International law firms Baker McKenzie and Dentons have closed their offices in Kyiv, Ukraine following the military invasion by Russian forces early Thursday.
The offices will remain closed until further notice, according to statements provided by spokeswomen at the two firms. The health and safety of employees is their primary concern, the firms said.
“We are in regular contact with our team in Kyiv and are providing our 49 colleagues with any assistance they need, including relocation assistance in the neighboring countries,” Dentons said in its statement. “Once safely relocated, our Ukrainian team will be working remotely or from other Dentons offices to serve the needs of our clients.”
Baker McKenzie closed its Kyiv office early Thursday. The firm said in a statement it’s doing “everything possible to support our people during these challenging circumstances.”
Baker McKenzie’s Kyiv office has more 50 attorneys, including nine partners. Lawyers in the office advised Cargill Inc. in 2016 on construction of a $100 million port terminal in Yuzhne, along the country’s Southern border on the Black Sea.
Lawyers in Dentons’ Kyiv office last year advised Dionis Biogas Energy LLC on a biomethane project in the country’s Northern Zhytomyr region.
Global accountancies KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, which like the two law firms have workers in Ukraine, also said their employees’ safety is the top priority.
“We are in regular contact with our colleagues in Ukraine and have today advised them to stay at home and to follow the advice given by the Ukrainian authorities,” a spokesperson for PwC, which has more than 750 employees in two Ukraine offices, said in an email. “We are doing what we can to keep our operations in Ukraine running; however, our message to our people is they must put their safety and the safety and wellbeing of their families first.”
KPMG “remains committed to maintaining its local presence” a spokesperson said via email.
Companies looking to assist employees on the ground face several challenges, according to Brian Mehan, the business operations director for geopolitical consultant Valens Global.
There is protecting the immediate physical safety of people in an active invasion, and then there is getting them out, he said.
Evacuation poses a number of hurdles, from how to flee to where to go to secure visas and obtain cash, medication and other personal needs. Employees who are not citizens may have ties to the country through romantic partnerships and extended families that make evacuating difficult.
“You have to make decisions in an uncertain and rapidly changing environment,” Mehan, a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer, said in an interview. “The operational challenges are considerable, but really the challenges are all human.”
Michael Padilla-Pagan Payano began evacuating corporate clients from Kyiv and surrounding areas earlier this week and picked up the pace as war broke out Thursday. His team of 10 internationals and five locals encountered Russian soldiers but no resistance while making their way to the borders with Poland and Slovakia, he said.
He was surprised at one point to see two “battalion-sized groups,” of soldiers from the Chechnyan Republic accompanying Russian soldiers, a total of several hundred.
“Right now, it is not too bad; Ukraine has been preparing for this, “Padilla said, texting with the secure Whatsapp tool to avoid telephone or internet conversations that could alert Russian soldiers. “The Russians aren’t trying to stop people from leaving. They are targeting military and political folks.”
The founder of Al Thuraya Holdings, which began in the Middle East more than a decade ago, has been through this before. He worked for corporate and government clients fleeing collapsing governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
This situation is different because of the size of the conflict and the parties involved, Padilla said.
He received messages from two U.K.-based clients on Thursday, marked “Request for Assistance, Ukraine.” He had previously worked with one of the clients, and took on the second one only after receiving a good reference.
Companies cannot hire Al Thuraya randomly, and Padilla said he will only work with those referred and verified. That helps him avoid government or other actors pretending to seek his services.
“We use a trusted network of people referring or companies we have agreements with. We do not need to be marked as spies and held hostage,” said Padilla, a former U.S. Army officer with a background in Special Forces operations.
While Thursday was fairly smooth, despite long lines at the border, Padilla feels things will get progressively worse.
“The UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council) is not ready to handle the masses trying to leave,” Padilla said. “The issue is the coordination of getting people out.”
‘Working With Clients’
For its part, Baker McKenzie said its lawyers will continue to serve clients amid the chaos.
“To the extent feasible, our partners are working with clients affected to determine the options for continuing to provide legal assistance elsewhere, and we are providing further support through our network of offices across Europe,” the firm said in the statement.
Baker Mckenzie and Dentons have larger presences in neighboring Russia than in Ukraine.
Baker McKenzie counts more than 130 lawyers in Moscow and St. Petersburg, touting itself as the “go-to firm for Russia’s largest companies and major foreign investors” on its website. Dentons has roughly 140 practitioners between offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
—With assistance from Michael Kapoor in London.