Taras Utiralov is the Director of the Ukrainian office for PETERKA & PARTNERS, a Central and Eastern European Law Firm and a member of the International Lawyers Network. In this very special episode, Taras and Lindsay discuss what it’s like to work during a war, leading an office that never missed a day of work, the very real “war/life balance” and what the future looks like. Please do not miss this episode!
You can listen to the podcast here, or we’ve provided a transcript of the highlights below.…
Lindsay Griffiths: Hello and welcome to the Law Firm ILN-telligence podcast. I’m your host, Lindsay Griffiths, Executive Director of the International Lawyers Network. Our guest this week is Taras Utiralov from PETERKA & PARTNERS in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Taras, welcome. We’re really glad to have you with us this week. It’s some unique circumstances you’re joining us. I would love for you to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself, the firm, your practice, and then we’ll dive into some questions.
Taras Utiralov: Hi, Lindsay. Thank you for the introduction, the warm welcome. Indeed, I am Taras Utiralov, as you said. I’m a partner and director for Ukraine at PETERKA & PARTNERS. I basically run the office and my main duties, I will say, are connected to the management of the office, but when it comes to the legal practice mostly and then they incorporate issues and antitrust in competition. So basically this is it, this is.
Apart from that, we also have other practices. Obviously, in our firm, we are more or less a full-service law firm in Ukraine, except for maybe some criminal law issues. We don’t dig into that. But otherwise when it comes to all kinds of support of the business in various areas, such as corporate labor issues, intellectual property, just general contracts, something like that, and of course when it comes to litigations, arbitrations as well. These are issues that we normally cover.
Lindsay Griffiths: Great, thank you.
I think the number one question that most people have on their minds when it comes to Ukraine is we’re coming up on 10 months of war there. I know that your firm has continued to operate throughout and serve your clients. Can you talk about what that experience has been like for you?
Taras Utiralov: Yeah, indeed. I would like to talk about this experience and to share it with others. I hope that no one ever has, in the future, such experience. But still I think it’s important to know about it and to know what’s going on.
Now we have almost, I would say, 11 months of war because on 24th there will be first anniversary. We hope that it’ll be the last one. But unfortunately it is not for sure the last anniversary as we live through this war. I mean, from the start, we say of the big war because the war itself started back in 2014. Now, I hope that everyone understands that that was the start of the war because it was hidden on the side of Russia, et cetera. But now we understand that that was the real start of the war.
But indeed on 24th February in 2022 started the big war, the full-scale invasion. I’m sure that no one could have imagined the real scale of this invasion, how it would actually take place. Of course, some people predicted that there would be some escalation of the war in 2022, that maybe there would be some bigger land operation in Eastern Ukraine or something like that. But I’m sure that no one could have imagined bombings of Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other cities from the first day of the war. Basically, that’s what happened. This is what we faced when we all woke up in Kyiv or in other cities and through all Ukraine.
Of course, it was shock for all of us. I would say the main feeling of the first days of war was not only quite obvious and normal. I would say fear for physical safety and the fear that you can be physically exterminated, too, within the coming days.
But there were also fear that, which I may say may be even worse than the fear of physical extermination, all the world around you, where you live, your home, your work, your friends, your relatives, everyone, as such, this world will not exist anymore in the coming days. That basically all the life you have been living through will be just erased.
I mean, it can be compared to a situation where you normally move to another country because still you plan, you have friends, who at least mentally you feel that they may help or there is a state which can help. But you just feel that you are not alone. But in the first days of war, there was a feeling that all that, which I mentioned, it would just not exist anymore. I mean, the state, there is no one who could help you because basically they are thinking, first of all, about their own existence. That is quite normal because they cannot help you if they are not sure whether they will live in the coming even hours. You cannot expect that anyone would help you, except for maybe the closest people who you live with. This was, I would say, the main challenge of the first days.
But funny thing is that we didn’t stop working for even a day. That is also true. The first new request, which I got since the start of the invasion, was actually in the evening of that very day. I got a new request, which was related to a foreign client who was staying in Ukraine, how to help him. We had a call the next day. Of course, my first reaction would be to say, that unless you have a fighter aircraft in your hands, that basically you couldn’t help him. But still, we got some legal-related discussion. But indeed that the first days it was not very standard discussions.
I must say that a big support which we got was from our equity partners, from our owners in the Czech Republic. First of all, for the fact that they didn’t panic in the first days. They didn’t just close. Well, not close office, but simply dismissed the people from day one because this is, frankly speaking, what happened to most of Ukrainian offices.
Well, and I cannot say that I can blame them for this because they had a completely different situation. For us, our biggest advantage was, and continues to be, that almost 100% of our clients they are in Ukraine. I mean, they are foreign companies or subsidiaries of international companies, international groups. And thus they were either remotely affected by the war or they had support from their headquarters, from their groups. And thus they could continue operating that way, and thus we could also continue operating.
But when it comes to purely Ukrainian law firms, they usually have the majority of clients, at least by the turnover, who are purely Ukrainian businesses. Of course, those businesses were not sure about their existence as well during the first days. This is what happened. Basically, the people, and in the law firms and well in many other businesses as well, they were left to deal with these problems themselves, frankly speaking.
But again, that wasn’t our situation. And so we basically didn’t fire, didn’t lower salary for anyone. We continued operating like nothing happened from this standpoint.
It was also important for our mental support because, in these circumstances, it is important to stick to at least something that used to be normal for you. And so if you have the same job but you do more or less the same work, that’s something you can stick to and pretend that you try to live a normal life. This was the very first days or weeks of war.
Luckily again, after months, or two months maybe, it became clear that Ukraine at least will continue its existence as a sovereign state, and thus Ukrainian lawyers will still be needed because that wasn’t so much clear in the first days or weeks of the war. We are not engineers. We are not even software engineers. We’re lawyers, so we’re no one, nothing unless we have a country where we are qualified to work. That was quite a personal thing for us, not talking about people, to the whole situation with the war.
But many lawyers whom I know, they immediately started fighting for their country in their armed forces, and they continue doing that. That had also an impact on the industry. Of course, as the work continues, there will be more and more of such people. That’s also something that should be remembered. Of course, this is one of the things which you must know.
Lindsay Griffiths: Of course. I’ve seen there are some lawyers that I follow on LinkedIn from Ukraine who have become part of the armed forces, who had been lawyers before and are now fighting for the country versus those of you who are still doing that in a different way as part of the legal system. I think equally both roles are important.
What would you say is the difference between how things are operating now versus how they were in the beginning of the war? I mean, you talked very succinctly in the beginning. It was a lot of uncertainties. You didn’t know how long this was going to go on, and now you’re saying you see it going on for a little bit longer. I think, obviously, things are very uncertain now because you don’t know really what your day-to-day looks like.
But I’m sure that there’s some more you’ve… I don’t want to say you’ve gotten used to it because that’s a really terrible thing to get used to, but you have some more certainties now than you did at the beginning. Obviously, some people had evacuated in the beginning but have now come back. What does now look like versus in the beginning?
Taras Utiralov: Yeah, strangely, but also I would say luckily, now clients’ requests are not too much different from what we used to have before the big war. Strangely again, but now we do normal legal work mostly. Of course, there is a considerable part of work which is related to mobilization of people and the issues related to who cannot be mobilized. Because there is also situation that of course some businesses and some industries are crucial for the economy, and those people need to stay working and that’s also how it’s all processed, et cetera.
We do have such kind of requests from our clients, but basically all these issues, and about this mobilization and about HR issues as such, they represented the majority of our work in the beginning of the big war, in the first two, three months of the war, almost. Well, again, I cannot say the exact figure, but this was the majority of our work, which was related to all these. Now it’s only a small part of what we do, and otherwise it is normal legal work.
In general, yes, we discovered how adaptive our mind is and how adaptive a human being at all can be, as you said. We really got used to it. It seems that basically you can get used to anything if it’s stable no matter how bad it is. But basically you get used to it. And so yes, but this is the protective mechanism for our mind because if you got to live in a shock for too long, basically you will die.
This is what we discovered that we can get used to it, and the key thing is to try to stick to some normality to the extent possible to how it used to be. You can change it of course, but it should be stable because there is things which you cannot control the world. And so you need to control what you can and stick to it and try to live the normal life, at least to the extent possible.
This is what we are doing as lawyers, as people, as well.
Lindsay Griffiths: I think that’s a very important point.
And so to that point, how do you control, or not really control, more balance, the very real professional needs that you have for the firm versus the very real personal needs that you and your colleagues have going through all of this here?
Taras Utiralov: Obviously, you do know the term work-life balance. Now we say it’s war-life balance. Frankly speaking, starting from when Russians ran away from Kyiv region and from the northern Ukraine and we are in the north here in Kyiv, so for several months in Kyiv it was more or less a normal life.
First, we had issues with petrol supplies. Well, until you face it, you just don’t even know how important it is because you got used to a situation that you can come whenever you went to gas station and fill up the tank and go where you were going. It wasn’t the case in May, June, but I was…
It’s one of the feelings I forgot to mention, but maybe it’s one of the most important ones. That’s proud for the country and for the people and for the unity of people because this was really a surprise for me, the pleasant surprise. Not only me, I guess the whole world wasn’t expecting that. Not only the armed forces which are complete heroes, but that goes without saying. But I mean the whole population stayed united, and crucial businesses continue working whatever it takes.
I mean, the petrol stations on the bombing counterattack, they continued working. Within a month, they changed the whole supply system for petrol and diesel in Ukraine. I cannot imagine, frankly speaking, how it was just from the management standpoint, from the commercial standpoint how it was done. But previously, most of our supplies were from Belarus, and obviously we couldn’t continue like that. There were also in Ukraine one or two factories which produced petrol, but they were exterminated quite quickly. And so now almost all the petrol and diesel coming to Ukraine is from the European Union.
Again, this shift was made within a month. Already in the end of June, we didn’t have any issues with petrol, and we don’t have them now. The trucks are going back and forth through to Ukraine and from Ukraine to the European Union and back. This is how it goes now. Again, I cannot imagine how it could have been done, but it was done. I was the witness of it, and all of Ukraine was witness to that.
But again, from the standpoint of physical safety, it was okay. Yes, we got air raid sirens back then as well, but we were not, frankly speaking, taking them too seriously because we knew that in Kyiv it wasn’t something serious after the first months and then several following months were okay.
But the situation changed in October when Russia re-launched this bombing of the critical infrastructure, basically of power stations and all the critical infrastructure which supplies this electricity to power the city, whatever. That changed a lot the way how we live because basically every air raid siren now…
Well, an awful thing is that we still differentiate them because when we get an air raid siren, and of course I encourage all the people to go to shelters, but anyway, it is always up to each person to decide whether he or she wants to go. That’s how it is unfortunately because, well, otherwise we would be all going back and forth to the shelters all the time.
Frankly speaking, yes, we ignore this. Sometimes because we read that it’s not a missile launch and actually a fighter which went to the air in Belarus or elsewhere. Again, it’s not the fact, but usually it’s just a sign that they are preparing for the launch, that it will not be now. Usually when it is launched, unless there are missiles of very high-speed missiles that we differentiate the missiles, some of them we cannot hit.
I mean, unfortunately we cannot hit them. But luckily Russia has too few of them and they use it very occasionally. The majority of missiles which they have our air defense system can hit. They do it in the most of the cases, and you have one hour or so while the missiles are in the air to hide. Again, this is the awful thing to say, but this are just, say, the realities.
We have to work in these circumstances. Again, so all people of course should go to the shelters. If they do, they normally don’t have the ability to work there because it’s in the underground or in such places. But otherwise we continue working normally. We, of course, made the reservation for clients when we provide some deadlines when they provide for deadlines. We say that it may happen that they will be postponed, but otherwise, we are working.
Of course, as the electricity infrastructure was damaged in October and November especially, we started having issues with electricity then. By issues, I mean that for instance in my place where I live, I have three hours when I do have electricity, then four, five, six hours when I don’t have electricity, and then again. Yeah, so wherever possible, we purchased gasoline or diesel power generators, these charging stations, basically big batteries.
And so with all of that, we try to work as usual way as possible. There were also issues due to that. You don’t even think about it, but it appears, which is quite logical when you think of it. But you never think of it in this way, that when the whole cities have electricity blackouts, they are all disconnected from the power grids.
Then mobile network also stops working because all the antennas of mobile providers that also require electricity. Yes, they have. As the time passes, they install more and more generators and other stuff, antennas. But no one could have expected that obviously from the very beginning. That’s why we had issues with internet connection as well, especially October, November, then the situation got better. But still sometimes we do have them still, which is also a challenge.
Frankly speaking, this was one of the fears in the first days of the war that we wouldn’t have any possibilities for communication. But luckily then that wasn’t an issue, a factor. Now, it is sometimes the issue, but basically, because you understand that the system as such works then that is not such a big fear. But it’s just a complexity in the work and in day-to-day life, which over months becomes better.
We hope that as winter ends there will be less power consumption in the countries in general because you don’t need provide for heating, which now takes the majority of the electricity usage. Then it’ll be easier.
Lindsay Griffiths: It’s amazing the things that you don’t even think of happening. I mean, there’s certain things you assume that happen and then all of these other knock-on effects that come on as a result of all of the other things.
You talk about internet connectivity and electricity, and one of the things that I was reading about, and this happened I know as part of COVID and global lockdowns, was an increased risk for cybersecurity. I’m wondering if that’s been something that’s been discussed as part of client concerns and that type of thing as well. Because obviously with a lack of internet and electrical issues, has that been something that has come up for you as well?
Taras Utiralov: Yeah, I would say that, and in general by the way, COVID has done a favor for us that we all, and the whole world, got used to working remotely because otherwise that would be an additional shock for us. But we had an ability to continue working remotely, which is a must for us now because basically it’s not always safe to work in the offices which are allocated in the center of Kyiv. We are decentralized. From wherever and whenever one wants to work from whatever, it’s up to him or her. Even if it’s another country, we’ll still continue working.
You are right, yes, there were concerns about cybersecurity, but frankly it didn’t affect that much our clients or us as a firm. Because again, our clients are all foreign businesses, and they usually got all these matters treated globally. Basically, most of them store their information, the key information, at least abroad.
Same applies to us. We all store the information in the European Union with all due compliance with the GDPR and other stuff. This was our big advantage because we didn’t basically have any important documents stored electronically here. Because there was also an issue that the offices could be destroyed physically, and the information can go to someone who is not supposed to have, frankly speaking.
But again, this wasn’t our case. From this perspective, we were protected. But still, we obviously do have paper documents, both our internal documents and clients’ documents. That was the biggest concern, I would say, for me as the director because obviously they were still in Ukraine as they should be and in the offices. But luckily our offices were not directly affected by the war action.
Now, we and the majority of businesses in Ukraine, may even say that almost all of the businesses, are trying to switch all processes, to switch everything to the electronic format. And so we all switch.
This all started, back then in COVID times, but now it has become even more important because, due to safety reasons as you mentioned, and as I mentioned. Secondly, it is due to the fact that people are located wherever you can imagine. I mean, not only in Ukraine but in other countries as well.
But still we need to exchange documents, and of course it has become more burdensome to exchange those in paper form. More and more businesses switch to electronic document exchange, and this will also help us in a long-term perspective.
Lindsay Griffiths: Yeah, it’s true. I think COVID, and now certainly the war, is forcing everybody to do things in a more electronic format, which is good in some ways, but unfortunate for the reason.
What is something that you want people outside of Ukraine to know, and how can… The number one question I think all of us have, and the question that I get, is what can we be doing to support your firm and, more broadly, the people of Ukraine?
Taras Utiralov: Yep. I must say that basically the first, and maybe the only thing that supported me and I believe that all Ukrainians in the first days, the first months, and still supports Ukraine, is the scale of support which we got from the world. I posted at this basically most of people, most of lawyers did, on LinkedIn message in the first day of war on about this fact, explain what’s happening.
It got some thousands of likes, et cetera, and many messages of support. Not only due to this but in general, I started getting messages from people I haven’t seen decades. My classmates, who have been leaving as I learned from them only then because these were not my closest friends. I finished the school, and that’s the last day when I saw them. They started messaging that, “Look, I live in Europe, in Canada, whatever, for a long time. Whatever you need, call me anytime.”
And so that was indeed the greatest pleasant surprise, really. Everyone gave, had support in practical means. As I mentioned, one of the biggest fears was that no one can help you. Even the words that people demonstrated that they are ready to help you, they are important, so again, luckily we didn’t need that much and in real practical support now as a firm.
Not strangely, but surprisingly, and luckily, I must say that our office remained profitable in 2022. I can even say that we demonstrate the second best result ever, which is a pleasant surprise. It is not a surprise. Again, this is due to the fact that we’re working on that previously and continue to in 2022. But I must say that. So as such, we do not need any practical support. But it is important for us as people to understand that we do have a support from the, as we say, civilized world.
As to the country in general, I must say that the biggest support and what we need is obviously support armed forces and, well, you basically know all this happening. We just need from normal people, not governments, the support of this trend to provide more and more support or armed forces because this is the only tool how to end this.
Not just me, I mean people from abroad ask questions whether it can come to any peace negotiations, et cetera. But frankly speaking, and again a very practical question, whether we can give up Crimea for instance. My only answer to this is unfortunately, or fortunately, whatever, but we don’t have that choice. We as Ukraine, we are not given that choice.
Crimea was occupied and annexed by Russia since 2014, but that didn’t stop them. If Crimea was everything which they needed the 24th of February 2022, that wouldn’t happen. If we give up now Crimea for a sort of peace, we must understand that that wouldn’t be a peace. It would be just a pause for them to regroup and attack again. Because again, this is what they did. We never attacked Crimea since 2014.
Basically, we understand that wasn’t enough. The only thing which Russia needs is the whole Ukraine, and we have no option to give up something for peace, and that’s the only thing which… Indeed, the negotiations may take place, but only at the point when no one can continue them. As soon as Russia can, well, if Russia wanted to stop this, they would stop immediately, then. We’re not attacking Russia. They withdraw from Ukraine, that would stop the war immediate. But that isn’t happening just because they have the resources to continue.
The answer then is that we need to fight back as soon as they leave the whole Ukraine, including Crimea, then something may happen. But then we’ll have another issue that we need to join NATO. Because the fact of presence of nuclear weapons for members of the NATO, that’s the only thing that may stop Russia from further attempts to attack Ukraine, basically. It is how it is.
Lindsay Griffiths: Right, that’s true.
What do you see as the next steps for Ukraine? I think we spoke before we started that you think this will go on for at least another year. And as you said, you don’t believe this is going to come to a negotiation. Do you-
Taras Utiralov: At least until one of the parties cannot continue fighting.
Again, for us, it is not an option simply because we will just stop our existence and if we stop fighting. But Russia, it’s not option because they can continue.
Not only as a firm but as a country in general, we try to live as normal life as possible. For instance, well of course economy of Ukraine is in a terrible situation. But when you think of it, it’s not that terrible as it could have been. I mean, strangely, again surprisingly, the whole system continued working not only the state system, but the businesses in general, too. The bank system hasn’t stopped working for a single day, for a single hour. Bank, cars, everything continued working, whatever happened, I guess we didn’t even have any majority bankruptcy since then. I don’t recall. Yeah, they were not.
Because for instance, as compared to the situation 2014 when the first days of that war, the start of that war, half of the banks of Ukraine went bankrupt. I mean, we used to have more than 100 banks in Ukraine before 2014. Now we have like 50, and so there was nothing like that since February last year.
By the way, IT industry, which is one of two biggest industries, profit generating in Ukraine nowadays. Second is agriculture, but agriculture had its issues with logistics and basically how to export. Because we are an export in terms we don’t need that much grains and whatever in Ukraine, we’re exporting the majority of what we produce to other countries.
But now, as you may know, there is this Turkey-supported initiative when the ships can go from Ukraine abroad to get their grain, et cetera. But due to that, I don’t know the figures, but I’m sure that they were not so brilliant as they might have been because of the war logistic issue.
But IT industry has showed record figures in 2022. Well, the NATO standard is, what, two or 3% of GDP for military expenses? I don’t recall the figure, two or three. Now, our military expenses are 50% of our state budget. Not surprisingly, and we have like 50% of lack of money, the budget. Our budget is only half supported basically by the West, as we say, a civilized world, different countries, European Union. From this standpoint, our economy is very much dependent on the external support.
But at the same time, businesses they try to continue working. They go abroad. Many businesses expanded to Poland, to the Czech Republic and otherwise. Again, we have, here as a firm, a huge advantage as well because we have offices all over these countries.
I didn’t mention that, but during the first months of this big war, ladies from our offices, they relocated temporarily to Prague mostly. In Prague, we had half of the office maybe working for several months there in our offices in Prague. They had huge support, and that was also an important thing. But now almost all of people are back in Ukraine. We are now working from our offices here. And so this is basically how all businesses try to continue working.
Yeah, many of them had considerable part of staff relocated in the beginning, but now many people who come back to Ukraine during winter, there have been issues again with electricity, all that. And so some people came back to Europe. Now they will come back to Ukraine like this.
Again, we try to live and to do business as usual to the extent possible, to continue doing this business, bearing in mind that as a country, we have an economy. We do need support, financial support, from our partners abroad.
Lindsay Griffiths: It’s quite incredible. I think all of us, as you say in the civilized world, are really quite impressed. You certainly have our support, and I have my Ukrainian flag flying outside I can tell you. We certainly do send all of our support and love to all of you. If there’s anything that you do need, please do let us know.
Thank you really for joining us today, and we look forward to sharing your story and to hearing better news much sooner.
But in the meantime, as we said in the beginning, you have not lost a day of business, which is truly a very impressive thing. I cannot even imagine. I think there are firms that have lost business for much less, and so this is really truly an impressive thing.
Taras, really thank you for joining us today, and thank you to everyone else for joining us. We will be back next week with another guest. Thank you again.
Taras Utiralov: Thank you. Good luck.