Every law firm defines success as being in demand on the market, having a presence of its own niche in the business of law practice, and a pool of regular customers.
It is obvious in the business of law practice such success is mainly brought by an image formed in the market. The image is formed either by the names of individual lawyers or, as is the case with SIGNUM Law Firm, by well-organized and highly professional team. To form a successful image for domestic law firms on the market is very challenging due to various factors. Nevertheless, over 10 years of its existence SIGNUM has gone a long way and is now one of the leading regional law firms. The upcoming anniversary is a good occasion to have a talk with the team members, to reflect, share plans and give advice to the young generation.
We had a fruitful interview with the following leading lawyers: Abylkhair Nakipov, Partner, has extensive experience in the sphere of subsoil use and energy. Currently he successfully practices business law and contracts.
Gaukhar Kudaibergenova, Senior Associate of the firm, the youngest member of the senior management. She has more than 8 years of experience in the field of legal consultancy gained by working at SIGNUM.
Liza Zhumakhmetova, Partner, head of M&A practice at SIGNUM. She has many years of experience in mergers and acquisitions, is a qualified lawyer in Kazakhstan, as well as one of the few in Kazakhstan admitted to legal practice in the State of New York.
Victoriya Trofimovich, Senior Associate, practices corporate law and labor law. In addition, she has extensive experience in the oil and gas sphere.
Talgat Sariev, Partner, specializes in court litigation. His experience includes successful dispute resolution with government authorities on tax issues.
Sofiya Zhylkaidarova, Managing Partner, initiated the interview answering to the first question.
Sofiya, this year SIGNUM Law Firm celebrates its 10 years' anniversary. Could you please share how you decided to create the company?
Sofiya Zhylkaidarova: In 2006, some of my colleagues (we are still together) and myself decided to organize our own law practice. We had certain work experience and a desire to create something new. Reflecting on reasons for our decision, I come to the conclusion that we have been guided by the sense of professional maturity. The sense when one strives to feel independent in decision-making, meanwhile being a part of a coherent and united team sharing similar principles and values. By that time I had experience in a Kazakhstan law firm, including the experience both as a lawyer providing services to clients, and as a manager in charge of about 10 young specialists.
We aspired to create a team that would meet the highest professional requirements, based on the main principles as integrity, cooperation and mutual assistance. We have always dreamed of a highly effective team, tutoring own staff, where subordinates would always be able to rely on managers as professional mentors with personal touch. That is how we imagined a perfect team, a Dream Team, to be. We wanted to create an environment without employee turnover, so that we would always work with people we trust. We wanted our clients to be not just individuals and companies ready to pay us money, but clients who share our principles. Until present day we have been working to create the Dream Team, and, I believe, we succeed.
Abylkhair, you also took the chance and together with the other founders ventured upon the creation of a new law firm in 2006. Could you share your memories of how it was?
Abylkhair Nakipov: At first we did have some small doubts. But the first months of independent work proved that we were acknowledged as specialists and professionals, and people were ready to cooperate with us. At first clients resorted to specific lawyers, but eventually they were attracted by the name of the company which has become a kind of "quality mark". Of course, it took time and hard work, but it's nice to know that one of the goals we sought was achieved.
What has changed in the company over the years?
Sofiya Zhylkaidarova: We have grown incredibly over 10 years. In 2006, SIGNUM consisted of 4 people in a small office, united by a keen idea. Today, we have a huge office at our disposal, a greater number of employees, and the number of our clients has increased tenfold. We ourselves have become much more efficient. It now takes a lawyer much less time to perform the same amount of work as before. We have ceased to be "masters of all trades". Many of us completed further education and increased insight in particular fields of law. Today, I dare to call any of us a "bright star" in his or her practice. We obtained high ratings from international rating agencies, clients recognize us, and we constantly receive the most positive feedback from them.
Our goal is extra satisfaction of clients, meaning not only provision of quality, but also a desire to give them more than they expect from us. The same "excessive demands" principle applies to certain risk assessment, and we strive to offer more than just a legal opinion, looking at the case from business and commercial perspective as well. Whoever lawyer our client applies to, he is sure to receive an equal level of service. That is how the "dream team" should work.
How does the company feel itself in the market? Has the crisis affected its work in a positive or negative way?
Abylkhair Nakipov: In general, the amount of work remains the same, but there have been changes as to the structure and nature of legal inquiries. At the moment, in particular, the amount of work increased in such practices as Dispute Resolution and M&A. Personally, my practice witnesses a demand for enforcement of certain contractual terms, preparation of standard contracts forms, interpretation of certain contractual provisions for courts and arbitration purposes. At the same time, while the number of new development projects has not decreased, not all these initiatives result in practical implementation.
Liza Zhumakhmetova: Indeed, there were some concerns that the crisis would affect lawyers and other professionals involved in the consulting activities, and that the number of orders would decrease. Fortunately, these fears were unfounded. The amount of work has not reduced, and even increased in some practices (such as in mergers and acquisitions – M&A). This is due to the fact that in the wake of the crisis many companies cannot cope with their commitments because of lack of financial capacity and, therefore, either seek for strategic investors to jointly further develop business, or completely sell it. In a time of crisis the number of such companies in the market increases, and the purchase price of shares/participating interests becomes more attractive for foreign and domestic investors. Therefore, we work in full swing, hiring professionals, as well as engaging lawyers from other practices for implementation of M&A projects.
Talgat Sariev: The bulk of our clients are subsoil users, a large part of which comprises subsoil users in the field of oil and gas. In addition, over the past few years the list of clients has been extended by the companies involved in distribution of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, various equipment distributors. One of the objectives during the crisis is mastery of new fields and diversification of our services.
The crisis has proved that, despite the fact that companies still put moneys in litigation, currently these budgets are being cut, and objectively the amount of work decreases. Though, for example, claims work on debt collection has been considerably enhanced, as well as the work on enforcement proceedings.
Victoriya, what other factors have affected your practice (labor law) over the last year?
Victoriya Trofimovich: Adoption of the new Labour Code has considerably influenced my practice since the innovations caused a lot of inquiries from HR-specialists. New grounds for dismissal have been added, issues have arisen as to the practical implementation of the new regulations, and dismissal of retirees and chief executive officers and issues of intra-group secondments are constantly under discussion.
The procedure for settlement of labor disputes has changed. If previously an employee could promptly go to court, there is now an obligatory pre-trial procedure for applying to a conciliation commission. Only after the conciliation commission considers the labor dispute, any party that does not agree with its decision may appeal to the court. As of now, most of the questions deal precisely with the order of formation and operating procedure of conciliation commission, as the Labor Code establishes mandatory common regulations, yet some specific issues (number of members, operating procedure, term of powers, involvement of intermediaries) shall be determined by agreement of the parties (employer and employee representatives) in each specific organization. Many employers and employees are not ready for such a procedure.
Sofiya, your law firm is already a success. But as they say, one cannot rest on his laurels. What are the further aspirations of your "dream team"?
Sofiya Zhylkaidarova: Legal business is a very competitive business, and one has to be sensitive to trends. We pioneer some of the products in Kazakhstan and do it professionally. We actively cooperate with international law firms and try to learn from their best. But the most important goal sought by the "dream team" is to be a highly efficient team, for this is exactly the basis of success.
Sofiya, and what do you mean by "highly efficient team"?
One of the main qualities of our highly efficient team is the vision of the legal business, shared by all the members, and a goal that unites us, the general concern about the quality of company services, clearly defined time frames for achieving goals, excellent communication within the team, challenging goals that each sets for oneself. In addition, this includes involvement of the maximum number of people in addressing the matters of certain levels. For each member of the team it is very important to be able to direct oneself and to work independently. And the most important quality, I believe, is that members of highly efficient team enjoy spending time with each other, celebrating collective success or success of individual members. Unfortunately, subsumed by routine work, we often happen to forget to praise, or thank each other, but we aim to fix it. We declared this year to be a year of gratitude and sports, and we already have some achievements in sport as a team and as individual members. All this year we learn to give thanks and to understand each other, for we believe the emotional component, which may appear inappropriate for lawyers, to be very important for our Dream Team.
Liza Zhumakhmetova: Human capital asset is the most important "asset" for SIGNUM. Therefore, we appreciate each specialist, each employee and create all the conditions for his/her growth both as a professional and in personal terms. We conduct regular training for our employees on various legal specializations, as well as trainings on personal qualities, the so-called «soft skills». Moreover, we encourage our employees' commitment to development and growth in any field – whether it is sports or creative achievements. Thus, recently our company supported our team's participation in the team race "Ekiden" at the Almaty international marathon.
Sofiya, how many people are currently working in the company, and what is their average age?
Sofiya Zhylkaidarova: In total, there are more than 20 people engaged as lawyers, as well as consultants and experts. Constantly we have 17 people in the office, some are currently on a child care leave, but they often work online from home. We also have other experts, with whom we cooperate on a remote working basis. This is a very modern trend of a person not punching the clock in the office but working remotely if it is more convenient for him/her, say, because she/he has to take care of a child or for some other reason. I am not aware of how other companies operate, but I believe that we are one of the few who have opted for this way. Once a major project comes in, we summon all the firm's lawyers and distribute tasks, and, as a result, we are all of us engaged, be it in the office or at home.
I cannot place the average age of our employees. Our company employs lawyers of all ages. We appreciate the most professional candidates and do not pay attention to age.
How do you manage to maintain a comfortable environment in a mixed-age team? Do conflicts happen, and how do you resolve them?
Thank you for such an incisive question! Any team inevitably faces conflict situations at work. The phenomenon of "storm of tempers" happens anytime and anywhere. The conflict has several stages: its formation, culmination, or "storm", and resolution. The manager of any level is responsible for managing conflicts at any stage and resolving them properly. One of the challenges that our managers confront at the stage of team formation or involvement of employees in a particular project is to create conditions that would prevent conflicts, and to maintain an atmosphere of cooperation.
We have a system of anonymous feedback, where every company employee can discuss their problems directly with me. Conflict situations demotivate employees, and adversely affect the operation of the team in general. We try to resolve any discord. Life nowadays is complex enough as it is, and being under constant stress at work is unacceptable.
Victoriya, as a person who works closely with HR-managers, could you give an assessment of HR management at SIGNUM.
Victoriya Trofimovich: We have a special company, with its unique atmosphere within the team. Since the formal aspect of labor relations (contracts, orders) does not pose any difficulties for us, the main function of our HR-manager is staff recruitment. Since our employees are a core value and a key resource for SIGNUM, we have a multi-stage procedure for employment. One of the important aspects to which we pay attention is how much a person is motivated, i.e. whether he is "bright-eyed", whether he aspires to achieve professional success or not. When a person becomes a part of our team, he accepts the established rules of cooperation, shares our values. Despite varying age and professional experience, no one forces anybody to anything; we support and motivate each other via process, result and relationship with the clients.
Close work with people is the specificity of our business. I tend to observe that lawyers resemble doctors in a way, since we are talking primarily about trust in us as professionals, the vitality of clients' interests to us. Just like to a doctor, nobody would come to a lawyer for no reason.
Please, compare the job of in-house lawyers and legal consultants? What are the pros and cons of these activities?
Liza Zhumakhmetova: The main advantage of working as a corporate lawyer (In-house) is the balance between professional and personal life. I believe that corporate lawyers maintain a steadier and calmer rhythm of work, enjoy established business processes, etc. Consulting, on the contrary, is characterized by varied and interesting assignments, meeting new and different people, acquiring new knowledge and making discoveries. It is believed that the main disadvantage of consulting is the lack of «work-life balance». But it was at SIGNUM that I obtained the opportunity to find this balance. Previously, I could work up to 10-11 hours each day and have neither strength nor desire for anything else. Now I try to maintain a balance between professional and personal life, and our company in every way promotes and creates such conditions that the employee would be engaged in favorite work and at the same time have quality time for themselves, their families and children.
Sofiya Zhylkaidarova: As Liza has already mentioned, we maintain the principle of «work-life balance» in our team. My colleagues have very versatile personalities: Abylkhair Nakipov goes in for designing military and historical miniatures, Victoriya Trofimovich is an almost professional painter, Sofya Zaichenko has an excellent conduct of Japanese language and is interested in Japanese culture, Ulan Stybayev organized training for American football fans in Almaty. We realize our potential not only as lawyers.
Sofiya, Managing Partners often happen to be fully focused on managing activities, leaving no time for practice. Is this statement true in your case?
Sofiya Zhylkaidarova: Management takes a lot of time, but working on administrative and financial issues is a surcharge. Sometimes you have to do it after six. Sometimes you are able to manage everything in the course of working day. It all depends on proper time management. I have to communicate with colleagues (and make sure that I give enough attention to each), make work assessments, discuss ideas with each practice, consolidate the results achieved, and set out plans for the future.
Does that imply that your working day is longer than that of your co-workers?
It is difficult to compare the respective amount of time spent at work by me and my colleagues. Perhaps, the head has a greater responsibility in any area. The workload is huge in many law firms, and they work almost day and night. We are committed to «work-life balance», because everyone has a family and life outside the office. There is no such thing with us as objecting to any of us getting married or deciding to have a baby. We aim to appreciate the well-being of every employee. It is just that some of the projects have to be given a little more time, or more employees have to be engaged.
Abylkhair, what is your field of expertise nowadays?
Abylkhair Nakipov: Despite the fact that my responsibilities mainly cover monitoring of provision of services and their quality, as well as management of individual projects (client orders), at the same time a considerable part of my working hours is dedicated to performing direct duties as a lawyer. It allows me to maintain and improve my skills. Also, I head the Business Law and Contracts practice, which, in addition to contract law, includes a number of related areas of law: real estate matters, intellectual rights, competition law, etc., that is, areas that our company cannot place into a separate practice. Thus, we consolidated them within business law.
Talgat, a lay man tends to believe that is the one engaged in judicial practice is precisely the "real lawyer". Do you think this statement is true?
Talgat Sariev: From my point of view, the lay man may be right in a way, as those who are engaged in litigation, should not only be familiar with their subject, but also be able to convince others of their rightness.
The specificity of external consultants' work is that clients come to us when the situation has reached an impasse, and we are the last resort to them. This is a heavy moral burden for lawyers, given that the atmosphere in the courts, to put it mildly, is not particularly friendly. In our practice, in most cases the state acts as the opponent, and public authorities assume a position of being right, since they act in the public interest, and often behave very aggressively.
What are the advantages of litigation lawyer's profession?
Talgat Sariev: The main advantage would be the very complex cases. They require a lot of work with the existing laws and practice, and one could promptly grow as a professional.
It is believed that the client never saves on litigation. Large companies annually set out budgets for dispute resolution. From the financial point of view, for the lawyer and his company it is always a winning situation.
Those who are engaged in lawsuits may proceed with a career of an attorney: obtain a license and, with a store of knowledge under their belt, advise clients as independent lawyers. Litigation lawyers are highly valued as in-house, since they have experience in resolving conflicts and complex situations. Many of my friends teach – which is also a good PR for a lawyer.
What helps you at work?
Gaukhar Kudaibergenova: A significant part of lawyer's work is dealing with people, and thus one always must be responsive, inclinable towards people. One constantly faces new situations, is turned to for help, is trusted, and can give useful advice. The work in M&A implies permanent interaction with both the client and with other parties to the transaction. Being an extrovert helps me, as I like to communicate. I try to keep the focus on the work, read books, study global transactions statistics.
And, of course, education plays a great role. I graduated from Kazakh National University named after Al-Farabi, with specialty in International Law, and then did Master's degree in International Commercial Law in the UK, the Scottish university. I think it would have been difficult if I had only domestic education. M&A involves knowledge of foreign law, mostly English. Foreign experience is necessary, and all the knowledge gained in the framework of study abroad can be applied in Kazakhstan.
Liza Zhumakhmetova: First, knowledge of foreign languages is essential in our work, as many of our clients are international and foreign companies. But, of course, the knowledge of the language alone is not enough. In consulting in general and in M&A projects in particular it is very important to have a well-coordinated and reliable team of professionals who know their job very well, which you can always rely on. In addition, communication skills are a significant advantage, since it is necessary to communicate with different clients from many jurisdictions with different cultural, social and ethnic backgrounds. Foreign education can also serve as a good base to work as a consultant, since a person who not only received a solid education, but also lived in a completely different environment, in a society with a different mentality and different cultural roots, will be able to quickly find a common language with different people and be able to understand and provide the necessary support in a timely manner.
Talgat Sariev: I enjoy judicial practice, as every day I am faced with something new and interesting. It gives great moral satisfaction to solve the case in one's favor. There is a certain balance to it: when you know that, in spite of the pressure and difficulties, you win the case, the return would negate all the minuses.
Victoriya Trofimovich: A lawyer's job is not boring, and lawyers are not dull. A good lawyer is always creative about his work, because, as a rule, the client is not satisfied with the response "no, we can't go this way". If the issue cannot be resolved the way the client proposes, he expects that we would offer a way of resolving the same issue by other legal means. Just saying "no, it is prohibited by law" is beyond our standard. But, of course, we do not provide advice that is a priori illegal.
In addition to profound knowledge of law, lawyers must be professional psychologists: it is important to understand the psychological processes that occur with the client, be sensitive to the human side of him. For example, employees in labor disputes tend to take things personally. If a lawyer acts as a mediator, he indicates to the person that he understands his position, and at the same time tries to help him relieve the stress and assess the situation reasonably. In my practice, we have repeatedly been able to find a compromise and persuade the parties to reach an amicable agreement.
I've always been interested in psychology and now took to it professionally. I am now obtaining my second degree, undergoing training in one of the directions of practical psychology. This knowledge increased my value as a lawyer: just by hearing how a person relates on his issue or how the parties act at the preliminary court hearing, I can already figure which lengths they would be willing to go, and what is the best way to build contact. Psychology as a sector is very useful for lawyers.
And, going back to the subject of art: I paint. Recently I participated in self-taught painters' exhibition organized by art gallery "Umai". For me it is a way to fill myself with creative energy, distract from work and "unload my head." A shovel can be left at work, but never the head, and it is very difficult sometimes to stop thinking about a lawsuit or some complex client request, and it happens at times that I even go to bed still preoccupied. Emotions, which drawing gives, just let me "leave my head at work".
Sofiya, you actively employ the youth. Could you name your reasons? Seeing that in many spheres employees without work experience are not welcome.
Sofiya Zhylkaidarova: It is my personal principle: it's better to employ someone with no experience at all than someone with some experience. A person without experience is a blank sheet, you can teach him according to your vision and aims, as is customary in the company. If it is a talented lawyer, then it would take six months of mentoring to turn him into an excellent specialist. And if he had spent 3-5 years, had changed several companies, "picked up" a little here and there, it would require at least six months to retrain, and then another six months to train him.
Youth support is a mission, as I myself went through this when I was young. I started out in a chaotic time when the Soviet Union collapsed, and no one had the knowledge and skills to teach us as we teach today. My managers did not know how to interpret the law, and there was no mentoring in the sense that we perceive nowadays. We had to approach complex matters and develop skills on our own, but it is the resolving of these problems which made us what we are today – bold, responsible and independent. Now that time has changed, we are helping young people to learn communication skills, presentation skills, text structuring, writing letters. Unfortunately, none of these are taught in universities. I was surprised when I got acquainted with western school program: for example, construction of an essay (a skill which is essential in the legal profession) takes several years of high school. It is well know that those graduated from western high schools already have very good writing skills.
Abylkhair Nakipov: Unfortunately, the quality of education does not keep pace with the realities, does not meet current requirements for young lawyers. There are many graduates in law in the labor market, but it is difficult to locate a good specialist. Moreover, I do not think that our company sets out excessive demands. Our education is engrossed in theoretical training and does not pay due attention to the practice.
It is common practice in the Kazakhstan world of law to train young lawyers in the basics of his profession (for example, how to express their thoughts on paper) for six months. Most law firms today, as well as SIGNUM, are open about this and realize that there are very few trained specialists among young lawyers, and therefore it is necessary to further train them, considering it as an investment in human capital.
Gaukhar, you, more than anyone, apprehend what young lawyers, who get a job in consulting, go through. Please, share with us how you started.
Gaukhar Kudaibergenova: I believe that each case is unique. Often times, your immediate supervisor, the mentor who determines your path plays an important role here. Of course, much depends on the novice himself, the attitude he/she demonstrates, whether he/she is ambitious and willing to take on any job. In my case, SIGNUM was my first workplace. My first projects were directly related to the issues of subsoil use. I have to admit, I was scared, since the subsoil issues are specific and complex in their own way. I thought that first I would deal with registration of legal entities, drafting of standard documents, as it is common for young lawyers, but it was not the case for me. I am grateful to Sofiya and Abylkhair that they chose this path for me and made it possible for me to develop. I quickly gained experience and grew professionally. Now I know that if I had chosen a different way from the beginning and had been involved in less complex issues, work would have been much less interesting for me.
Talgat, the youth tend to picture the job of litigation lawyer in a very appealing way, whereas common knowledge of it is limited to American movies. Do American movies correspond to reality, and what awaits a young lawyer in the judicial field?
Talgat Sariev: In fact, our courts show a completely different reality than those in American movies. Firstly, we have a different judicial system. Second, I personally had several assistants "broken down" due to the fact that young optimistic lawyers faced aggressive opponents such as government authorities.
A young specialist finds it difficult to adjust to the high pace of work, to fit into tight deadlines and to get used to frequent emergencies and unplanned trips related to litigation.
What is the system of professional development of litigation lawyers at SIGNUM?
Talgat Sariev: Young specialists do major job of analyzing and collecting documents, assist senior colleagues, accompany them to the courts. I think that our approach is the right one, because those who came 2-3 years ago are now able to endure difficulties and stress, both moral and physical. I would not advise young specialists to strive for litigation from the beginning. Firstб one should gain experience with legislation, document drafting, analysis of current practice.
Gaukhar, what has changed in SIGNUM since you began to work here? How do they employ and train young people today?
Gaukhar Kudaibergenova: I see that a lot has changed. Moreover, the changes are dramatic. Our company has created systematic approach to working with young specialists. Today, I, as a senior associate, have clear instructions on how to talk to them, how to react to certain actions, how to encourage or make comments. We made it a tradition to dine with our junior colleagues, discuss about their interests, hobbies, attend various events together, as it brings us closer and helps at work. Subordination exists, but at the same time we build good relationships within the team, and this, I believe, is greatly to the credit of Sofiya. The youth is lucky nowadays.
What advice would you give to young lawyers?
Gaukhar Kudaibergenova: Firstly, do not waste time in vain and do define your priorities as soon as possible. The sooner this happens, the sooner it will be possible to channel your efforts. Secondly, it is necessary to constantly educate yourselves. In our student years we did not have a chance to take up online courses offered by professors of prestigious universities from around the world. Nowadays the number of law graduates increases, the youth studies abroad, accordingly, the market witnesses high level of competition.
Thirdly, good conduct of English language is essential. Within the framework of globalization and emergence of new challenges in the market, proficiency in English language is a must-have for a lawyer; moreover, one must speak English like a native. And, of course, western education is of importance, as western education literally "makes one open his eyes", makes it possible to take a fresh look at things, serves as an incentive for constant professional growth, which allows one to get a prestigious and interesting job.
Sofiya Zhylkaidarova: A young lawyer, a student in his final year, should essentially undergo training in written and verbal communication skills, actively participate in social life of the university and thus have presentation skills developed, do a lot of writing and master the skills. Yet, in my opinion, the most important thing is having a mentor. It is very important for a student in his/her final year to have a mentor who would be a professional lawyer, because a mentor could push him/her in the right direction, share experience, not only professional, but personal as well. A young lawyer should not hesitate to go and ask a head of a law firm or legal department of a company whose persona he finds inspiring to be his/her mentor. I believe that a lot of lawyers would welcome such a request and help young specialists. For experienced lawyers, their work ceases to be just a job over years, it becomes accompanied by a mission, the sense of which is to train as many professional lawyers as possible, to help them develop, as this would turn Kazakhstan into the rule of law state and help our homeland become stronger and more professional.
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