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GC Magazine




Maria Savelova has been an in-house lawyer from day one of qualification. She tells GC about her route into the law, the oil and gas sector, and what makes a great leader.

G C     I N T E R V I E W

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GC: How did you decide to become a lawyer?

Maria Savelova (MS): As a matter of fact I have two degrees, both acquired at the Moscow State University. After attaining my first degree, which is an economics qualification, I worked several years as a project manager in M&A, during the dawn of corporate finance-related activity in Russia. I started my career in the financial sector in the early ‘90s and, to some extent, I think that I have unique experience, as the business environment was in its infancy in the Russian market and I initiated my career in the very responsible role of a project manager.

Somewhere around 1997, when I was working on a large and complex transaction that involved outside counsel, I had a slightly different vision and methods to the lawyers and even gave a more efficient recommendation. I carefully analysed all relevant acts, contributed with my personal input, but received an abrupt response from management that my recommendation seemed reasonable but could not be taken into account, as I was not a lawyer. This served as a challenge to me and inspired me to gain my legal qualification.

GC: What made you become an in-house lawyer?

MS: I never ceased to work in-house during my career. Initially I worked as an in-house M&A manager in an internal and corporate environment, and never changed the nature of my work. I started my professional career in 1992 at Inkombank, a bank that was prominent in Russia during the 1990s. In 1998, a major crisis hit the Russian financial markets, so it was a propitious moment for me to try work in a different sector. In 1999, I moved from the financial to the manufacturing sector to join the Siberian Aluminium Group, where I worked for some time before joining Tatneft in 2002. I have been working at Tatneft ever since.

GC: What challenges does a lawyer working in the oil and gas sector face?

MS: It is hard for me to define the high points of being a lawyer in oil and gas as opposed to any other sector, because as a lawyer mostly specialised in M&A deals, projects and corporate law, I hold the opinion that an in-house lawyer should be indifferent to where he or she works – businesses, particularly large businesses, operate on a similar set of principles. It is always easy to adapt to a specific industry or sector (although there are few exceptions to the rule), as you quickly develop a background and understanding of how the production units work, as well as knowledge of key sector-specific issues.

Working for a large business, irrespective of the sector, is always challenging. Every day at Tatneft represents irrepressible activity. Large businesses can’t afford to sit still, they have to constantly implement something new, participate in large projects, try out various initiatives, and build and develop new relationships. As a whole, there is a lot of activity and an in-house lawyer has to promptly react to new developments. These developments are often highly diverse and we have to provide legal assistance across a multitude of different aspects. The intensity of events across these aspects is, in turn, quite significant, which complicates the situation. Working for such a large company is significantly more challenging than for smaller enterprises.

GC: What do you enjoy most about working in-house?

MS: I have never worked in a law firm, but given that I constantly work with lawyers from private practice firms I have a very good level of understanding of what their work entails, as well as under what rules and principles they operate. But if I had the chance to choose between in-house and private practice, I’d choose in-house.

I feel that there are some specific benefits to working in-house. Maybe the right word here would be ‘differences’ rather than benefits, but they are the reasons that make working in-house appealing to me. First and foremost, a lawyer working within a corporate structure has one ‘client’, namely his employer. Due to an ongoing relationship with this single and constant client, lawyers can demonstrate an excellent level of understanding that would be more difficult at a law firm, where a given partner has to provide a service to several clients that often have entirely different specifics. Working in-house for a prolonged period of time allows a lawyer to form a close relationship with his or her internal client. The interests of the lawyer coincide with those of the client, resulting in increased focus on the result, rather than the process. Lawyers feel that they are the part of the same team, where contributions are taken note of and valued.

GC: Thinking about the entirety of your career, what would you say has been the most memorable moment?

MS: Undoubtedly the most memorable moment for my career has been a major BIT arbitration process that took several years to complete – it began in 2008 and ended with a decision in 2014. The process involved Tatneft filing a lawsuit against the state of Ukraine due to significant losses that resulted from raider actions in the country, and the passive position of the Ukrainian state against those actions. We won the suit while working with the Paris practice of the international law firm Cleary Gottlieb.

I feel that the entire period of active work on this case between 2008 and 2013 was very memorable because I had the chance to work with some exceptional people – perhaps some of the best people in the legal world, with great experience in arbitration, such as [Cleary Gottlieb attorneys] William McGurn and Jonathan Blackman. Working with those people was truly amazing. Over the course of this arbitration process, I changed my views on a variety of legal issues. It is one thing to look at such issues from the perspective of the national law: there is always a definite doctrine attached. However, working on such an important case has allowed me to widen my perspective by looking at issues from the perspective of international law and experience the different angles of a complex international arbitration process: the rules there are entirely different. The culmination of this process was our hearing in The Hague. I guess I could compare working on the case to a ‘thriller movie’ that had some truly brilliant moments!

GC: And what was your role on this case?

MS: My colleagues and I worked with outside counsel as a single team. The law firm took a leading role on the process itself, i.e. development and justification of a clear legal position. I worked predominantly on coordinating the work between the law firm and the company, as well as clarifying certain facts and specific nuances of this case – explaining the correct interpretation of facts, etc.

GC: What aspects of working at Tatneft do you enjoy the most?

MS: I feel that the work in my subdivision is fantastic. I enjoy working with my colleagues – they have great expertise and are exclusively interested in the work that we do on a daily basis. In addition, as a whole, the team that reports into me has remained constant over the years with my direct subordinates working there for several years now.

GC: Is it possible to describe an average day in your role?

MS: Every day is different, but if I had to define an average day, I would say it is similar to that of an air traffic controller: you have to be able to react quickly in various situations that require responsible decisions.

GC: How would you describe your management style?

MS: I’ve often thought about this question, particularly in the earlier stages of my career when I was making my first steps as a leader of a team. I would describe it as ‘maternalist’, as very often I see that women are trying to be like men and apply a more masculine approach to managing a team, which I think is often not very effective. It is important to understand your natural strengths and abilities. I would say that I treat my colleagues, philosophically speaking, like children: for example, children always need to move forward, be educated and develop, but in some cases you have to be strict with them. I always try to apply a human touch when dealing with my co-workers, avoiding rough edges and maintaining warm relationships.

GC: How do you think your colleagues would describe you?

MS: It is always difficult to say. But I guess (and I really hope) that my co-workers would describe me as an effective manager who has a positive attitude, recognises the strengths of others and, given my sufficiently high level of loyalty to the company, in a certain respect, is always on their side.

GC: What would you say is the key to being a good legal manager?

MS: For a manager of a legal services, I am not entirely sure, but a manager that works directly with any team of professionals has to first and foremost maintain a close and honest relationship with his or her co-workers. The key attribute from a professional standpoint is optimisation, i.e. all aspects have to be digested, analysed and optimised to allow for finding the best possible solution and the most effective ratio of costs to benefits. A good manager has to think several steps ahead and clearly understand what sort of consequences each and every action will bring about.

GC: If you had the chance to go back in time and give career advice to your junior self, what would you say?

MS: It might sound funny and naïve, but to me, knowledge of foreign languages is very important. Therefore, I would probably say: ‘Learn foreign languages; the more languages you are proficient in and the earlier you learn them, the better.’ I think it is imperative for lawyers to learn languages as early as possible in their career, because when you progress up the ladder, you have less time for it.