Vasil Kisil: Feel Yourself Needed According to Your Skills


Vasil Kisil is one of the most prominent figures in the in the contemporary Ukrainian jurisprudence, a preeminent legal scholar who profoundly influenced generations of lawyers and made a significant impact on the shaping of the Ukrainian legal market. Vasil Ivanovych, now Senior Partner of the firm, is one of the founders of Vasil Kisil & Partners Law Firm he has run for almost 25 years. Doctor of Laws, Professor of Private International Law at the National Taras Shevchenko University of Kyiv — V.I. Kisil still continues teaching at the Institute of International Relations of the National Taras Shevchenko University of Kyiv. 

In an interview to the Strategic Business Review, the renowned Ukrainian legal scholar shares his thoughts on the underlying principles that guide Vasil Kisil & Partners Law Firm, tells about the importance of the impeccable reputation for success and about events that have shaped him as a lawyer.

How did you choose your profession? What events and people made a decisive impact on your development as an expert? 

I can say that my choice was determined by luck and chance. Many years ago, as a pupil I once came across a shabby old book in my grandfather’s attic. This was the book of the Russian civil law expert Gabriel Shershenevich entitled History of the Philosophy of Law. No one new how the book had gotten there. I read and re-read the book, understanding almost nothing but being deeply convinced that the book was interesting to me. With time I understood that it was about the science of jurisprudence, then unknown to me. Many years later I understood that this story greatly influenced my choice of profession.. 

I spent my childhood in the village of Hryhorivka in Kyiv Region. When, after graduating from a high school, I was faced with having to choose where to go to university, I’ll be frank to say that I chose a technical institute not entirely of my own free will. Therefore, my first degree is in radioelectronics. Frankly speaking, I could make neither head nor tail of radioelectronics back then as well as now as I have never been technically minded. For this reason, following the military service, I was again confronted with having to choose the profession. And when I happened to read in a newspaper that the National Taras Shevchenko University of Kyiv brought back the program of studies for a degree in International Relations-International Law, I did not hesitate to enroll.. 

The years of study went by fast and, in 1976, I was faced with having to find a job. As I was recommended to enroll in a PhD program upon completion of the master’s degree at the university, I believed that I would be able to immediately engage in the legal research activities. Everything, however, turned out not as I expected. I was not admitted to the PhD program, but was employed as a trainee teacher. This was thanks to Professor Hennadii Matveiev, who taught us the course in Private International Law and International Family Law. From that time on, my working career was closely linked to and continues to be associated with the Kyiv University: first, with the Faculty of International Relations, and later on – with the Institute of International Relations. 

I consider Professor Matveiev to be my teacher and mentor. I owe my professional growth to him. Hennadii Kostiantynovych is a non-ordinary man. He is not a simple but a fair-minded person — he has done so much for me, he supported me in the most difficult moments of my life. I would also like to mention one more person — Hlib Tsvetkov, Dean of the Faculty of International Relations, whose support I also felt in my early teaching years at the faculty. Such people are an example of mentors who combined their professional skills with human qualities. 

It is exactly at the direction of Professor Matveiev that I had successfully defended my Ph.D. candidate’s thesis without completing a Ph.D. candidate’s program and later on defended a Ph.D. doctoral thesis in the times of Ukraine’s independence. My fate is still connected with the university — I teach courses in Private International Law and Civil Comparative Law. 

Whom would you have become had you not chosen the jurisprudence?

There is no doubt I would have studied the humanities. And maybe I would have become an agronomist or a priest… 

How has a teacher, a person inclined to humanities, ended up running a private law firm?

An idea to set up a company which evolved into the modern law firm Vasil Kisil & Partners was not mine, but came from my students. This began in 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev, the then General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, initiated dramatic changes in the country’s social and political life. He was a very brave person who, to my mind, contributed to Ukraine gaining independence at a faster pace. 

Perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) opened up opportunities for entering foreign markets — which, until that time, was impossible as all foreign trade remained a state monopoly. Just imagine a special resolution on foreign economic activities of some enterprises was then issued by the Council of Ministers of the USSR. This resolution allowed several Ukrainian enterprises to enter foreign markets. At the same time, one more decree was issued providing for the setting up of joint ventures with foreign participants. We — teachers and students — appeared to be the only people who then had at least any understanding of this issue. There were just no other experts at that time.

Back then, I lectured at the faculty a course in Civil and Comparative Law, the discipline that interprets the systems of Soviet, French, German, English,  and American Law. I also taught a course in Private International Law, the law governing any civil relations but with the participation of foreigners. At that very time a campaign to set up cooperatives was launched in the country. This is when my students who were members of a private international law club came up with an idea to organize a cooperative. This was a challenge for me as I read in their eyes: “Things that you teach here at the department [of international law] are very good, but will we be able to put all of them into practice?”.

Thus, six students of the third and fourth years of studies and the seventh teacher had set up a students’ cooperative association in late 1986, which later grew into an LLC and still later became an attorneys’ association. Influenced by the practice of the Anglo-Saxon legal system and following their traditions we named the firm Vasil Kisil & Partners. I still remember that day when two of my then partners suggested me to name the firm this way. I also still remember the official who registered the firm in the former Moskovskyi district of Kyiv and had a poor command of the Ukrainian language. This is why me last name Kysil is mistakenly written as Kisil in constituent documents. This is the reason for the different spelling of my last name. 

At that time, it was possible to start up a firm without having to put up a single penny in capital. Our first “office” was located at the Department [of International Law] and was equipped with nothing except one telephone set. And students were the main driving force of this project. Nevertheless, I had hard times at the beginning. My colleagues found it necessary to deliver all drafted documents for my inspection, which is why I quickly realized that if things went on this way, there would be no result. Eventually, I decided to shift the responsibility for document drafting to partners. Thus, when the market started booming with joint ventures popping up here and there, when it was necessary to draft charters, agreements and other documents, they already could perfectly cope with this work. Our significant advantage was that, in addition to having a legal education, students of the faculty also received a diploma in two foreign languages, which is why our lawyers could speak the language of our foreign clients, which is very important. 

Today, two out of the six partners we started doing business with continue working with me. Some of the partners went to work in politics, others joined the public service, and someone chose a different sphere. Those who went to serve in government have nothing to do with our firm today. Names of all our partners are stated on the website and we have never had and will never have concealed partners as we have always been committed to the fair and transparent doing of the legal business – from the moment of setting up the firm and up until today. 

Did you ever imagine when starting up the firm how it would develop and what it would grow into in the future? 

When we started the business I had no idea that we would be able to create such a company. However, young students who created the firm together with me had extremely ambitious plans and already in the late 1990's I realized that our prospects were very promising. Then I understood that if you properly build mutual relations in a firm, it will even outlive you. 

Your firm is a paragon in the legal services market, it is described as a talent foundry, and your students speak warmly of you. What is the secret behind such success? 

Our firm has lived through different times: all major national and economic events had their impact on us. But from the very beginning we set the principles of our work that we still adhere to till this day: leadership, professionalism and high quality of services, development of talents. 

Vasil Kisil & Partners is, first of all, a team of like-minded professionals rather than managers and their subordinates. This means integrity towards each other and generally in everything. For example, we have never paid “envelope salaries” to our employees — only official salaries with payment of all relevant taxes. 

Also, no matter how hard the situation is, we never get involved in any corruption cases. This affects us to a certain extent, but we still stick to this principle. We believe that the legal services market in Ukraine should be no less civilized than in Eastern and Western European countries. 

We also devote much time to the professional development of our younger colleagues. Lawyers are highly ambitious people, especially young lawyers. That is why it is so interesting to work with them. 

A great many professionals started their career with us. I believed that this is good. Nowadays, a law firm cannot have hundred partners because the Ukrainian market does not permit this, but our team members grow and outgrow me. In the early 1990s, we mainly worked with cases involving laws on business companies and we earned enough for both bread and butter. Now the situation is totally different as the laws have become very diverse and now cover a wide range of industries, so that a lawyer can no longer be a specialist in various fields and know everything. Specialization is necessary. Many of our lawyers are more knowledgeable than me about certain specific matters, and I always gladly seek their advice. And we always let our younger colleagues go their own ways and we are always happy about their achievements. 

Our former colleagues work in almost every other law firm. For example, I literally had to push out the founders of Asters, Serhii Didkovskyi and Ihor Shevchenko, so that they could start their own law firm. I just saw that they had grown up. Besides, I think that we have opportunities for setting up new law firms in the legal services market. This market is not yet overcrowded and not sufficiently competitive. Most of its players have strict specialization and there are free niches available. Today, the most important thing is to risk and set up partnerships. And I strongly believe that, first and foremost, it is young people who should do so. 

I can tell you one story from my past. When I was a schoolboy, I once overheard a conversation between our neighbor and my grandfather. The neighbor complained that he had been replaced by a younger man in the position of foreman. But he was still at the height of his power! My grandfather then told him: “Do not look in the mirror and check your passport instead — it explains it all clearly”. Age takes its toll. Years bring us experience and wisdom, but we no longer have the quickness and sharpness of response that are typical in younger lawyers. This is also written in our passports. And we have to admit this. That is why we do everything possible to rule out any age imbalance in our firm. This is very important for our practice. 

Thus, I once delegated the functions of managing partner to Oleg Makarov, one of the founding partners. I understood that the managerial authority should be vested in energetic, young and promising people. Later I saw that I had done the right thing. As Liubomyr Huzar, a Ukrainian spiritual leader, once said, the most important thing is to hand over the cause from one person’s warm hands to another’s. Now, our new managing partner is Andrii Stelmashchuk who actively drives forward the business that we started 25 years ago, builds our long-term development strategy and thinks beyond the next day. And I can see that he has superior managerial skills. Our partnership is united by common values and governed by the principles established years ago. 

And how did your managerial skills change in the course of your firm’s development? 

They always progressed in an evolutionary manner. I am not a supporter of radical changes. The thing is that, when lecturing at the university, I could understand who was in front of me. On top of that, I had and still have a considerable advantage because I could see promising students whom I still invite to do their internships at our firm. 

I did not have any big problems with professional training, but, thanks to the partners who had taken the load of organizational and managerial functions off my shoulders, my part of the job was servicing a certain number of clients, mostly large transnational corporations. I should mention here that such companies as McDonald’s and DuPont entered the Ukrainian market with our assistance. 

Do you enjoy lecturing? 

My pedagogical work keeps me toned. You cannot enter the lecture-room unprepared, and you need to keep up with legislative changes and doctrinal trends. 
It was always interesting for me to do this, and I was never afraid. At the start of my lecturing career, my group consisted of four “Soviet” students, as they were described then, and twenty-five foreign students from African, Asian and Latin American countries. They did not have a strong command of the Russian language, so I had to lecture slowly. This helped me to master the specifics of pedagogical work. Besides, I had the strong support of my tutor. 

Teaching is a very special activity. I enjoy watching bright students finding ways out of the most difficult situations. They represent the dynamic part of society, so dynamic that some of them are still undecided and searching for their path in life. I once met my law student who turned out to be an actor of the Young Actors Theater. He invited me to attend a performance at his theater and I remembered how I myself had once given up radio engineering. 

How are today’s students different from those of the early 1990s or the early 2000s? 

Students changed significantly and for the better after the university entry based on independent testing results was implemented. Some 10 years ago, more than half of students were not really interested in learning because their parents had secured their entry and covered all their expenses. Now, as far as I know, about 70% of students really want to learn, and they understand that there are many lawyers and the competition is high, so it will be hard for them to fulfill themselves Students are better informed now. However, they have their shortcomings, too. They read less fiction. When I cite some examples, not even from classics, but from modern literature, I am not always sure that my students understand what I am talking about. 

What are you most interested in professionally and personally? 

Professionally, I am interested in international commercial arbitration to which I devote most of my time, especially after I recently became an international commercial arbitrator. I am also interested in the forthcoming developments in Ukrainian land laws, for example, whether the land reform will be completed by the end of the year. Personally, I think that, regardless of all the risks, the privatization of land should take place. And land should become an object of sale and purchase. For example, in Kyiv region there are up to 25% of land shares for which no-one pays anything to anyone. There is no possibility to sell them at the normal market price. This is not an easy situation. The rhetoric of the lobby opposing the reform is clear, but the reasons behind this rhetoric are not the same as those declared. 

In my free time, I am interested in fine arts. I have a collection of paintings. The paintings hanging on the walls in my office are always with me. When it is raining or freezing outside, the picture of a blooming spring takes you to a different reality. I also attend exhibitions, theater performances, I love reading books. 

The famous French writer Marcel Proust’s questionnaire includes the following question: “What is your present state of mind?” 

I am guided by two principles in this context. The first principle is to feel myself needed according to my skills. And the second principle, which I heard from a Hutsul man back in my student years, is: “Man, there is nothing bad that does not turn good”. These words lingered in my memory, and I am still guided by them.

Published: Strategic Business Review, July-August 2016

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