Irina Kravtsova, General Counsel at Raben Ukraine, reflects on a challenging year and the changes it brought to her role.
CEEIHM: To start, please tell us a few words about yourself, your career, and your current role.
Iryna: My professional life is full of challenges and varieties. My career started in the publishing world. At first, I worked in the legal department of the newspaper of the Ukrainian legislative body. After that, I worked in the legal department of a Swiss publishing house. Then, I was offered a position to act as the sole legal counsel at L’Oreal Ukraine. That was a true challenge since I had to build the legal function from scratch in one of the biggest and most famous companies in the world. Within less than ten years, I successfully managed not only to implement the role of the legal function in the company – building a strong legal background to assist our business units in day-to-day work – but also to grow the legal function from a single position to a full-fledged legal department. Here I should mention that, in 2017, our legal department was recognized as the best legal department in the Ukrainian FMCG sector.
Since the beginning of 2019, I have had the pleasure of being part of Raben Ukraine’s team. Taking the role of General Counsel with the 3PL operator was another challenge for me, as the change of industries – from the beauty world to logistics – was rather drastic. Nevertheless, I am delighted to get this professional experience. I also have to confess that the logistics world from the inside is not the same as it appears from the outside. Logistics never sleeps and it is always on the move. It is very different and varied: cargo transportation at different temperatures, by different means of transportation, within the country and crossing borders, warehousing and different kinds of storage and handling services, co-packing, working with customs, and so on. Every business is unique: you need to take into account not only specific legislative rules but also the demands and requests of the clients. In addition to tasks that arise from the specificity of the business, as a lawyer, you should keep all the corporate, labor, compliance, and other issues that support the functioning of the company under control. Finally, you need to have a complete understanding of the business in order to predict risks.
In parallel, I am a Ph.D. student, conducting scientific research in vertical agreements and restraints in the context of administrative and competition law. I am also excited to take part in professional social activities, such as being a speaker at forums, a lecturer at webinars, or simply writing professional analytical or scientific articles.
CEEIHM: I suspect many will remember 2020 as an interesting year now that it's all said and done. How has the 2020 climate affected your work?
Iryna: For sure, the events that took place in 2020 found reflection in the work of the company. Since the legal function is a supporting one, you had to react to decisions, demands, and requests even quicker than usual. The first half of the year was rather tough since the situation in the country was changing every day, as it depended on governmental decisions. It was hard to predict what tomorrow would bring, what cities and roads would be closed, what transportation rules would be, what documents would be needed, or simply how employees would get to work if roads were blocked. Every announcement from the state authorities had to be processed with the speed of light in order to deliver cargo on time and keep warehouses operating in a normal way.
A lot of inner processes were changed. I personally think that all lockdowns and quarantines were a great push for many companies to review and optimize inner procedures, to identify what works well, what must be improved, and what should be stopped because it is a waste of resources. For example, in Raben Ukraine, we sped up our e-documentation workflow and electronic validation of documents.
CEEIHM: What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of working as a GC during this COVID-19 pandemic?
Iryna: The most challenging task was to keep a 360-degree legal overview of business in a turbulent period. On the one hand, you have to react quickly to governmental decisions, and on the other hand, you have to fulfill your day-to-day job obligations that support the normal functioning of the company. But I am truly convinced that the success of every business depends not on one person but on a whole team, in which every person plays his or her role. In Raben Ukraine, we have a great team where we support each other. Everyone is proactive and business-oriented, which makes overcoming difficult situations easier and with fewer (or no) losses, as decisions are taken and implemented quicker and more fruitfully.
CEEIHM: Dealing with a constant flow of changes has been a common theme among senior in-house counsel this year. What best practices have you developed to react so quickly?
Iryna: I believe it is all about the role and powers of the GC in the company. It is very difficult to implement any change when the role of the GC is reduced by top management to a technical function. In Raben Ukraine, the GC is a member of the Senior Management Team and the top management of the company grants the GC full powers that allow him or her to be a business decision-maker in certain cases. In addition, it is very important to have business, operational, and commercial know-how, so you can communicate with business teams in the same language. Good collaboration and communication with teams is another prerequisite to finding the best business solutions and mitigating risks. Ticking off all of the above makes the life of a GC easier when changes are needed, especially ones that should be immediately implemented.
CEEIHM: What were the types of changes that you found most difficult to implement this past year?
Iryna: I believe that the most difficult one was the switch from working in the office to working from home. First, it is all about working with documents. In the office, you have all the necessary documents at hand, while, at home, you have only what is scanned. That is why, when I come to the office, I already have a list of documents that I need to scan or print that I will have to work with at home in the coming days. Second, it is about document validation and signing. Now, we have launched a program that allows for the electronic approval of documents. Next, it is about meeting your colleagues. It has become normal to be communicating online but, in the beginning, it felt a bit strange. Finally, work and life balance take a hit. Working from home sometimes blurs the line between work and private life so you have to build rules for yourself as to how you should work from home.
Another difficult thing was to organize the operations of the company during the lockdown and to elaborate inner rules of distance working since Ukrainian legislation in this respect is incomplete. We had to sit at the table and draft our inner rules and procedures, based on existing laws, best practices of the market, logic, and professional feeling. We totally succeeded in it, as we may see the draft of the new law that regulates distance working corresponds to our elaborated and implemented procedures.
CEEIHM: What were the tools you found were most useful in helping you stay apprised of what changes were taking place?
Iryna: First of all, good networking with the rest of the legal professional community. When there was a bombardment of decisions from the Government that had to be followed with almost no explanation, all you could do was to discuss them with your colleagues from the legal market. Everyone had a piece of extra information received from here and there and, bringing all of these pieces together provided an overall understanding of the total situation and actions to be taken.
Second, many law firms stretched a helping hand towards businesses. They hosted free webinars on recent changes, giving tips on actions or even reached out personally, not to sell their services but to inform us about changes and to ask whether they could advise on any blocking points.
CEEIHM: Indeed, once the lockdowns started across the region, there was a spike of content put up by law firms in the form of newsletters, client alerts, and so on. Were these useful?
Iryna: I have to confess that I like all forms of newspapers, alerts, etc. coming from law firms. I am really grateful to those law firms that actively inform in-house lawyers (notwithstanding whether you are a client or not) of the latest legal news, giving at least a short description of the issues, and especially to those who conduct webinars on hot legal topics. I personally switched to some webinars regarding legislative changes due to COVID-19 and they were very useful in further decision-making. I think no one will claim they are overwhelmed with additional information when that information is well-prepared and professionally presented rather than something sent just for the sake of sending it.
CEEIHM: How do you think your role will be different post-lockdown/COVID compared to pre-2020?
Iryna: I do not think that my role in the coming year will be different from 2020. I already set for myself projects that need to be done in 2021. As for the longer-term, I cannot comment now as 2020 showed that all plans – whether short-term or long-term – can be adjusted based on circumstances. The constant is that the role of a legal counsel is constantly changing. In the past, a legal counsel’s function was limited to basic legal consultations or drafting contracts, but, nowadays, having legal counsel analyze and accept risks, suggest business ideas, and take a leadership role in business projects is part of the business. I’m sure that such an evolution towards leadership and business orientation will carry on in the coming years.