Running a Law Firm During War in Ukraine

Speaker’s Corner From The Practice July/August 2022
A conversation with a managing partner from Kyiv

David B. Wilkins, faculty director of the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession, sat down with Maria Orlyk, managing partner of CMS Reich-Rohrwig Hainz’s Kyiv office, about continuing legal operations in the lead up to and aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

David B. Wilkins: I’d like to start with a little bit about your background. Could you talk about your career and practice, and how you ended up as the head of CMS Reich-Rohrwig Hainz’s Kyiv office?

Maria Orlyk: It was a New York job fair! It’s weird to say, but my experience in the United States brought me to CMS. I am, first of all, a Ukraine-trained lawyer. I graduated from the Institute of International Relations of Taras Shevchenko National University and was working in one of the top law firms in Ukraine. But I wanted to continue my studies, so I applied for—and received—a scholarship from the Edmund Muskie Program to get an LL.M. at Wake Forest University in 2005 and 2006. And there, without any plans, somebody told me, “We should go and check out the New York job fair.” So we went!

A blonde woman in her late 30s/40s with glasses smiles at the camera. She wears a v neck gray top.
Maria Orlyk

At the fair, I had an interview with the name partner of our organization, Dr. Bernhard Hainz. And CMS made me an offer. Back then they were just considering opening an office in Kyiv. Dr. Hainz was exceptionally persistent. He kept calling me the whole summer. So I joined CMS in 2006, and I am now the longest-serving CMS lawyer in Ukraine—it’s been 16 years. I became a local partner in 2012 and was promoted to the next level of partnership in 2019. In 2021 I took charge of our office in Kyiv and also became cohead of the Energy and Climate Change Group at CMS Reich-Rohrwig Hainz, encompassing a total of 11 offices in Europe.

We’ve definitely seen bumpy times over those 16 years: the economic recession in 2008, when the entire market was changing, and then of course the revolution—the Maidan—in 2013 and tragic developments that followed with the annexation of Crimea and military actions in the Eastern Ukraine, the pandemic, and now the full-scale war. It’s been a long path.

Wilkins: Before the war, how many lawyers did you have at the Kyiv office?

Orlyk: We are a rather small team—around 10 and hiring. The entire team at the moment are composed of Ukrainian lawyers, though we used to have a number of foreign lawyers on board in the past. I would note that despite having such a small team, servicing clients, even on big projects, was never a problem. In Ukraine, lawyers never specialize in one particular area. Typically, lawyers cover three or sometimes even four areas. So, even with a small team, you can have a lot of projects and cover anything a client might need.

Wilkins: So then February happens—the Russian invasion. Tell me a little bit about it. Walk me through the kinds of decisions that you had to make and how you made them.

The main goal was keeping people safe, including making sure our people and their families were connected.

Maria Orlyk

Orlyk: I’m typically the kind of person who makes decisions pretty easily and quicky. That’s probably why I am in this role. Still, it just seemed so inconceivable that this was going to happen. You read things in the media, but then deep inside, you don’t believe that something—that this invasion—would happen. I felt responsibility for the entire team, so even though it seemed so impossible, I was busy preparing.

In January I started thinking about a contingency plan. We didn’t know what exactly would occur because everything the media reported seemed like speculation. But you never know. People were very disoriented. And most people didn’t believe what was being reported. I was speaking to people who seemed to have far better access to information, greater life experience, and used to hold very senior positions in the government—they all believed that nothing would happen. But, at the same time, there was risk. I consulted with our partners in Kyiv and Vienna, with the IT department, and with others, and we agreed on what would need to be done if the inconceivable happened.

The main goal was keeping people safe, including making sure our people and their families were connected. Second, to the extent possible and to the extent that there was no threat to people’s lives, we knew we needed to keep client files secure. Third, we knew we needed to keep our operations going.

I started receiving inquiries from the clients in January about what we were going to do. I was telling them, “We have a contingency plan.” And I said to them, “You also need to have a contingency plan, because if it doesn’t happen, you’re not losing anything. But if it happens, you would not be, as we say, ‘biting your elbows’ that you didn’t do anything.”

I remember the discussion that I had with our head of IT some weeks before the war, “What are we going to do? There is equipment we need to …” And he told me, “Don’t worry. Everything is secured; all the files are saved. There will be no breach. And if something happens, don’t waste time on trying to save assets. Just run from danger. Your life and safety are most important. Don’t try to save any assets—we can buy new computers. The most important thing is data. It’s safe.” And it was a very important message.

I said to our clients, ‘You also need to have a contingency plan, because if it doesn’t happen, you’re not losing anything.’

In all honesty, of course, I was also preparing personally and with my family. In my mind, I thought that anything could happen, although I did not believe that anything ballistic would materialize. Unfortunately, it did. When I woke up on February 24, it was much worse than I would’ve reasonably imagined. But our team had prepared. Still, when I think about it, it’s like life has been split in half—before the 24th and after.

Wilkins: Where are things now?

Orlyk: Everything happened so abruptly and on such a massive scale. It was just so big. We had planned for a lot, but what we did not have in mind was securing evacuation buses. Some teams and organizations did take care of it and deserve so much credit for this.

On the 24th, I was the only person who went to the office—I live about 10 minutes away. I went to pick up some essential things and the most essential documents. And I left the city center and joined my family south of Kyiv. And in the coming days, our team started one by one doing the same. In fact, a group of our lawyers came to my house for a day, and then they moved toward the western border.

In the first week, people with their own cars and their families moved toward the western regions. Men couldn’t and didn’t intend to leave the country, so they would send their wives and children—maybe their parents—abroad. And this is where our colleagues from CMS in Europe were so critical. They would accept them, embracing them, taking them to a safe location, and really taking care of them. It was absolutely heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. This experience has taken our CMS team bond to a very new level. We feel that we belong to one big, caring family.

Our partner Anna Pogrebna and I were on the outskirts of Kyiv for around 10 days, and then we started moving toward the western border. We didn’t really have a fixed plan. Seven days later, after multiple stops on the way, I made it to Austria. Anna stayed in Lviv with her family for around a month and later returned to Kyiv.

We now have a major part of our team here in Vienna. Some of them went directly to Austria; some were in different European countries. But we brought them together. A smaller part of our team is still in Kyiv, including some of our male colleagues. In fact, at this moment, it works very well in terms of being able to work and to provide advice to clients inside and outside of Ukraine.

Wilkins: What is lawyering in a crisis like? Are there new skills or knowledge that you need to acquire? For example, there’s martial law, as I understand, in Ukraine. Are you having to quickly get up to speed on advising clients? Are there other aspects of helping your Ukrainian clients cope with this situation? Does ordinary work go on?

Orlyk: Ukraine has an incredibly dynamic legal system, so we are all used to change. We don’t enjoy a stable legal system, like in Western Europe or North America. Our legal system is still developing. Every second day you get new legislation—and it’s not just a face-lift of something that used to be before. It’s absolutely new. When I graduated law school, all the major codes were already changing, so whatever I studied, I needed to relearn. This is all to say, we are quite adept at change. We are used to learning fast. We are used to catching up and adapting.

There was this massive demand for advice. Once you’re a lawyer, you don’t stop lawyering. It’s a person-to-person business. Your clients are your friends. You don’t let them down.

We never—I’m so proud about of our team—we never stopped advising our clients. Our clients went into exactly the same crisis that we were in. They had the same problems. I remember I was queuing at various checkpoints throughout Ukraine on my way to Vienna, and I was on calls with clients explaining to them what they needed to do. And all the lawyers on our team were doing the same, speaking to clients or drafting legal advice every time they had a moment free from driving.

The immediate questions many were asking had to do with employment issues. It was not clear how the employment regulations should be amended. For instance, many volunteered to join the army. Some people were drafted. There was this massive demand for advice, which was immediate and could not be ignored. Once you’re a lawyer, you don’t stop lawyering. It’s a person-to-person business. Your clients are your friends. You don’t let them down.

The first month was very difficult. The government did a lot of things to prevent abuse of the legal system, which for lawyers was a challenge because there were so many things that we couldn’t do anymore. For instance, registries were closed, so real estate transactions were blocked. Corporate transactions were blocked. So, in the first month, the core of the advice was mainly aimed at how to deal with martial law.

Martial law was implemented immediately, so we had to provide advice on everything that the clients needed to do under it—supplies and contracts, employment issues, leases, tax issues, etc. One big issue has been the relocation of Ukrainian businesses, both within Ukraine and outside Ukraine. A lot of our clients have suffered damages or have seen the full destruction of their property, and this raised a whole class of issues regarding compensation. There have also been a lot of issues around sanctions compliance. Most of our clients are international companies. They’re engaged in cross-border trade, so they are affected by the currency control restrictions. The really big difficulty has been corporate transactions. I’m primarily a transactional lawyer. But, M&A has been largely frozen because the registry has not been working. A lot of legal situations have been in a deadlock, where actually it was very difficult to be creative and you needed to be very careful.

Now, the courts have reopened, and that has been a big change. So the courts now are operational, which means that we have restarted all the proceedings that have been put on hold, including proceedings at the Supreme Court. We have office calls every week. Well, we have been having them throughout the pandemic because you don’t get to see each other every day. And now on every call, we get this news that we’ve moved forward on this matter or that matter. And especially if this comes from the Supreme Court, this is such a great news, especially since you’ve been waiting for decisions from the Supreme Court for one-and-a-half years and then it’s finally there. A friend of mine is a judge and told me, “We were having a hearing, and the air raid alarm went off. We’re all supposed to interrupt the hearing, but the parties refused. The parties protested. So we continued to hear the arguments.” So it’s incredible: the country is at war, but we’re finding a way to make everything work.

I see everybody filled with hope. Not just with hope, but with absolute conviction that we will win.

Wilkins: I wonder, what gives you hope now about the Ukrainian legal profession as you survive and hopefully emerge from this nightmare going forward?

Orlyk: First, the fact that Ukrainians now are all standing as one. Of course, my closest circle are lawyers, and that is what I’ve been seeing with people in the legal profession. Indeed, very good friends of mine—lawyers of very high seniority in the Ukrainian legal profession and in the courts—have joined the army. In the army, they also teach their comrades the rules of war. They teach them the rules of the humanitarian law. They teach how soldiers need to behave and how they need to treat those who have been captured. That is so important.

I see everybody filled with hope. Not just with hope, but with absolute conviction that we will win. We know that it will cost us a lot. We know that we have a lot to rebuild. But I know everybody is committed to rebuilding. We feel for it from our own people, and we feel it from Europe, the United States, Canada, and all around the world.

And the Ukrainian Army—and this is something that I should have said before—it is the Ukrainian Army and the Ukrainian people that give us that hope first of all. We all have this feeling we can’t fail them. So, we must do what we can to somehow contribute to the victory, even from afar. That’s, I think, something that keeps us all so inspired.

Maria Orlyk is managing partner of CMS Reich-Rohrwig Hainz in Kyiv and a reputed partner specializing in corporate/M&A and energy.

David B. Wilkins is the Lester Kissel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, vice dean for Global Initiatives on the Legal Profession, and faculty director of the Center on the Legal Profession.


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