purpose lawyer. It is necessary to focus clearly on the specialization in which you want to be and where you feel you will succeed.

For example, there are now lots of regulatory materials on securities, most of which contradict each other. If the regulation of land relations is changed, there will be a tremendous break-through in this sphere. I don’t mention IT industry and, in general, all technologies appearing now and changing fundamentally the methodology and policy on the legal service market. The one who grips first these changes will gain the lead.

An example is taken from our company. We have partner Oksana Voynarovska. She clearly got orientation that the practices of labor, family and inheritance laws were very demanded and now develops such practices successfully. Oleg Alyoshin came to focus on the international commercial arbitration. Oleg Makarov and Andriy Stelmashchuk continue dealing with the litigation practice. Vitaliy Kasko joined them and now develops the white collar crime practice. Alexander Borodkin handles real estate and corporate issues.

- What estimate can you give to the Ukrainian law business?

- The law business is still at the stage of its establishing. Why? The thing is that it is rather extensive today. I think that the key problem for the market of attorneys and lawyers is to implement in practice those messages they are talking about. What do I mean? Though some law firms continue making payments "under the table," we have never done nor will do it. We understand what expenses we incur in view of this (taxes, insurance, etc.).

I was very surprised to see that one of well-known lawyers rides a car which by far not every businessman can afford, while is official income published in one of the ratings was quite unmatching. What to comment here? In my opinion, Andriy Stelmashchuk is right saying, "Let's disclose everything. This is the time to do this."

I have to admit that some of western clients facing certain problem may resort to an attorney who solves the problem in "specific" manner. So, this client will tell all others about such manner. Many people do not understand this. I remember my grandfather used to teach me, "Remember if one person knows something, it is just a matter of time for everybody to know it. However, be sure that what two person know is already known to a half of those who live in the village." I believe that this is a defect inherent to the establishment of our legal service market. It seems like they try to tackle the problem with judges. I am sure that time will come for attorneys to face the same situation.

- Many new and ambitious players, both law companies and lawyers, have recently appeared on the market. What do you think can experienced lawyers learn something new from the young generation?

- No doubt that there are many things we can learn from the young generation. Now comes the time of the generation of those lawyers who were born in a quite different social situation. I believe that the first thing the older generation may learn from the new one is their dynamic work. Secondly, I often consult on professional issues with young people who work in our company. Today one cannot be an expert in all industries, but should specialize in some.

The today's young people I know are distinctive for setting rather ambitious plans and understanding how it is important to know foreign languages.

- One of the key secrets of work (no matter what such work is) is to feel affection to your profession. Please tell us how did you come to feel affection to the legal profession?

- First of all, I owe my affection to the profession to my teachers who opened my eyes to many things in this sphere. I always recollect warmly professor Hennadii Kostiantynovych Matveiev who saw in me the person interested in the legal science. Upon retiring, he handed over to me his courses in the  university. For some time, he had been preparing and helping me and was a supervisor of my candidate of sciences thesis. This was the person who upheld the principle of which I always told students, "law is the art of good and justice." That was Roman lawyers used to say – a slogan of the civil law science. A lawyer is a doctor in the society to certain extent. People go to see a doctor when they are ill. Lawyers are visited for certain purpose as well. Our profession is ambiguous in many aspects. Can you remember at least one funny story in which an attorney is described positively? I cannot.

- If you would be able to turn back time and change three things in your life, what would you have changed?

- Probably, I would have changed one thing only. The thing is that, having finished my school, my first study was not very good as I was trained to be a radiomechanic. Perhaps, I would have corrected this, rather than all of the other things. I don’t think I have made some mistakes for which I would feel ashamed or that something must be drastically changed.

- What hobby do you have?

- I collect paintings, especially, those from the period of 1950s to 1980s; it was Ukrainian impressionism. I love theater plays. Once it was a hobby too. By the way, I don’t like traveling very much, but I go if someone invites. Also I don’t approve nor understand hunting. I read much books.

- Please recommend our readers 5 best books each lawyer must read.

- If a lawyer deals with criminal cases, then he or she should read Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, Hercule Poirot by Agatha Christie, etc. I cannot recommend, but rather share my choices. For example, if I am in bad mood I read stories of Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anton Chekhov. Among Ukrainian classic authors, I like Volodymyr Vynnychenko and Ivan Franko. Among the moderns, I read Oksana Zabuzhko, Yurii Andrukhovych, Serhiy Zhadan. I would advise lawyers to read Dostoevsky's writings (not the Crime and Punishment alone, but rather The Brothers Karamazov).

Published: Yurydychna Gazeta, No. 38, 19 September 2017

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Vasil Kisil