Linklaters stops short of condemning invasion of Ukraine as pressure grows on law firms over Russia links

Magic Circle law firm Linklaters, has noted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “deeply distressing” but stopped short of condemning the superpower’s move on its neighbour as political pressure grows on City law firms over their Russia connections.

“The situation in Ukraine is deeply distressing and our immediate thoughts are with the Ukrainian people,” Linklaters said in a 28 February statement.

Linklaters, “one of the largest and most successful international law firms in Russia” — according to its website — was criticised in 2018 by MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee for its Russian links after it advised on the £5bn London float of oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s aluminium firm EN+ in 2017. At the time, the firm said it was “very surprised and concerned” at the criticism.

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The firm operates in Russia via its affiliate Linklaters CIS and has more than 70 Russian and international lawyers on the ground including 10 partners, its website said.

It has worked for Russian clients such as oil giant Rosneft and state-owned bank Sberbank, according to its website. 

Linklaters’ equivocal statement, falls short of the words of major consultancies such as PwC, Deloitte and McKinsey, which have all criticised Russia’s actions.

It comes as the City law firms face growing political pressure over their connections with Russia and Russian clients.

A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested on 28 February that law firms seeking to protect Russian clients from sanctions could themselves be targeted with strict measures, The Telegraph reported on 28 February.

“We will certainly keep all options under review,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said.

“It’s important everyone thinks carefully about how they may be, even inadvertently, supporting a country or a regime which has invaded another democratic country,” they added.

Foreign secretary Liz Truss briefed MPs that sanctions on Russian oligarchs were being held up by their London law firms challenging the move, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw tweeted on 25 February.

The president of the Law Society of England and Wales, Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce, defended lawyers’ rights to represent their clients over sanctions in a statement on 28 February.

“It’s the job of solicitors to represent their clients, whoever they may be, so that the courts act fairly.  This is how the public can be confident they live in a country that respects the rule of law – unlike Putin’s tyrannical regime,” Boyce said in a statement. 

So far, international law firms have avoided speaking out on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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City law firm Norton Rose Fulbright told staff to avoid commenting publicly on sanctions on Western sanctions on Russia, The Lawyer magazine reported.

The firm has acted for Russian clients including oil companies Rosneft and Gazprom and state-owned bank VTB Bank, according to legal industry publication The Legal 500.

“Our sanctions team is advising clients across the world and, given the rapidly evolving situation, it is important that this advice is provided directly, through the appropriate channels. We therefore recently issued an internal notice relating specifically to external commentary on sanctions,” a Norton Rose Fulbright spokesperson said in a statement.

“We are not able to comment on individual clients. We have appropriate risk management policies in place across our global business and keep all relationships the firm has under review,” the statement added.

International law firm Baker McKenzie said on 28 February that it would drop some Russian clients following Western sanctions against Russia.

“Baker McKenzie is reviewing and adjusting our Russia-related operations and client work to align with all applicable sanctions and comply with these fast-evolving laws. We do not comment on the details of specific client relationships, but this will mean in some cases exiting relationships completely,” the firm said in a statement.

US law firm Sidley Austin said it had severed ties with Russian bank VTB Group in compliance with US sanctions, a spokesperson said.

“We are reviewing any existing Russian client work to ensure we comply with all applicable laws,” US law firm Baker Botts said in a statement on 28 February.

Linklaters’ also said in its statement that it was reviewing its Russia-related work, but did not say if it planned to drop any clients.

Most of the major law firms Financial News contacted for their position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, did not respond to requests for comment.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Clifford Chance, White & Case, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, Dentons, Debevoise & Plimpton, DLA Piper, Latham & Watkins and BCLP had not responded to requests for comment by 5pm GMT on 28 February.

Allen & Overy declined to comment.

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email James Booth

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