Andriy Olenyuk: A change in worldview
In 2015, Andriy Olenyuk was at the top of his game.
He had studied law at Lviv University and Georgetown in the United States, and practiced law in Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States.
He had handled accounts worth billions of dollars from countries all over the globe, including Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He was poised to embark on the next stage of his career with a top international law firm.
But his experiences working and studying abroad had changed him, and his worldview, he says. So when the international law firm he worked with in Kyiv closed its office, and he was offered to stay with the firm, but in a position abroad, he opted not to leave the country.
Instead, he took a leap of faith, got together with some partners, and formed a legal startup called Everlegal in Kyiv.
Since his student days, Olenyuk had gone from strength to strength. He was a top graduate from the Faculty of Law at Lviv University, and from there walked straight into a job with a leading Ukrainian law firm.
Soon after that he was recruited by one of the top international law firms – Clifford Chance – to work at its Kyiv office.
The experience opened up new vistas of opportunity for Olenyuk, who had reckoned he had already peaked in his development as a young lawyer in Ukraine.
At Clifford Chance he was plugged into an organization with direct contacts to international corporations headquartered in the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Russia.
“I was faced with the task of finding out what more a young lawyer like me needed to know,” Olenyuk says. “What was my path to growth going to be?”
Just six months after he joined Clifford Chance, Olenyuk received an offer to study law as a Muskie Scholar at Georgetown University. This was exactly what he needed at that time in order “to put all the pieces of the puzzle together,” he says.
After graduating from Georgetown with a masters of law degree, he interned at a Clifford Chance office in the U.S., and later returned to the firm’s Kyiv office to practice.
Olenyuk found the experience of studying in the U.S. transformational, and much different from his experiences in Ukraine. American universities teach “you other things, but also in another way,” he says. Students are expected to read 1,000 pages a week, they interact closely with other students and lecturers, there is always discussion going on, and students are required to think in unconventional ways.
“That’s all multiplied by the intense competition, so you can never rest,” Olenyuk says.
‘Studying in the United States had a colossal effect on me,” he says, which he began to appreciate on his return to Ukraine. The firm was now able to make more use of him, and his career began to develop even more dynamically.
From absolute zero
Then fate intervened. After the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution that drove President Viktor Yanukovych from power, triggering the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine in the Donbas, Ukraine’s economy nosedived, and business for Clifford Chance dried up. By the end of 2015, Clifford Chance had closed its office in Kyiv and spun off most of its business to a new firm, called Redcliffe Partners, a boutique law firm which has since grown into a market powerhouse. Other lawyers at Clifford Chance were offered jobs in various of the firm’s offices around the globe.
But Olenyuk and Yevheniy Deyneko (who had initially taken the role of one of the three partners at Redcliffe Partners) had other ideas. Together, they decided to devote a year to the “super-intensive and super-risky endeavor” of launching a legal startup. They picked the name Everlegal for the new firm.
That was in 2015, perhaps “the worst year for law firms in Ukraine due to the general economic downturn,” Olenyuk recalls.
Everlegal's partners decided not to solicit any clients from their previous jobs, as they wanted to start “from absolute zero.” The market responded well, and they got referrals from friendly firms, which allowed them to break even after just six months in business.
“The agricultural and IT practices rocketed from the very first days,” Olenyuk says. The firm also invested time and effort into its energy and pharmaceutical practices, which later on proved to be among its most successful specializations.
Everlegal serves strategic investors who have been in Ukraine for at least 10 years, as well as financial investors, whose planning horizon doesn’t usually exceed five years. The sudden introduction of martial law at the end of November 2018 will have different consequences for these two groups of investors, Olenyuk says.
The strategic investors are not panicking, he says: "They have seen such things happening around the globe many
times, and see the country’s current switch to war footing as a short-term event."
But the extremely risk-averse financial investors are much more skittish. They have to put the safety of their projects first, as financial investors work either with their investors’ money, or with borrowed funds. For them even the fact of “parliament considering the introduction of martial law is a clear stop signal,” Olenyuk says.
As a result, all of the financial investors who were eyeing Ukraine as a target put their plans on hold the moment martial law was introduced on Nov. 28 in 10 oblasts of Ukraine. Add to that Ukraine’s upcoming elections, and investors are not likely to return until after next spring.
“The inflow of investments can only resume after the elections,” says Olenyuk, as capital only feels comfortable in protected, stable economies with predictable futures.
Legal start-ups should invest 60 percent of income into employees, 30 percent into business development and 10 percent go to founders, Olenyuk says
Olenyuk is coy about Everlegal partners’ incomes – absolute numbers are off-limits. But he will talk about the distribution of income within the firm during its initial stages of development.
According to him, it’s best to follow the “60-30-10 formula.” Good legal start-ups invest 60 percent of their income into their employees, 30 percent into business development, and disburse only 10 percent to founders, he believes.
“This is how a firm should structure its finances in the first five years,” Olenyuk says. In the beginning, the partners had to economize on themselves and “they had to be ready for lower profits than their salaries were when they worked as hired lawyers,” he says.
Together with less money, the startup brings more hours of work, but Olenyuk doesn’t mind. Achieving a work-life balance is simply a matter of doing enough of everything, he says.
If a person’s life “includes enough work, hobbies and sports, and communication with family, then the balance is naturally there,” he says.
Andriy Olenyuk, partner at Everlegal law firm, speaks with the Kyiv Post on Dec. 3, 2018 at his office on Rylskyi Street in Kyiv.
View of Georgetown University campus in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. on Aug. 19, 2018. Everlegal founder Andriy Olenyuk says that his experience of studying at the U.S. university was 'transformational.' (AFP)