Alexander Litvinov was, at the time we spoke to him, Head of Legal at the Kira Plastinina Group in Moscow. Since then he has started transitioning towards a new role with an international retail chain. Prior to joining Kira Plastinina, he worked for the Clarins Group, Inditex (CJSC ZARA CIS), and Solvay.
Please describe your career leading up to your role at Kira Plastinina.
A.L.: While still at university, I started my career as a paralegal and interpreter at Solvay, a well-known Belgian chemistry, plastics, and then medicine producer. Thanks to amicable management I managed to combine my studies and working at Solvay. This gave a massive boost to my professional knowledge and understanding of the vast abyss between legal education and legal practice in Russia (which I keep in mind when hiring fresh graduates). Having emerged from this process a corporate lawyer in Solvay, I decided to shift to a different sector, so I joined a Spanish-born retail giant. This was a pivotal point for my career. For me and for many of my colleagues in different fields Inditex was a cradle of retail, where we all learned much and where lots of high-skilled specialists were born. This was for sure the most instructive part of my professional path. However, Inditex didn’t provide much freedom of choice or opportunities for growth due to its enormous vertical structure and well-developed system of obligatory guidelines from the headquarters, and somewhere in 2014 I realized that I’d learned as much as I could from Inditex and opted for Clarins, a French luxury cosmetics and perfumery brand. I was appointed General Counsel and had one paralegal as my subordinate. This position provided much more freedom in making legal decisions, which I had craved. However, this was a dramatic deviation from my previous retail experience, because Clarins in Russia was practically 100% wholesale. Finally, in mid-2015 I was lured to Kira Plastinina Group, which was a return-to-the-roots and very ambitious project. At the moment I’m gently switching to another project which is a Russian start-up for a famous international retailer.
What one thing about your role at the Kira Plastinina Group would you say is most unusual, or most unexpected, compared to other companies?
A.L.: For sure, the most unusual part of my experience at Kira Plastinina Group was that, since the Group originated in Russia, we were the headquarters – the ones who made decisions and communicated them to Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and China, whereas throughout my previous experience I was employed by local branches of international companies which, in their turn, had been the following instructions of their mother companies and had been backed by them. This time it was me and my team who had to double-check all the legal decisions before communicating them to our branches and seeing to how our guidelines were implemented. This status leads to greater responsibility and wider legal overview.
Your in-house career has revolved – in some capacity or another – around the retail sector. What gets you most excited about working as a General Counsel in the industry?
PA.L.: For me, the retail sector provides a unique opportunity to witness an immediate response to my decisions, instead of a protracted one. Retail is a very fast-moving industry where there is only a split second between the birth of a project and its implementation. Retail managers are like The Flash – better think twice before voicing your thoughts because they won’t ask you to repeat or give you a chance to correct your memoranda.
If you were to switch to a different sector tomorrow, what would it be, and why?
A.L.: For sure, it would be legal consulting. I was always fascinated by the opportunity to focus on pure, concentrated law. Another goal which I would pursue with great pleasure is legal education. As a matter of fact, I’m still nurturing a dream to contribute to the beginning of a new system of Russian legal education – based on modern and practical skills and competence-based, directly connected to and permanently communicating with the end beneficiaries of legal education: companies and law firms.
The Kira Plastinina Group consists of ten different legal entities. Do you have dedicated local support provided to each, or is the legal support function centralized within the group? Why did you prefer this set-up?
A.L.: Personally, I’m an advocate of dedicated local legal support because I’ve witnessed many times the errors of centralized support, often made only because of the headquarters’ exclusion from Russian legal reality and the relevant markets. However, in Kira we had everything centralized in Moscow, except for one lawyer in Kazakhstan. Due to financial difficulties and the order of priorities, I was not able to rebuild this structure and had to cope with what I had.
I’m assuming it wouldn’t make much sense to build up those capabilities in-house.
P.P.: No, definitely not. It’d simply be way too expensive to have one specialist on call for each of the immensely diverse jurisdictions we deal with on a regular basis.
Since the legal entities are spread geographically amongst seven jurisdictions, did you prefer building local in-house teams to provide legal assistance, or did you rely primarily on external counsel?
A.L.: My dream would be to build a local in-house team in every jurisdiction instead of managing everything centrally from Moscow, because even with the best efforts made sitting here in Moscow you’re not always able to communicate duly with external counsel in some jurisdictions – for instance China and Hong Kong – without being fooled in regards of quality of local services or having important communications lost in translation.
As a retailer originally from Russia, how are the current geopolitical affairs affecting your work as an in-house counsel?
A.L.: For Inditex stores in Crimea, the issue was a great diplomatic and political difficulty as I remember, while for Kira Plastinina it was not, because the Group didn’t have to fear for its international business outside of CIS. I expect that some problems for textile retailers are still to come in connection with the Turkey issue, as we already witnessed the unwillingness of Russian customs authorities to import goods from Turkey at the end of last year.
What one mistake have you seen repeated most commonly by external counsel that you think could be avoided?
A.L.: For me it was always the assumption by external consultants that in-house lawyers would not double-check their memoranda due to inexperience or unwillingness and would not find their mistakes. Personally, I’m always biased regarding such legal papers and examine them with much scrutiny.
On the lighter side, what is your all-time favorite holiday and why?
A.L.: For sure, it is the New Year holidays, the most prolonged holiday period in Russia, which I hope will never be cut short despite many efforts. This is the time for my family.
This Article was originally published in Issue 3.1. of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.
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