You can have anything you want–if you want it badly enough. You can be anything you want to be, do anything you set out to accomplish if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose
– William Adams
Interviewed by Elizaveta K. Levina (March 2006)
Matvey Levant is a founding partner of Levant & Partners, as well as President of the International Legal Fund—a pro-bono non-commercial organization protecting national minorities in Russia. In the following interview, he details his reasons for jumping into international law with both feet, for opening a boutique law firm in Moscow, and for taking chances on the road to success.
Do you believe in luck?
In my life I’ve always made the most of the one chance before me. I believe the philosophic category of “luck” is a lame excuse used by people who aren’t able to achieve real results. Everyone gets their chance and if they use it, they move ahead; there’s no “luck” about it.
Why a career in law for you?
From school on I was always interested in dynamic, organized activity. I wanted to become an active member of Komsomol but this organization was released, actively participated in KVN panel games, was first captain of the class team, and was active in elementary school, high school, university, and finally, the city of Smolensk. Through all this I always wanted to be a lawyer.
I credit my parents for this. They wanted me to receive an in-depth education in the humanities. I did so, earning two degrees: one in foreign languages from the Smolensk State Pedagogical University, another from the law school of Smolensk Humanitarian University. I’ve always believed that an education in humanities and pedagogy is a great career foundation. While still in law school I took a position in the office of the Legal Council for the Smolensk Region Administration, representing the interests of the governor and participated in lawmaking. My language degree was a real advantage here.
Why move to Moscow, when Smolensk was giving you so much?
Smolensk is a small city for a professional seeking to specialize in international law, and that is what I wanted to do most of all. I became motivated to go in this direction while working for the Smolensk region Administration; undoubtedly this influenced my decision to move to Moscow. I started practicing international law with a Cypriot law firm here five years ago, having received several good offers. I went on to work for several New York-style private legal boutiques, small and medium sized, and then created my own brand – Levant & Partners.
What attracted you to international law in the first place?
Considering the increasing globalization of Russian business and foreign investment flowing into the economy, a contemporary lawyer should not restrict his activity to the law of just one country. Russia is becoming a member of the World Trade Organization. It is no longer sensible for a lawyer to focus just on Russian law.
This point of view was the basis for our creating an international law boutique offering services to both Russian and international clients all over the world.
What is a “legal boutique”?
A legal boutique is different from any other law firm, in that it handles every stage of complex tasks for large clients. We feel there are no standard ways to satisfy clients’ needs. Each situation is different and should be dealt with on an individual basis. This premise is the foundation for our success.
When creating the company we decided to use the Western model. Levant & Partners was set up like a classic, New York legal boutique. This form fit very organically and successfully into Russia, taking into account the specifics of doing business here.
The international legal boutique is unique and fills a niche because it lies on the borders of various systems of law. This concept is no-lose one in both directions: from Russia to the West and from the West to Russia.
But you could have continued working for any number of boutique law firms? Why start your own?
At some point my career priorities shifted away from working for somebody else. Levant & Partners law firm was founded in 2004 by two partners—Valery Narejny, tax partner, and me. We started with the idea to deliver international law and taxation services, giving our clients unprecedented results. Our professional ambitions, plus eight years of experience working for others, really motivated us to be a success at this.
How were your ideals affected by the realities of running your own firm?
At the start we saw a niche in the Russian market and realized that a legal boutique could really fill it. So we created a firm that would adequately respond to every client’s needs, taking into account Russia’s scale and business specifics. This was our primary focus.
But as we started to work we realized that we were, first of all, a young law firm. The specialists we brought together were young in both Russian and Western business understanding. Once we understood this, we began to know this as our competitive advantage—we are young, competitive, we employ new technologies and methods, and we are focused on delivering results.
As our rapid growth in the following two years proved—taking into account the level of clients and projects we are working on—this was the right choice.
Has your firm achieved the goals you set for it at the beginning?
We are only at the beginning of our potential global success, taking into account the past, present, and future. But if we take a quick look at what we have achieved to the present, I am sure we have achieved a one hundred-percent result.
What helped you achieve your goals?
Well-defined clear targets. We always have to keep one step ahead to lead our clients forward. This is the dynamic of our business.
Do you make mistakes?
From a professional perspective I try not to commit to any actions that cannot be undone or repaired. Thus the idea of a “mistake” seems an innocent act in this light. If you don’t burn bridges and leave yourself ways to correct situations as they progress, you cannot call the situation, and any steps that led to it, a mistake.
Your firm serves large Russian as well as international companies. To what do you attribute your continued success?
It is very difficult to judge what success is. Five years ago we had a goal to create a brand that would be widely recognized by businessmen of a certain level. Having done this, our ambitions now take us further. Maybe “success” is not something that can be measured in a finite way.
Our client base grows, in large part, thanks to word of mouth. We do not have an aggressive marketing policy; we are allowing ourselves to develop as a classical New York-style, mid-size company might do, the kind of international business with which we have many contacts. Allowing ourselves to evolve and build clients in a Western style is our competitive advantage.
It’s no secret that law firms thrive not only on the strength of their brand in the market, but through informal connections between owners and clients. Certainly it helps a company if its management is charismatic and can really make contacts, but charisma alone, without the backing of a solid professional background, has little value. We pay great attention to this. We are a young, dynamic, and growing company with a wealth of possibilities.
What are the further plans of Levant & Partners?
This law firm is a member of one of the largest and most authoritative international lawyers’ associations – ADVOC. This association brings together law firms from over 45 jurisdictions of world’s largest business districts – from New York to London, from Shanghai to Tokyo. Moscow is a logical member of this list. We have an exclusive membership giving us the right to serve Western clients in Russia.
The next step in our corporate development is to open offices abroad; we want to move our brand to the West. We plan to open offices in London, New York, Cyprus, and perhaps one of the Russian cities, perhaps St. Petersburg. Our client companies want to open businesses in the regions and in other countries. We want to be there to help them.
A firm can move abroad effectively in two ways: by establishing its own brand and employing local specialists in the process, or by acquiring an existing company. We are looking into both possibilities.
We envision every entry into an international market as successful, just as we envisioned our success in the Moscow market. We will follow our clients and go abroad, the same way many foreign law firms came to the Russian market, following their clients.
You are actively involved in charity. Why give so much to others?
My charitable and professional lives have always been intertwined; one can never be separated from the other. Even in my student days I headed several charitable organizations and participated in over thirty charity projects. I have never stopped.
The International Legal Fund, of which I am currently President, supports a number of charitable activities. Levant & Partners hosts a project that exposes children from boarding schools and orphanages to arts and music.
Historically, patrons in Russia—merchants and manufacturers—have supported charitable projects. Unfortunately, charity is not common for most Russian commercial enterprises today, which I believe is not right. When you have international experience, you discover that charity is very popular abroad. Now, with the new President’s doctrine on business social responsibility, the number of charitable projects grows daily in Russia.
When charity comes from your heart, and every company worker helps and participates, this is a generous act and it brings pleasure to everyone.
Matvey Levant is founding partner of Levant & Partners. He majored in languages and then obtained a law degree from Smolensk Humanitarian University. Prior to going into private practice Mr. Levant served as a legal counsel to the governor of Smolensk Region and a staff attorney at the Regional Administration. He earned his first litigation experience defending high-ranking officials against illegal privatization and wrongful conduct charges.
His area of expertise extends to handling complex commercial and real estate transactions, dispute resolution, and arbitration. Mr. Levant advises Fortune-500 companies and private investors on acquisition of real estate in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Mr. Levant is a distinguished guest at the Russian Economic Forum in London and other international business community events. Mr. Levant is President of the International Legal Fund—a pro-bono non-commercial organization protecting national minorities in Russia.